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October 14, 2020 31 mins

What’s the verdict? Let's go to church. 

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
School of Humans. This is racket inside the Gold Club.
I'm Christina Lean. This is our final episode. God's Club
has been Early morning on August two, two thousand and

(00:34):
fourteen weeks after the trial began, the courtroom again was
packed with journalists and spectators, but this time it wasn't
for celebrities or mobsters. Instead, it was to hear a
guilty plea. This was the first time anyone was going
to hear Goal Club owner Steve Kaplan actually speak, and

(00:55):
they were going to be delayed another minute. Behind the scenes,
there was a brief scuffle between the government and defense.
They'd come to an agreement, but they hadn't addressed who
was going to be paying the remaining mortgage on the
Gold Club. By late morning, the prosecution relented fine, agreeing
to take over the remaining one million dollars, and so

(01:18):
finally Caplin shouldered up in front of Judge Willis Hunt.
In a choked voice, he whispered guilty to prostitution, credit
card fraud and Delta Airlines ticket fraud. Commentator said, there
we have it. The trial is ending at a kerplop

(01:39):
instead of a bang. After paying the lawyer's fees for
all of his employees on trial, which was four million dollars.
He agrees to forfeit the Gold Club, pay five million
dollars to the US government, and pay an additional three
hundred thousand dollars in restitution. He also accepts that he

(01:59):
will spend time in prison. Aside from that, all he
said was yes, sir, no sir, and thank you. He
had nothing else to say, not after prosecution and defense
negotiated a plea bargain to end the Gold Club trial
after nearly four long months. Caplan also insisted that should

(02:23):
they plead guilty, every Gold Club defendant would be guaranteed probation.
That had to include Reginald Bernie, the retired police officer
who faced more severe corruption charges. Bernie's lawyer, Dwight Thomas,
decided to press on anyway because Bernie was working as
a bodyguard, he'd risk losing his entire career even with probation.

(02:47):
One of the things you always want to make your
clients understand jury verdicts have no certainty to it. You
don't know which way they're coming down, and in a
case like this, if there's a conviction, you're going to
prison and you're going for a long time, and so
you have to think about that. He thought about it.
He talked it over with his wife and his family,

(03:08):
and he came back to court the next day and says, look,
we're going on with this thing, and I was kind
of pleased. Did you decide to do that? I felt
we had a good case. Craig Gillen and his client
Michael de Leonardo also pressed on with the trial, but

(03:29):
besides Bernie and de Leonardo, all the other Gold Club
defendants agreed to plead guilty. Kaplan would be the only
defendant going to prison, but that was a sacrifice he
was willing to make for the sake of his employees.
The Gold Clubs shut down the same day as Kaplan

(03:50):
entered his plea, though not before one last hurrah. Here's
journalist Scott Henry. I think I showed up fairly late
in the evening, maybe around ten or so, because the
Feds were coming at midnight to lock the doors, and

(04:10):
folks have been partying in there, the managers and dancers
and favorite clientele. We're having one last blowout and saying
their goodbyes. The defense attorney Don Samuel explained why they

(04:31):
ended up in a big plea bargain instead of fighting
the case to the end. They were facing days, perhaps
even weeks, of very dissatisfied customers of the Gold Club
coming in and talking about how they'd been scammed. Once

(04:52):
you had all of these stories just heaped on top
of one another, it tends to color the jury's opinion
of the defendants. And they realized that they were not
going to come out looking good, and they decided it
was a good time to cut a deal. Atlanta's Channel

(05:15):
two broadcast the club's final hours as Don Samuel sit
on champagne in Gold Room seven. It was really kind
of sad in a lot of ways. The entertainers were
all being fired. They were all losing their jobs. This
is Don Samuel. He'll hear his dog barking in the background.
Kind A lot of them were students, a lot of
them were professional, you know, business people, you know. In

(05:39):
a lot of ways, it was it was a real
letdown that it had come to an end without a verdict,
you know, without an acquittal. And at midnight, you know,
the US Marshals came in and said that's it, you're closed,
and they escorted everybody out of the building. The Gold

(06:06):
Club closing was the end of an era and fairly
anti climatic until September eleventh, two thousand and one. So
this thing wrapped up in two thousand and one, and
then nine to eleven happened. This is Jeff Dore, the
now retired journalists from Atlantis Channel two. He lived in

(06:26):
the neighborhood across the street from the Gold Club. All
the planes are grounded in America. Channel two puts me
in a car with a photographer and we drive fast
up to Washington and we get up there. We spend
a day or two there. We talk with whoever we
can't we get interviews. We feed him back to Channel
two and then they say go to New York. So

(06:48):
we drive from Washington New York and we are poking
and providing at the perimeter, trying to get to the
South Manhattan so we can cover the stuff that happened there.
We get a call and they say come back. We're
we're not going to have our people there. Networks are
going to cover it, so we don't want you to
come home. But Door had come all this way, so

(07:09):
he figured he could make the most out of this trip.
Like other reporters, he had spent months covering the Gold
Club trial, and he was still fascinated by Steve Kaplan,
the business mogul. Door figured he should see the fruits
of Kaplan's labor for himself. Well, I had spent all
this time covering the Gold Club Trial, and there was
a lot of talk about Steve Kaplan's original business that

(07:31):
he still had was the Smoothie King in Penn Station,
and that I heard too much about this. I've got
to go over there before we leave. So we drove
over to Penn Station and down at like two levels underground,
we found the Smoothie King and there was Steve Kaplan outside,
leaning up against the wall with one pant leg rolled

(07:55):
up and the other one not, which I found out
later was supposed to be a sign that you're connected
with the mob. We should point out that the New
York Times credited this style to bicycle messengers who didn't
want their pants caught in their bike chains. Jam Master
j A Run DMC also wore his pants that way,

(08:17):
though he called it the hot hip hop thing to do.
In other words, no one dared attribute this to the mafia. Okay,
here's Door again, and so he saw me walking up
remember me from the trials, Hey, how are you doing?
And half of the guys from the trial were hanging
out at the Smoothie King that day, and it was

(08:39):
like a big reunion from the trial and they were
all very nice. He gave me a tour of the
back of the Smoothie King. It was pretty funny experience,
and then we drove home. Door. Might not have gotten
to know Kaplan this extensively if the Gold Club trial
was scheduled even a few months later. The September eleventh

(09:00):
attacks were right in between the trial and sentencing. After that,
New York's Organized Crime Task Force went from having up
to four hundred agents to as little as twenty. Here's
Attorney Don Samuel on how George W. Bush's war on
terror tore the FBI's focus away from La Cosa nostra.

(09:20):
I mean the FBI suddenly went from, you know, kind
of handling all these local crimes to whatever percentage of
the entire force was suddenly doing the anti terrorism. I
think it changed. Nine to eleven had a huge impact
on everybody. I'm not telling you anything that everybody who
who lived through that doesn't know. It changed everything everything.

(09:41):
It changed law enforcement it changed the court, It changed
everybody's view of the world. So a gold Club, you know,
just because of when it happened, was the end of
one era, and you know nine to eleven was the
beginning of another. We'll be right back. Steve kaplan sentencing

(10:08):
trial was in January two thousand and two. He was
sentenced to sixteen months in prison. Six jurors showed up
at the sentencing to support Kaplin. Three of them came
up to him afterward, teerie eyed, and insisted on hugging him.
They didn't think he deserved prison time or that he
had anything to be sorry for. One of the jurors

(10:31):
would even name her newborn Stephen after Kaplan during the sentence,
saying Kaplan said, I made bad judgments, I heard people's feelings.
I'm sorry for that. I'm like a cancerous person. Nobody
wants to be with me anymore except my friends. Everybody's
afraid of me. Behind the scenes, however, he was unapologetic.

(10:59):
As part of the plea deal, Kaplan was fined five
million dollars. He just so happened to have most of
it on hand. Back when the Gold Club trial started,
Caplan was informed the FBI was coming to his Newark residence,
so he fled and the FBI was puzzled by what
he left behind. To refresh our memories, here's Dwight Thomas

(11:21):
from episode three. Well, they went down in his basement
and they found about two million dollars of wet and
money we call the mold and money that Caplan discarded
and just didn't even want it. The government estimated. He
took a duple bag out of that basement with a
little over five million dollars in cash in it, and
left two million and it was wet that he didn't want.
There was actually about three billion dollars left, and it

(11:44):
was time to make use of it. Kaplan pitches an
idea to his attorney, Steve Saydal. So I called Steve
and I said, hey, you know, we have to start
making arrangements to pay something on the forfeiture. So Se said,
you remember all that moldy money that they talked about
in my basement. I said yeah. He goes, I think
I got about three millions. How about we use that.

(12:09):
I said that sounds good to me. That's a nice
opening payment. Then you only owe a couple more. He goes, yeah,
let's see if we can use that that way, I
can get rid of it. I don't have to deal
with it anyhow. Now Sato had to figure out how
to make this happen. So we called the forfeiture attorney
who is handing over the forfeiture to the government. I
call her up and I said, we're ready to make
our first installment and she goes, oh, great, how much?

(12:31):
I said, I think approximately three million. She goes, okay,
do you need the wiring information? And I said no.
She goes, well, we don't take personal checks. You can't
do a money order. It's not going to be a
wire transfer. It's not going to be a cashier's check.
I said no, no, it's gonna be cash. She said cash.
I said, yeah, three million, give or take in cash.

(12:55):
The forfeiture attorney is shocked cash. She goes and consults
the US Marshall who's in charge of forfeiture. He's confused too,
so he sends her to Judge Hunt. Eventually, Judge Hunt says, well,
we can't technically not take cash. The plea agreement just
says the forfeiture must be in US currency. The government

(13:18):
eventually agrees to Caplin forefeiting the money in New York.
So Kaplin and his accountant Larry gLite, bag up the
Mouldi money and head to the bank. They go back
into some room in the bank and they count the money,
and they wind up ten dollars short of three million dollars.
So Steve got rid of all this old money and

(13:39):
the government got its first initial payment, which was ten
dollars short of three million. Ultimately, Judge Willis Hunt viewed
the Gold Club trial as a credit card fraud case,
and on that front, justice was indeed served. Once Steve
Kaplan paid the restitution fees, Prosecutor Art Leach funneled some

(13:59):
of it toward paying back the victims of credit card fraud.
He personally wrote a check to a man who the
Gold Club charged twenty five thousand dollars. Still, Judge Hunt
said that any effort to link Caplan to the mob
beyond a reasonable doubt was relatively unsuccessful. But Leech says

(14:20):
a cap impleaded guilty before he could truly make those
connections clear, and the best was yet to come. Let
me tell you, I mean, I had some witnesses that
we're going to just absolutely blow their doors off, you know.
One of the philosophies and criminal litigation is start strong
and strong. Let me tell you, we had a strong envy,

(14:40):
really strong, and we just never got there, which is fine.
I mean they play guilty, case was resolved, move on. No,
he wouldn't say who would have taken the stand. Leech
also stresses that time was of the essence, so even
though his case might have been less than perfect, he
still had to act fast with what was at stake,

(15:03):
and even though the people indicted didn't get as harsh
of sentences as they could, Leech has no regrets, not
a warrant. Nope. It was the right thing to do.
And you know there oftentimes people look at the Department
of Justice and think, you know, they have this ninety
something percent conviction rate and everything is perfect and everything's

(15:25):
always great. No, there are times where you need to
take a less than perfect case and you need to
go forward because there are people who need to be
prosecuted because by prosecuting these people, you are going to
protect your community. And that is what we did in
a gold Club case. Steve Sadow is more aggressive, importing fingers.

(15:52):
He blames Leech for creating a trial that was a
waste of time and money that resulted in unnecessary convictions,
and that was the result of Leech's personal morals. I
think they went after him because our Leech was a
moralist in thought that in some form or fashion, he
was cleaning up the community. He was making Atlanta the
community that he wanted to have. They had, in their

(16:15):
own minds, tried to turn this into organized crime had
come to Atlanta and we were going to clean it up.
So it was a total moralistic viewpoint, along with the
fact that there was a lot of money involved. If
they convicted Steve took the club and took the amount
of forfeiture, the media wouldn't be nearly as harsh. But

(16:43):
while the Gold Club child began as a story that
seemed too juicy to be true, reporters ultimately struggle to
make sense of it all. One headline from the Atlanta
Journal Constitution read Gold Club prosecutors promised mob case fizzles
for Atlanta alltweekly creative loafing journalists goot Henry asked, so

(17:06):
was it worth it? The largest grand jury investigation in
state history three months in counting on the Federal Court
meter wear and tear on the witness stand from fifty
plus people all to accomplish what zagly. Bill Simmons got
a start at ESPN dot com by gleefully recapping the
courtroom proceedings. Yet as time were on, he'd only remembered

(17:30):
the Gold clubcase as a very embarrassing and long trial.
But Leash maintains what he said in his opening statement.
He was dogged about Kaplan's moptized then and he still
is now. That's why he ultimately considers the Gold Club
trial a success. I do because the objective from the

(17:55):
standpoint of the Organized Crime Strike Force was to see
that the Gambino crime family was no longer active in
the Atlanta metro area and the Gold Club was a
major asset for the Gambino crime family, was generating millions
of dollars for the Gambino crime family on an annual basis,

(18:18):
and by forfeiting the Gold Club that removed that asset
from the Gambino crime family forever. And without those assets,
Leech says, LaCosta Nostra hasn't been able to take hold
in Atlanta. Since We'll be right back. Steve Kaplan got

(18:52):
out of prison on a shortened sentence. His New York
business Empire remains intact. In fact, Larry Glat is still
his accountant, Ziggy still runs his youth basketball program. We
don't know much else besides that he never replied to
our request for an interview and blocked all of our
producers on Facebook. Reginald Bernie eventually won his case, so

(19:16):
we was able to continue his security business until he
passed away in twenty nineteen. Jacqueline Bush is still good
friends with Kaplin, but the trial turned her life upside down.
The year after it wrapped, she was working at a
restaurant when she spotted Art Leech and then his family
were in and I was wait testing and I walked

(19:38):
past and I looked and I'm like, oh my god.
And I went straight back by the kitchen and I'm
standing there for sect as I started like hyperventilating because
that's the last person I want to see. You destroyed
my life. And he walked over to me, Hey, how
are you doing this? Bush? I looked at him, I said,

(19:59):
I'm doing fine. How are you? Don't choke on your state?
And I walked away from I look back and the
good times were great, Oh my god. They were just
so over the top, like everything was over the top,
but the bad times were just really bad. They really were.

(20:21):
It was really bad. I don't wish it on my
worst enemy. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Anyone,
anyone that I've heard over the years or you know,
did anything to you. I've apologized, and I've asked for forgiveness,
and I've forgiven myself. But regrets, I have none, not

(20:45):
one regret. I would do it all over again in
a heartbeat. There would be a couple of things that
I would change about the situation to protect myself, knowing
what I know now, But hindsight is twenty twenty, Jacqueline
moved to Nevada. She's married and her now husband used
to work at the Cool Club as a bartunder. As

(21:07):
for Leech, he retired from the US District Attorney's office
a few months after the Gold Club trial to launch
his own private practice. Michael did Leonardo also won his case.
He was found not guilty of being a captain and
funneling money from Kaplan to the mob. But in two
thousand and five, did Leonardo entered the witness Security program.

(21:30):
In other words, he became an informant for the FBI
because he was in fact part of La Cosa Nostra.
As part of that plea, he pleaded guilty to the
Gold Club charges. Today, the Gold Club building is a nightclub,

(21:50):
not a strip club called the Gold Room. Typically, it
hosts corporate events, charity benefits, and film and TV rat parties.
When Atlanta, Lass hosted the Super Bowl and two rap
group Megos hosted an after party at the Gold Room
where they made it rain half a million dollars, Migos

(22:12):
called the event Stripper Bowl, even though the Gold Room
does not technically have strippers. But before all that, after
the Fed's locked up the Gold Club, the building sat
vacant for two years. Atlanta's transit system Marta I had
the property for a minute. The location is convenient, and

(22:36):
after all, the Gold Club had originally opened with downtown
conventioneers in mind. In two thousand and three, Dan Garrett
and his wife were driving around Atlanta scouting properties and
we were driving up Piedmont Road and my wife said, Hey,
what about the old Gold Club. And she's not normally funny,

(22:57):
so I thought she was making a joke, but I
felt this isn't typical, and she was serious, and I thought,
this is not what I'm thinking of, but okay, sure,
See Garrett wanted a home for his congregation he's a pastor.
Though the vacant Strip Club was not what he had imagined,

(23:20):
he got in touch with the leaseholders anyway. At the time,
the property owners wanted to tear down the Gold Club
to make room for condos, Yet after a successful negotiation,
Garrett landed a temporary lease. Even though Garrett's wife was
serious about the property, she couldn't help herself. You know
when she said, hey, we should why don't you check

(23:42):
into the Gold Club? And I was like, yeah, right,
and she went no, you could call it God's Club.
I was like, you've got to be kinning. That became
the nickname for Christian Church Buckhead God's Club. Before the
Garretts could welcome their congregation, they had their route through
what was left from the Gold Clubs. Last night in

(24:04):
August two thousand one, hundreds of people from all over
the city donated supplies and offer their time to go
up the club. But as we were cleaning up with
our shovels and brooms, somebody tacked a twenty dollar bill
on the bulletin board and it kind of represented that
if you saw anything less than that, you didn't even
pick it up. I mean, it was just, you know,

(24:27):
it was just gross in there. We ended up I
think the number was five dumpster loads of just stuff
couches and chairs and tables and things that there was
no way we were going to ever sit on or
use or salvage. We did find a wedding ring in
one of the sofas. They tossed those sofas to make

(24:52):
room for the hundred chairs they got from a contractor
who just want a bid for a holiday in. Garrett
didn't have the money for the chairs, but they decided
on a trade one hundred chairs for the knee on
and the gold club sign. Yeah, when I went to seminary,
I did not envisioned that I would be trading, you know,

(25:13):
with the guy out in front of the old strip
club the neon sign for old beat up chairs from
the holiday inn. That was not my vision for my life. Appropriately,
Kaplan's office was where they collected and counted their offerings.
They covered the full length mirrors in the main room
with tope curtains. Originally, the Garris wanted to break the mirrors,

(25:37):
but there were too many of them. They ripped up
the carpet, which was smart because who knows how much
Don harry On had been poured onto it. They gutted
the VIP goal rooms down to the studs so they
can be used for Sunday school. It's one thing for
you and your partner, you know, to go to worship.

(25:58):
It's another thing to take your second grader upstairs in
the old Gold Club and drop them off in a
VIP room. So we we had to make that place sparkling,
which we did. There was nothing left that our kids
were going to bump into. As funny of a mental
image as that may be, Garrett knew that the Gold

(26:20):
Club had always been more than a den of seton.
We kind of all ended up together walking into this
room and we all just stopped. I mean, I'm not
sure anybody was even breathing. It was just that kind
of moment. It was the dressing room. And I don't
call them girls. These are not girls, these are ladies.

(26:43):
These are women. It was the dressing room for the women.
They were stacked lockers sort of like middle school, but
lockers about six across the top, six across the bottom,
and the doors. Some of the doors were hanging open,

(27:04):
and they were all covered with photos. There were photos
of husband and wife and two kids in front of
the Christmas tree, Thanksgiving, photos of families around the tables,
lots of pictures of kids, the school pictures with the
toothless third grader. These were mothers, these are wives, These

(27:30):
are people with dignity. And we stopped and prayed. We

(27:52):
just stopped, and then we'll tell you we cleaned up
and transformed the whole place before we ever walked back
in there. It just became this holy place where we
realized what what happened in that building. And finally we said,
you know, we've got to go in and clean out
that room. And we delicately, and I remember one of

(28:14):
our ladies just collecting the photos. You know, this is
these are people's lives, people's lives on lockers. It was
one of the holiest moments of my life. Four hundred
and fifty people came to the Christian Church Buckheads first service.

(28:36):
Some of them just wanted to see how the Gold
Club had been transformed, and that was fine with Garrett.
I've joked that when you start a church in an
old strip club, you don't really need a sign out
front that says everybody welcome. It's sort of it's sort
of self evident that anybody can come here. We had
we had addicts, we had Mercedes, we had people who

(29:00):
walked from the apartment building at these super sharp Georgia
tech kids, young professionals coming from the apartments and condos,
and everybody together in this place, just singing. And I
had this, you know, a loud band, which is a
lot of fun. And it was just a picture of

(29:21):
what I think God wants and what most of us
want is people from all backgrounds together in a place
celebrating life, celebrating positive, celebrating the presence of God. The

(29:54):
church only stayed in the Gold Club location for six
months before moving outside city limits. Before those six months,
God's Club was praying for salvation where entertainers had once
danced asshole naked. This is Racket Inside the Gold Club.

(30:14):
Oh My Life hasband acking a racket, racket, Oh my Life,
My life hasbanck, Oh my Life. Racket Inside the Gold

(30:45):
Club is a production of School of Humans and iHeartRadio. Rackets,
written and narrated by me Christina Lee and produced by
Gabby Watts. Caroline Slaughter is our Supervising producer Special thanks
to Taylor church In Sonambashi music is by Claire Campbell
and sound Design and is by Toone Welders. Executive producers

(31:08):
are Brandon Barr, Elsie Crowley and Brian Lavin, along with
Scott Grubman and Lauren Zimmerman School of Humans
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