WoodFellas: Frank Colacurcio and His Million-Dollar Empire of Flesh

Getting accused by the feds of running a high-stakes prostitution racket is just business as usual.

In the summer of 2006, a legendary duo stepped into the lights at a nude dance club on Aurora Avenue North in Shoreline, according to a witness. It was a show a lot of people, the cops especially, would like to have seen. But it wasn't the kind of bare-all act you'd advertise on the marquee out front: "Appearing today: Frank and Frankie, live at Sugar's." This was reportedly Sex Economics 101 for strippers, with instructions on how to finesse more cash from consumers. As one of the club's dancers would later tell investigators, white-haired Frank Colacurcio Sr., born in the midst of World War I, got up and told the gathering of young women: "If you give a hand job, charge for it. If you give a blow job, charge for it. If you don't charge for it, then you'll be fired." Then dapper Frank Colacurcio Jr., a child of the swingin' '60s, rose and repeated his father's time-tested mantra. Say this about the father-and-son team alleged to head Seattle's organic Mafia: They know that sex sells, especially when there's a law against it. According to a 179-page FBI search warrant revealed in federal court last month— a possible prelude to a new indictment of the ex-con father and son—four Colacurcio nudie clubs, including Sugar's, took in altogether nearly $1 million a month during the 16-month period that investigators were counting. The feds allege that the Colacurcios' key marketing element was one-on-one sex at the clubs, something the Franks deny, although the FBI says it has wiretaps and eyewitnesses to support its claims. "The business model at each of the four clubs is the same, the promotion and facilitation of prostitution," the FBI says in court documents. At the family's most profitable club, Rick's in Lake City, as many as 80 fully nude dancers can work the floor and stages daily. The revenue pours in from the $10 cover and $5 price tag on nonalcoholic drinks, along with the condom machines in the restrooms. The Colacurcios also charge their dancers to work there, requiring up to $130 from each in nightly "rent." In one three-month period, they generated $3.8 million in rent revenues alone for the Colacurcios, the FBI says. Some of the clubs' income, the feds say, was also skimmed off before it could be taxed and recorded, a scheme that worked so well the Colacurcios had to rent an apartment to store the cash. That could be one of the reasons father Frank was able to greet strangers at the door of his fenced-off $1.2 million Sheridan Beach home, as he did when a law-enforcement task force rolled up unannounced June 2, with a $10,000 roll of cash in his bathrobe pocket, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. While son Frankie earns $15,000 a week at Rick's and takes a cut from the other clubs, Frank, because of the conditions of his felony convictions, is prevented from running the corporation and isn't on the books. Still, employees say, Frank is on the phone or drops in regularly, decked out in his gold neck chains and sporting a wad of bills. In court papers, the feds almost reverently say father Frank provides "guidance and oversight." But is this familial act about to become a one-mobster show? Judging by insiders and the latest court papers, Junior's star is inevitably rising, while Senior's is inexorably flaming out. The larger question is: Should either survive this latest investigation, will there even be an empire left for Frankie to run? The current investigation is already three years old, but "only just beginning," vows Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. "If we are successful," adds U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan, "the federal government is going to own those very valuable [$4 million] pieces of real property, and sell them for something other than strip clubs." Of course, local cops have routinely made prostitution cases at the Colacurcio clubs for decades (10 years ago, police figures show, Rick's was already averaging 70 vice incidents annually)—in a sense, helping the family out with free advertising. And City Hall has effectively had a tolerance policy toward the Colacurcios, a lesser version of the see-no-evil tolerance policy that gave rise to Frank and others in the corrupt mid-1900s. To contain but not eliminate club sex today, police make periodic arrests of dancers, but not customers—and certainly not the Colacurcios. In essence, the Franks have each become multi-millionaires with City Hall's tacit approval. But now, perhaps more for political than criminal reasons, it seems about time for another Colacurcio crackdown. And Frankie might have provided the excuse. Only child Frankie (aka "Junior"), 46, has followed on his father's 91-year-old heels since getting into the strip-club business in 1980 as a teen, moving up to manager, then club co-owner. Though at least one of his two marriages ended in part due to another woman, Frankie's not known as the serial groper his dad is. Today, Frankie is listed in property and business records as a part-owner and co-manager of the organization's four strip clubs, including Rick's, which the feds say earned $7 million in revenues in less than a year and a half. Though family patriarch Frank was accused of pulling the strings, Frankie was the key public figure behind Strippergate, the 2003 scheme to grease a long-sought parking-lot rezone at Rick's with almost $39,000 in bundled campaign cash. The Colacurcios funneled most of this sum through checks written by friends, employees, and associates, who were then reimbursed by father and son. Among those doling out checks was Frank's longtime buddy, former Governor Al Rosellini, now 98. With such clout behind him, Frankie not only got the got the rezone, but following media reports of the deal, he and Frank got their thousands back from embarrassed City Council members. In the end, Frank and Frankie copped to felonies—Frank's fifth, Frankie's second. Though facing more than a decade in prison, each was allowed in January to pay $10,000 fines for conspiracy and illegal contributions and walk away apparent winners. (They each also paid $55,000 to settle a separate city Ethics and Elections Commission complaint that they hid campaign donations). After five years of lying about it, the Franks were at least forced to confess. In his King County Superior Court admission, Frankie wrote: "Between November 11, 2002, and September 12, 2003, my father, myself, and others agreed to provide reimbursements to various individuals we knew were willing to make campaign contributions to support various candidates seeking election to the Seattle City Council." Strippergate was an indication that, after a quarter-century of study, the son was assuming more of the father's political, as well as managerial, role. Criminally influencing Seattle council matters was a step up for Frankie after years of sparring with suburban cities over club locations and operations. He took several of them to court over the 4-foot rule—imposed to separate dancer from customer—and pulled a Frank-like stunt when he bid $3,000 at a charity auction to have lunch with Shoreline police chief Denise Pentony. She called it "inappropriate" and ate alone. Unfortunately, it now seems Frankie's successful Seattle adventure is what might finally bring down the cheap curtains. In his father's heyday, payoffs and kickbacks were a secret but acceptable way to get things done. A rezone back in the 1950s or '60s wouldn't require much more than a lunchbag of cash left on the bar. Yet Frankie's bold assault on a supposedly cleaned-up election system made people mad. Frankie and his then-second wife Teena accounted for $5,200 of the $38,625 that Colacurcio associates gave to City Council members Judy Nicastro, Heidi Wills, and Jim Compton. Wills and Nicastro subsequently failed in their re-election bids, while Compton eventually resigned. The contribution limit at the time was $650 per person. Ethics commissioners, pols, prosecutors, and media editorializers mounted the civic hustings to renounce the assault on the purity of voting, while Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proclaimed Rick's as ground zero for local organized crime. A more concerted backlash was quietly unfolding in the background, however. As revealed last month along with the warrant application to search the Colacurcio properties, Strippergate was the catalyst for the ongoing task-force investigation that has already resulted in a federal order restraining the Colacurcios from selling their clubs. The local-federal task force, formed in 2005, intends to seize the properties and take down an organization that has lived on prostitution proceeds "for far too long," said U.S. Attorney Sullivan at a press conference. An intense Kerlikowske also described the Colacurcio empire as built "on the backs of women." In the thick search warrant and hundreds of pages of additional documents, the task force details a litany of jerking, blowing, and screwing that, officials claimed, were the basis for possible Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act charges against the Colacurcios for prostitution, money laundering, and tax fraud. No indictments have yet been issued. At the press conference, Kerlikowske's face seemed to harden like poured concrete when he spoke of Strippergate. "Let me be really clear about this part. The investigation's about organized crime...[skimmed] tax dollars...organized prostitution...It has been a great investigation into an organization that has done considerable damage to this city [and] to its electoral process." He called it "the most significant organized-crime investigation we have ever undertaken." If only he'd been around to see Frank in prime time. For half a century, Father Frank has been pursued by a legion of cops and prosecutors, many of them, unlike him, now retired or dead. His name came up as far back as the late 1950s during racketeering hearings held by future Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as lead counsel for the McClellan Committee. But then, as someone who has frequent-rider miles on the local jail elevator and taken the bus to prison four times—starting with a carnal-knowledge conviction at age 25—investigations come and go for Frank. For a while, they were coming and going in 10-year cycles. In 1971, the city's biggest organized-crime scandal ever, the Tolerance Policy corruption probe that exposed police payoffs, racketeering, and murders, led to Frank's conviction for heading up a protection racket. In 1981, he was convicted of skimming club profits. And in 1991, he was found guilty of evading club income taxes. He's done altogether about eight years in stir. That includes almost two years after he violated probation in 1995 by grabbing, kissing, and propositioning a teenager he was interviewing for a topless job. By then, any normal 80-year-old libido might have run its course. But in 2003—at 86, about the time the Strippergate plan was unfolding—he assaulted a waitress at Rick's. He offered her money for sex, the 23-year-old said in her lawsuit, and grabbed her breast and rubbed one of her nipples. He settled with the waitress, but got six months probation for misdemeanor assault. According to the new Colacurcio task force, 91-year-old Frank's still got a lecherous smile on his face. An FBI affidavit includes a statement by a club employee that Frank was "always trying to get me to his house," while another said "he gets laid every night." Still, if the feds indict him again, if only to preserve the sanctity of legal candidate-buying and keep girls' locker rooms safe, Seattle might have seen the last of its tin-horn Godfather. In his 10th decade, Frank wriggles and winces like a man in pain, and among his ailments is polycythemia rubra vera, a condition that can lead to thrombophlebitis, or blood clotting. On the other hand, this could be the start of something big for Frankie, even if he's busted again. As his father's history indicates, incarceration's just the cost of doing business the Colacurcio Way; you get back and the till's still warm. Frankie has already done six months for tax evasion without breaking a sweat, although he did complain, Frank-like, to a reporter afterwards about the "horrible" lack of women. Observers and investigators say Frank the younger is already on track to the top of the family biz. As his father once primarily was, Frankie is directly involved in hiring dancers, collecting cash proceeds, and trying to stay a few steps ahead of the cops and revenuers. Like his dad, Frankie has also been married and divorced, owned a million-dollar home, and piled up income. A dozen years ago, Frankie was already making almost $700,000 a year, according to his tax return. It's closer to $1.2 million today, federal investigators say. A trim 5 feet 10 inches, with prematurely gray cropped hair and deep-set brown eyes, Frankie's a modish, new-and-improved version of the old man. At times he exhibits brawler Frank's disposition, too, according to one of Frankie's ex-wives. When they split, she told a judge she was "concerned about his reaction" and his "terrible temper," and sought a restraining order to keep him away from the house, as did his second wife. As heir apparent, Frankie is at least partially overseeing activities that are comparably subtler, supposedly more regulated, but apparently no less profitable than the activities of Frank's earlier racketeering days. (Counting assets and annual revenues, it's at least a $16 million production.) And that they allegedly needed a separate location, a small Lake City apartment, to stash money sounds almost like creative mob lore. But while both deny the family gangster legend—Frank calls it "Mafia malarkey"—they were reported to have had a good laugh one day in 2005 when the cell phone of an investigator for Frank's attorney suddenly went off in a courtroom, playing the theme from The Godfather. Frank might be best remembered as the guy who, 50 years ago, hung a man by his feet out the window of a hotel room to make the guy talk. He talked. Five years ago, he told a TV photographer "I'll take that camera away from you pretty quick" if he didn't stop taking Frank's picture. He stopped. While he's got a temper, Frankie isn't necessarily a chip off that block. Frank once called his son a "cream puff" compared to Dad. And Frankie's mom Jackie, in a 1993 deposition for a divorce from Frank (they divided $2 million in assets), thought then that if Frank weren't around to run the empire, "I don't think [Frankie is] capable of doing it." Among Junior's prized possessions are a comic-book collection and a statute of St. Francis dating back to his grade-school days. He values heirlooms handed down from his grandmother and grandfather, who were Bellevue farmers, including a tea set and a silver-dollar gold chain. A year after his parents' divorce, Frankie began dropping hints to his first wife, Terri, a former club manager, about separating. They'd married on New Year's Eve 1991, with Frankie facing a short term for tax evasion. By 1994, they had separate rooms and he had a girlfriend. "I was convinced our marriage was over, and I was in another relationship," Frankie told the court in a declaration. "Every time I tried to discuss divorce with Terri, she simply lost it." It took two years before he "told her unequivocally" he was leaving. In her own statement, Terri, with a child from an earlier marriage, said Frankie "has threatened violence." She sought a restraining order, although Frankie continued to deposit $6,000 a month into her bank account. The 1997 divorce suit shows Frankie made $678,445 from five different Colacurcio clubs, the bulk, $500,000, from Rick's. A property agreement gave Terri a house in Snohomish County, three cars, and a motor home. Frankie got three cars and a flatbed trailer, and retained ownership interests in the clubs as well as in the club's accounting firm, Accurate Bookkeeping, and the clubs' hiring agency, Talents West, on Lake City Way. He married a second time in 1999, and he and his wife Teena, who received a $2,000-a-week allowance from Frankie during their marriage, had three children. They separated in August 2003, not long after the Strippergate scandal erupted (Teena was never charged). It's unclear how the scandal may have affected their relationship; Teena could not be reached and Frankie chose not to comment for this story "because of the pending [federal] litigation," says his attorney John Wolfe. Unlike in Frankie's first divorce case, the depositions and most financial statements from the second split were sealed at his request by the court, with no explanation given. It cannot even be determined which party sought the divorce. Teena did get the couple's $995,000 home in Kirkland, property records show. And one of the few court documents mentioning money states that Frankie agreed to pay $9,000 monthly child support. He can likely handle that. According to the FBI documents, Frankie earned $1,004,897 from Rick's in the period from January 2006 through April 2007. He received another $374,000 during those 16 months from Honey's, the Colacurcio's Everett club, and another $444,000 from Fox's, their Tacoma-area club. No payments were recorded from Sugar's. That's about $1.8 million total, or over $100,000 a month. The three clubs also provided hefty incomes for Frankie's partners, who are also longtime family friends. The FBI says Leroy Christiansen, Frankie's cousin, earned $2 million, while Steve Fueston and David Ebert, who like Christiansen are co-owners of the clubs, each pulled down $1.9 million during that period. Like the Colacurcios, none of the three has been charged with a crime in connection with the latest investigation. Task-force members are still studying the evidence they obtained last month after raiding all four clubs. They also hit Talents West and the adjoining accounting-firm offices, in addition to Frank's home and the apartment "bank." According to a new search-warrant receipt, authorities confiscated such items as bank statements, invoices, income reports, timesheets, computer hard drives, cash, videotapes, and two cans of trash. To help interpret evidence and provide testimony, the task force has lined up an array of outsiders—two unpaid "cooperating" witnesses, six confidential informants, a handful of undercover officers who posed as customers, and one female police officer who worked in two of the clubs, where she eventually became a manager. Five of the six informants are dancers, and most of them are getting paid by the feds for their information (amounts were not revealed). The other informant, said by the feds to be a former Colacurcio "business associate," is being paid $500 for "historical information." "As detailed herein, prostitution is rampant at each of the four strip clubs," FBI agent Cody Cote says in the affidavit. "The dancers at the clubs regularly are paid to engage in sex acts with the customers...Many of the club managers, who are Talents West employees, knowingly permit the prostitution to take place." Cote outlines dozens of sex acts, real or propositioned, allegedly witnessed by undercover officers at the clubs. Most frequently cited are $30 (but sometimes up to $150) hand jobs performed as the dancer hovers over the unzipped customer in one of the clubs' VIP booths. Court papers, which sometimes read like a pulp novel, quote one dancer laying down the rules thus: "I'll rub you, I'll suck you, but I won't fuck you." Others did all three, the feds allege. A typical week at Rick's draws more than 3,000 customers, and many of them migrate to the VIP area—discreet booth seating in a darkened section of the low-slung, windowless club nestled among Lake City's strip of car lots and gas stations. The Colacurcios have created VIP rooms in all their other clubs, and have spent heavily on legal and lobbying efforts to maintain the intimacy. Their biggest threat hasn't been police, but the 4-foot rules. A no-groping zone between dancer and customer would mean "financial devastation," the Colacurcios have said in court. Though some suburban cities drove nude dancing out of town with such a rule, the Colacurcios have prevailed in other communities, and went all in to head off a proposed separation rule in Seattle two years ago. The Colacurcios even teamed politically with their competitor, Déjà Vu dance-chain operator Roger Forbes. Together, the two rivals donated more than $850,000 to defeat the planned no-feely-zone law. The mere perception that sex is available seems important, since Déjà Vu isn't known as a jerk joint. Despite numerous undercover attempts at the Lake City club in recent years, police say they couldn't get women there to agree to sex acts. The club, unlike Rick's, also has no VIP room or condom machines. Of course, that could be why Déjà Vu's revenues are but a third of Rick's, investigators say. "The way the Colacurcios run their clubs," says a competitor who asked not to be named, "you can't compete" unless you go for the zipper too—though he says his club doesn't. Déjà Vu's Forbes, reached at his home in Lake Tahoe, appears to agree: "We run a dance club. They [the Franks] run whatever in the hell it is they run." It will be a while before the newest accusations against the Colacurcios are confirmed or disproved, and before it'll be clear whether Frankie's ascent continues. The other night at Rick's, several dancers said attendance isn't hurting because of the raids. In fact, it might actually be better, thanks to the siren call of media reports. But do they participate in onsite sex acts? "I'll say this," one dancer says. "One of our girls was on TV saying she's never seen sex in the club, and we burst out laughing." Bob Payton, one of Frank's aides, once said in court that job seekers typically told him, "I have no money, I'm broke, my boyfriend left me, my husband beat me, I'm on welfare—can I get paid under the table? Things like that." Yet in spite of many dancers' precarious financial positions, some are single moms who don't need the added burden of jail time. But hard money can be tough to turn down. Dancers not only have to pay for the opportunity to strip, they can end up in debt for the effort. At $130 rent, it can take perhaps a half-dozen sex-free lap dances nightly just to break even. Those who don't are left with "back rent" that has to be made up another night. That's not counting the 10 percent "exchange fee" that dancers are also charged to redeem the club tokens that customers buy and use to pay for soft drinks (no booze allowed) and dances. Cote, the FBI agent, says a few dancers take advantage of a more lucrative payoff: sex at Frank's house. A confidential informant, says Cote, claims there's "an open invitation" for dancers to earn up to $1,000 for having sex with the nonagenarian. The FBI agent makes no similar mention of Frankie entertaining dancers at home. Maybe that's how they're different. As one stripper told federal agents about the father, "It's surprising that a guy so old still wants it so much."(This story has been corrected since first being posted to clarify that Robert Kennedy was not yet Attorney General at the time of the Senate hearings mentioned.)

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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