Mayhem and murder rule at this little strip club
"I'll wear a flower in my hair or something," Karen Raley says chirpily, "because you'll never recognize me from my mug shot!"
She sits in a back booth at Roasters' n Toasters in Aventura. It's her favorite diner, a low-key joint where the bagels are cheap. She doesn't seem to mind that it once employed one of the men who murdered her husband.
She's a tiny woman with a childlike exuberance. Big eyes peek out from under blond bangs. She wears a pantsuit and those Skechers that are supposed to tone your figure as you walk. She officiously unfolds a manila envelope full of pictures and news clippings about Bob, her late husband, and the nearly 40-year-old strip club she officially took over upon his death.
Take One Cocktail Lounge is a raucous joint. Located at 333 NE 79th Street in Little River, the gritty light-industrial neighborhood just north of Little Haiti, it's the kind of place where dancers brawl onstage and spaghetti Western shootouts go down in the parking lot. But in Karen's portrayal, Take One is Miami's version of Cheers. "There is a mystique about the place that no one can deny," reads one of the documents she brings to breakfast, a paragraph-long ode she wrote to the club. "Maybe it is Bob himself."
By all rights, Karen shouldn't have to be here defending the club where her husband was killed, an establishment she had little interest in before his death and has been inside five or six times since. After Bob was murdered in 2004, Karen's family — staid Midwesterners — urged her to sell the place and be rid of it.
But Bob's longtime manager, James Wright, had another idea. When James had showed up at Bob's club looking for a job in the late '90s, he was a depressed, square-jawed hulk — a former West Virginia University linebacker who had been chased from a spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers by a knee injury. Bob had come to regard him as a surrogate son, and James became the night-to-night face of Take One.
After Bob's death, James convinced Karen to let him keep the club alive. "He told me he could keep it going and then buy the club himself," says Karen as her rye toast and egg whites get cold. "I did the trusting. I said: 'Pretend this is your place.' "
As far as mistakes go, it was a doozy. In August, both James and Karen were charged with concealing from the IRS more than $7 million in proceeds. She was roused from bed by Miami Police officers at 5:30 a.m. and dragged to jail, quite an experience for a 66-year-old Aventura resident without a speeding ticket on her record. But she regards it with the nearly superhuman optimism that could be her trademark. "Oh lordy, it was the worst and the best experience in my life," she says wryly. "I saw a part of the world I'd never been exposed to. I don't think I would trade in that experience if I could."
After about seven coffee refills, she's done with her breakfast and headed to her silver BMW in the parking lot. But then she swivels, grabs an arm, and makes a request: Go easy on Bob's old club. "Don't make it out like it's some mafia-connected, warlord place off of The Sopranos," she pleads. "We get New Times in my condo, and that's my nightmare."
When a bouncer at Take One Cocktail Lounge denied Carlos Ceartis Jenkins and two friends entry into the club's tiny VIP lounge near 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning in January 2010, he reacted how any hot-blooded 21-year-old multiple-felon would: by punching the guy in the face.
Other bouncers joined the fracas, which rolled out of the club and into the parking lot. Jenkins produced a Glock .45 from his waistband and pointed toward the face of a guard — identified only as "Bouchard" in a police report. Bouchard scrambled behind a parked car. That's when a second guard — "Walker" — unloaded his own handgun into Jenkins, hitting him with three bullets.
As Jenkins lay bleeding on the pavement, Walker calmly placed both pistols on the tires of vehicles in the parking lot and waited for the police. Jenkins would survive what was deemed a justifiable shooting, and he is awaiting trial on aggravated assault charges. The next night, the strip club was again open for business.
Such sudden explosions of violence are the specialty of Take One. It's a block removed from the winding, murky Little River and winner, in 2008, of this publication's perhaps recklessly bequeathed Best Strip Club award. Public records prove that its notorious reputation is well-earned. Since 2005, according to numbers compiled by the Miami Police Department, there have been at least 13 reported shootings, including two homicides, on the club's grounds. The same five years have also seen 31 assaults and 105 disputes called in to cops.
The police reports read like scenes from Patrick Swayze's Road House but with more Austrian firepower. There was the episode of two strippers brawling onstage, with one of them smashing a beer bottle on the head of another. That same year, a drunk customer destroyed a $6,000 video poker machine when he discovered that his wallet had been stolen. In 2007, an irate dancer named Marie attempted to smash her Ford Explorer through the club's walls.
A year earlier, a patron named Pedro Bados filed a lawsuit claiming he had been permanently paralyzed by a drive-by shooting there. He settled with the club. "I have my suspicions that he was actually paralyzed," says Karen Raley. Bados couldn't be located for comment.
"That establishment has been a nightmare for the City of Miami," says Detective Joe Schillaci, who six years ago investigated the murder of its owner.
But as Karen points out, South Florida's strip clubs aren't exactly known for their staid and safe environs. "The wild atmosphere comes with the territory," she says. "This is Miami-Dade County. We can't control what happens on the streets outside."
New Times requested statistics on a few of the city's other notorious strip clubs. Karen's right: Take One isn't the only out-of-control establishment in town. At Diamonds Cabaret, a North Miami Beach club where 19 arrests were made in 2004 after cops discovered strippers pleasuring themselves with toys and performing oral sex onstage, there have been four shootings and 23 assaults and batteries in the last five years. In 2008, Diamonds's manager was shot three times during a botched armed robbery. He survived and killed one of the robbers with fire from his own semiautomatic pistol.
In only three years since Miami Gardens Police Department incorporated, its local Tootsie's Cabaret has hosted 41 reported batteries, 56 thefts and burglaries, and seven narcotics violations. Club Lexx on NW 27th Avenue in unincorporated Miami-Dade has registered an admirable 48 assaults in the last five years. And, in 2006, a patron was murdered there.
But none of these super-clubs drip noir quite like Take One. It has about one-tenth the square-footage of Diamonds, and it has cornered the market when it comes to combining neighborhood dive-bar charm with semi-regular shootings.
In a county crowded with garish strip clubs featuring $500-an-hour skyboxes, in-house barbershops and basketball courts, and pole dancers acrobatic enough to be Cirque du Soleil understudies, Take One offers respite: a no-frills temple to the booty pop.
Its following is loyal and staunchly defensive. One regular — we'll nickname him "Willy" to protect his high-profile job in university athletics — calls the Take One crowd "a twisted sort of family. Once you're a regular, they treat you splendidly." Willy, who has what is usually the only Caucasian face in the joint, says that manager James Wright once fronted him $100 in singles to save him from a $7 gouging at the ATM. Another time, he reminisces, "a security guard texted me and told me to watch out if I was coming that night because there was a DUI checkpoint set up nearby."
About the size of a suburban living room and decorated inside with balloons and red neon female silhouettes, Take One has only one strippers' pole. The dancers wipe away the previous girls' sweat with a white towel before getting to work. Instead of all those frivolous dance moves, Take One's girls usually just grab hold of the pole and quake, with a Rick Ross or Lil Wayne banger providing meter. Slipping dollars into G-strings isn't customary at Take One: Patrons nonchalantly bounce balled-up bills off dancers' stomachs and butt cheeks.
The club's signature drink is the blue martini, a neon-blue gin concoction. The DJ calls out regulars and strippers by nicknames ("Whatup, Big! I see you, Booboo!") when a lap dance — offered by trawling strippers at bar stools for the throwback rate of $5 a song — stretches beyond a few tracks.
And Take One's dancers are a special breed: One working regular has "100% BEEF" tattooed across her buttocks.
To fans of such an establishment, Take One's sharp edges are part of the appeal. "To me, the place is Miami embodied," says super-fan Willy. "Miami isn't South Beach. It's not BED or Mansion.
"If I get killed there, I hope they put my smiling headstone right onstage."
In 1977, Miami Police raided Take One Cocktail Lounge for the first time. Bob Raley, then aged 46, was led away in cuffs. His crime: hiring ladies to take the stage wearing only clear Scotch tape on their nipples and transparent panties, in violation of the city's anti-nude dancing ordinance.
But instead of paying a fine and moving on, Bob fought back in court. He argued that the ordinance violated free expression rights. Miami-Dade County Judge Robert Deehl sided with Bob — noting that the female cast of Hair would be criminalized in Miami if cops followed the letter of the law — and struck the law from the books. A Miami Herald article covering the story was accompanied by an editorial cartoon featuring Bob, identified by his dark, bushy eyebrows, standing before a judge with a babe by his side. She's making the obvious pun: "Does that mean the Scotch tape charges won't stick?"
Bob returned to peddling buck-75 roast beef sandwiches to accompany thrusting female pelvises, and Miami became the all-crevices-are-a-go strip club town it is today.
Despite the turn as a local Larry Flynt, Bob hadn't originally intended to own a strip club. A stocky Michigan native with a lumpy, bee-stung nose, large-framed glasses, and a gold Rolex, Bob was a longtime behind-the-scenes film hand. When he built the place in 1973, he had only wanted a low-key bar where his friends from show business could hang out.
Bob Raley's Take One Cocktail Lounge, as it was called, featured a nightly folk guitarist. Signed photos of Loretta Lynn and actress Polly Bergen hung on the walls. Bob only invited the dancers when he realized that a few pals with interminable bar tabs weren't going to keep the place afloat.
But even before the battle against Miami's nudity laws, Bob had a knack for headline-making hijinks. He was with a film crew in Havana the day Fidel's revolutionaries stormed the capital. He once fell from an eighth-story scaffold of Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel. According to family lore, he was saved by a wind gust that carried him to a lower scaffold, but he ended up with spine, chest, and arm injuries that left him stiff and creaky for the rest of his life.
Bob was Jackie Gleason's lighting director for the comedian's Miami Beach-based television revue in the '60s. He later became stage supervisor for the Miami Beach Convention Center. In 1972, he misplaced the building's keys two weeks before the Democratic and Republican National Conventions were scheduled to be held there. Bob was interrogated by the Secret Service, and the center's 150 locks were replaced in post-Watergate paranoia.
He was anything if not the Iceberg Slim character one imagines holed up in the office of the owner of a dangerous strip club. But through the years, his tiny tavern, tucked away as it is in the isolated 'hood a few blocks from Little Haiti, became known as a hangout for a murderous element. It seemed a magnet for trouble.
In 1989, two masked men robbed a manager as he counted cash in a back office, making off with a gold ring and $2,600. In 1995, a fugitive named Adrian Kinkead, wanted for murdering two sisters and a subway ticket collector in Toronto, made Take One his second home after his girlfriend started stripping there. He was eventually nabbed by a SWAT squad. Three years later, notorious drug dealer Luckner Joseph was drinking at Take One, according to a Miami Herald account, when he heard that rivals were claiming his turf. He pulled on a skullcap complete with fake dreads, drove to a drug corner controlled by his enemy, and shot to death the low-level dealer perched there. Joseph's gun was determined to have been used in five other murders.
In 1997, a Haitian Pentecostal church bought the lot next door. Bob knew that there was a City of Miami ordinance barring nudie joints from setting up shop within 500 feet of churches. He's believed to be the first club-owner to wield the law in reverse, convincing city officials to block Church of God of Holiness in Christ from building on the lot. "There's a Haitian church on every block around here," Bob grumbled to Christianity Today. "Let 'em go somewhere else."
Bob's stand was "about fairness," says Karen. It was also about parking: He was worried the tabernacle's overflow vehicles would end up in Take One's lot. "We still have love," says Rev. Nadege Dutes, the founder of the jilted church, which remains saddled with a $240,000 lot it can't build on.
A year later, Nation Satellite Sports sued the club for pirating the first Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield championship bout and airing it in the club. The lawsuit was settled out of court. Clearly, Take One Cocktail Lounge — Bob had removed his name from signage at his wife's urging years earlier — was no longer a guitar-and-roast-beef type place. And it had become a moneymaker: Bob helped Amanda, one of his two grown daughters, purchase a $430,000 condo in the same Aventura high-rise where he and Karen owned a $600,000 apartment.
Bob began delegating more of the club's tasks to James Wright, the intimidating, six-foot-four manager who had applied for a job after losing a pro-football career to injury. Soon James was doing everything but counting the cash in the morning — Bob's job. "When I met Bob, I was emotionally disturbed, because I couldn't play football anymore," James, now aged 40, says. "He was my mentor. He taught me the business."
People began to think of it as James's club. He filled it with relatives: His brother Marvin became assistant manager, and his brother-in-law Robert worked the bar. Bob Raley didn't mind. He liked to think of his staff as an extended family.
So in the summer of 2004, when Take One's longtime cleaning lady, Jenny, left for a vacation to her native Haiti, Bob didn't hesitate to hire her brother-in-law as her interim replacement — even as James Wright protested. Marc Placide, a squat man with hard eyes, had a sleazy reputation in the neighborhood. He was saddled with debt. He couldn't be trusted.
Bob refused to deny the guy a chance to redeem himself. "Mr. Raley's mistake was he was too trusting," says Joe Schillaci, the detective who would investigate his murder. "He didn't understand that the world is an evil place."
For decades, Bob followed the same precise routine every morning. Even the streetwalkers trawling Little River used it to set their schedules. When they saw his silver Mercedes turning onto the block, dawn had arrived and it was time to call it a night.
He would leave Karen in bed at 5:30 a.m., have a quick breakfast, and thumb through the Herald. Then he would drive from Aventura to the Dunkin' Donuts on NE 81st Street and Biscayne Boulevard, where he would buy a small coffee — with a splash of cream and a Sweet'N Low — and a donut. At 6:45 a.m., he'd pull into Take One's parking lot. He'd head to a back room and spend the next five hours or so counting money, making phone calls, and handling other business.
Especially after the armed robbery in 1989, Karen urged Bob to change his routine or hire a morning guard. Nothing if not stubborn, Bob refused. "He converted that bar with his bare hands from the bail bonds place that was there before," she explains. "It was his kingdom. He wasn't going to be pushed around."
In the summer of 2004, massive hurricanes ravaged the Atlantic. Frances and Jeanne, Category three and four storms respectively, would score direct hits on South Florida. It was 7:20 on an eerie, clear morning before the torrents hit — August 26, a Thursday — that Bob was in his office counting when he felt a pistol barrel on his neck.
As the gunman froze Bob, a crony stuffed the cash on the desk — approximately $5,000 — into a bag. The two men barked at each other in what he identified as Creole accents.
After the robbers left him sitting by his ransacked desk, Bob was more angry than afraid. He started carrying a .38 revolver in a belt holster, but refused to alter his routine.
In the darkness of predawn exactly one month later, Bob tooled his car into the parking lot of Take One. Grainy surveillance video would show him unlocking the heavy front door. Three figures hidden in the parking lot rose to their feet and scrambled after him, catching the door just before it closed. Less than two minutes later, the figures sprinted across the parking lot.
After firemen forced the door open, Detective Schillaci found Bob's body lying facedown on the carpeted floor of his club. His watch was gone, but he was still wearing his pinky ring and a necklace with a gold Capricorn medallion. A wad of cash wrapped in rubber bands was left at the scene.
Near Bob's body there was a gun: a .22 semiautomatic, un-fired. The murderers had dropped it during the struggle. Bob's belt holster was empty, and his gun was missing. He had been shot to death with his own .38.
"It was the work of kids," says Schillaci. "It was a very sloppy robbery." It was also, he surmised almost immediately, an inside job.
Schillaci, a short, intense cop with slicked-back hair and a mousy moustache, calls Raley's murder "one of the most haunting cases" he's worked. He was tailed by a television crew from A&E's homicide documentary series The First 48. The investigation's work was interrupted by Hurricane Jeanne, and Schillaci was moved by how well-regarded the owner of the violence-plagued strip club was in the neighborhood. "It's a fine line between a troubled club," says Schillaci, "and its owner who was a good man, a hard-working man who cared only about taking care of his family."
As it happened, the case turned when a fingerprint was discovered on a milk crate in Take One's parking lot, where one of the assailants had sat and waited before the botched armed robbery. Three neighborhood stickup artists were arrested: 26-year-old Jean "Guteau" Mentor, 20-year-old Johnny Mesadieu — who worked at Roasters' n Toasters — and Sylvio "Blue" Louis, a 17-year-old Miami Edison Senior High student.
In interrogation rooms, the three hoods told cops that Marc Placide — the janitor that Bob Raley had hired over protests from other employees — had tipped them to the easy score to be had at Take One. After being read his rights, Schillaci says, Placide confessed to setting up the robbery.
Instead of being tried for murder, Placide agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in return for a lesser charge of accessory after the fact, along with a relatively featherweight sentence of four years in prison. Mesadieu was hit with 25 years in prison for his role in the murder, and Mentor received a life sentence.
Prosecutors dropped charges against Blue, who claimed that he was coerced into going along with the robbery. In 2008, he was charged with a car jacking.
Detective Schillaci considers the turncoat janitor's light sentence a miscarriage of justice — "He was, without a doubt, the worst of the whole crew," he says — and scoffs at Blue's claim of defenselessness. "I watched the video," says Schillaci. "I saw him running away from that scene with the other two. He wasn't coerced."
Karen Raley, meanwhile, has spent this winter attending court hearings, trying to get Placide's early parole denied, while negotiating her own felony charges with prosecutors.
The year 2008 was an especially murderous one for Take One Lounge.
In March, four men left the club near 4:30 on a Saturday morning when a Chevy Impala rolled alongside and littered their car with bullets. Three of the victims were killed. In a twist of ghetto irony, one of those slain — 28-year-old Xaviein Bendross — had been tried for murdering a Dutch tourist at the same intersection 12 years earlier.
And in August 2008, cops reported to Take One to find two men shot in the parking lot — one, 21-year-old Odane Francis, already dead and shrouded under a blanket placed by security guards, and the other, 31-year-old Tavares Lundy, terminally wounded. Detectives determined that a fight began in the club and then escalated into gunfire outside, but have thus far made no other findings public. "It was drug boys shooting each other up," says Karen Raley, who watched footage of the murder on the club's surveillance screens. "It could have happened anywhere."
The double murder spurred the Miami Police Department to go on the offensive against the club, Karen believes. Within weeks of the shooting, cops raided Take One. They were looking for anything illegal they could sniff out, says the indignant widow. "The same day [as the murder at Take One] there was a shooting at a Bank of America up in Broward County," she says, launching into a familiar refrain. "Did cops bust into that bank the next week and throw customers on the floor and force employees, topless, into the parking lot?"
That first raid came up empty. But police continued to prowl. Forensic investigators opened the club's financial books and subpoenaed bank records. And on August 3, cops rounded up James Wright and Karen Raley and tossed them into jail.
According to police, revenue from strippers — who told investigators they paid $35 to $100 a day to dance for tips — drinks, and door cover fees was concealed. James Wright, whose on-the-books manager's pay hovered around $43,000 annually, had deposited into his bank account $642,945.60, much of it in cash, in the 19 months between January 2007 and July 2008, investigators claimed.
Karen, meanwhile, had paid herself $482,168 in checks during a three-year span between 2005 and 2008. Additionally, she had taken to making regular cash deposits totaling just under $10,000. That's an old launderers' trick, an investigator wrote in an arrest affidavit, "traditionally associated with illegal structuring." During one week in January 2008, she made five four-digit cash deposits into her personal bank account. Four of them were of $9,000 or more. None hit the $10,000 threshold.
In total, police concluded, James and Karen had concealed more than $7 million in income. They owed more than $600,000 in taxes. Karen was charged with a total of 176 felony counts, including racketeering, money laundering, and grand theft. James faced 33 similar charges. They were staring at 5 years in prison per each count.
They both accepted pretrial diversion deals to keep them out of prison, and will be forced to pay restitution. "I let James handle the books," she says, refusing to speak in detail about the case. "Ultimately, that's my responsibility."
James cagily rejects the implication. "It can't be blamed on me," he says in a brief phone interview with New Times before ceasing to pick up a reporter's calls. He explains away the situation with a strangled football metaphor, ending with: "Unless you play ball, you're not going to understand what happens in the NFL."
Relations between the widow and manager were severed after they struck their respective deals in December. Karen offered to sell the club to James. She wanted $6 million, he says, which he calls an "outrageous" figure. (Karen denies her asking price was that high.) As a result, James — and his family members — no longer work at the club, although Karen insists she "never said he was fired."
As a consolation prize, she says, he cleared the club of its sound equipment. James simply headed due west on 79th Street, and is now managing Hialeah Gold Gentleman's Club. "I could go to the police," she kvetches, "but it would just be more crap."
In January of this year, the club was closed for about a week as Karen replaced the sound system and spruced the place up. She remained doggedly optimistic. On the night before reopening, she gathered regular employees in the club to talk about new cash-handling policies and introduce temporary management. Dancers — clothed — drank sodas in Styrofoam cups and Fat Man, the owner of a barbecue truck permanently parked outside of the club, provided ribs. Says Karen: "It was the first time since Bob's death that I was able to step foot there without thinking of it as the place where my husband was killed. When I was driving home, I actually felt really good."
A little more than a week after reopening, North Miami Beach cops were tipped that a fugitive, Carlus Dewayne McKaufman, was at Take One. McKaufman was wanted for duct-taping his girlfriend to a chair and torturing her for three days. The department's "wolf pack task squad," police in unmarked black SUVs, arrived at the club. A bouncer — Travis Warthen, who was working the door despite a rap sheet that includes the display of a weapon while committing a felony — refused to put down his handgun, according to a police report. Officer Juan Dolcine shot the guard, who survived. The shooting was ruled justified. McKaufman, the creep whose rumored presence sparked the altercation, is still on the lam.
But a few days later, Karen was back at the club and as cheery as ever. It was a Monday afternoon and some mellow regulars — one man was wearing hospital scrubs and another was wearing a suit — were sipping drinks and watching a thick dancer slowly gyrate. In the daylight outside, workers were applying the last few brush strokes of a new paint job: Karen was having the place painted lime-green, the way it was when Bob was alive, rather than a somewhat menacing deep purple. "You guys could find out more information about that than I could," Karen responded with a shrug when asked about the officer shooting the security guard.
She walked out to the parking lot and when the conversation turned to Bob, she started to cry silently. She was thinking about that damn donut and coffee he bought everyday. If he hadn't stopped at Dunkin' Donuts on the morning he was killed, he would have driven into the parking lot from a different entrance and seen the three thugs waiting for him.
The thought passed quickly. Karen turned to admiring the painters' handiwork. "You know, I've thought about making a reality show about this place," she remarked. "They could call it Another Day in Paradise."
Two weeks later, on February 10, two men named Travis McNeil and Kareem Williams spent Thursday night partying at Take One. After they left and drove three blocks away, they were stopped by police. Miami detective Reinaldo Goyo opened fire on their car, killing McNeil and critically wounding his friend.
There has been little more information released on that shooting. The next night, Take One Cocktail Lounge was open for business.
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