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September 23, 2020 32 mins

The Gold Club defendants are an emotional wreck. Turns out, when it comes to saving your own ass, sometimes your best friends become your worst enemies... Particularly when federal prison is on the line. 

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
School of Humans. This is racket Inside the Goal Club
Episode five, The Sirens Call What would a Gold Club
story be without basketball? Just before Steve Kaplan took ownership

(00:31):
of the Gold Club, the Chicago Bulls had their first
three peat, winning three consecutive championships. Then Michael Jordan's stunned
the world when he announced his retirement. Basketball was rivaling
football as the American sport. Basketball is also what brought

(00:51):
two people together, Steve Kaplan and Thomas Cignano, who you
know a Ziggy. They first met in the mid nineteen
eighties at a New York nightclub owned by a mutual friend,
and Ziggy was impressed with Kaplan's business. Know how, Kaplan
was operating a big club himself called Heatwave, so he

(01:13):
was giving their mutual friends some advice. But what sealed
the deal on Kaplan and Ziggy's friendship was when the
conversation turned to basketball. They were both huge fans of
the sport. A couple of days after they met, Kaplan
invited Ziggy to his new stand at Penn Station, and
from there on, Kaplan gave Ziggy copies of the thirty

(01:36):
five basketball magazines he sold at the store. He introduced
Ziggy to his family. A few years later, Kaplan was
opening another news stand and penn station, and he asked
Ziggy to supervise the construction. This was the first time
Ziggy worked with Kaplan, but then the gig snowballed. Ziggy
helped out at Kaplan's nightclub, Bedrocks. He was even assistant

(02:00):
manager of Kaplan's cigar store, also in Penn Station, called
Puff and Stuff. This is an actor reading Ziggy's testimony. Steve.
He's a very If Steve likes you and he considers
you his friend, he wants to bring you into his fault.

(02:20):
He's a very generous, very you know what's mine is
yours kind of guy. In the early nineties, Kaplan invited
Ziggy down to Florida, where he was operating two successful clubs,
Club Heaven and Club Boca. Kaplan offered Ziggi a job
as general manager, but he declined. At the time, Ziggy

(02:42):
was running a youth basketball program with about seven hundred
kids in Brooklyn. Kaplan became a big financial supporter. He
organized fundraisers, he co sponsored trips to college campuses so
that Ziggy's kids did a better chance of being recruited.
Ziggy would still help Kaplan for time to time. He'd
go down to Florida for a week or two. He

(03:03):
even went with Kaplan to Atlanta when he was scouting
properties to expand his nightclub empire. Kaplan and Ziggy's relationship, however,
wasn't always that great. They'd have disagreements and stay away
from each other for months. We were friends and we
were Sometimes we would get into arguments or disagreements and

(03:26):
I may not have liked something that was going on,
and I would just say, it's been fun for now,
pack my clothes. And if I was living down here,
i'd leave. If I was in New York, I would
just leave. But they'd always reunite. When Kaplan made the effort, well,
it was always initiated by somebody around Steve. Someone would

(03:46):
call one of his one of his employees, one of
the associates would call me, and, you know, say, you know,
do you want to come back to work. Steve misses you.
You know you miss him, it's basketball season, you know,
it could be a number of things, and that's how
we'd come back. When Kaplan got the keys to the

(04:08):
Goal Club, Ziggy became a fixture there. When he was
in Atlanta, he'd stay at Kaplan's house. Their whole lives
were going to and from the club, working twelve to
fifteen hour shifts together. Ziggi hit the streets and handed
out flyers to promote the club. He did anything Kaplan
needed that wasn't in someone else's job description. He became

(04:31):
what managers affectionately referred to as the Goal Club's official
pointer outer. He'd point out when employees arrived late or
not in their uniforms. He'd point out customers wearing flip
flops or managers sitting down. He'd even point out smaller things,
like if a light ball was out in the dressing room.
But Kaplan never thought Ziggy's discerning i would be used

(04:53):
against him. While Kaplan and Ziggie were close friends, Ziggy
was despised by most of the Gold Club's staff. Remember
he's the one who chime in during staff meetings to
call everyone bitches. For the employees, his presence was toxic,

(05:14):
adding to the stress of the Gold Club's competitive work environment.
Entertainer Jacqueline Bush is one of the people who dislike Ziggy.
She also said that Ziggy had an inferiority complex about Kaplan.
He's always been jealous of Steve because Steve is so
successful and he's such a douchebag. Like I can't stand

(05:34):
the thought of that man, the things, the way he
used to talk to the women, the way he used
to treat them. I would say to Steve all the time, Steve,
keep that man out of this building. He insults your girls,
He talks down to him. He's just rude. He's rude
on so many levels because he feels like he's your boy,
that he can just do whatever he wants in this club.

(05:55):
And that's not how you operate, that's not how you
keep your staff happy. So he kicked him out of
the club and made him go back to New York.
Anything I wanted I got, so ZIGGI was one hostile
presence at the club, but some employees also didn't like
Steve Kaplan's preferential treatment of Jacqueline. Her attorney, Bruce Harvey

(06:17):
sums it up nicely. I suspect that all the other
dancers thought that she was a favorite of Steve's and
was treated differently and was treated better and had more
access and got more money. And you know, it's like
any hierarchy. In a hierarchy, those at the bottom, like

(06:40):
a dog slid, have the same view throughout the race.
And I think it's built in jealousy animosity, thinking that
you're being kept down not because of your talent or
anything else, but because someone else is a favorite. Spats

(07:03):
broke out from time to time between Jacqueline and the
other employees. There were power struggles between her and the
managers because she was firing people without their permission. One time,
she found an entertainer named Shaunna having sex in one
of the gold rooms. Jacqueline told her she had to
go home. Shauna said, who the fuck do you think

(07:24):
you are. You're an entertainer like the rest of us,
You're not a manager. Shauna's talking about this double standard
at the club. After all, Jacqueline and the women under
her wing could do whatever they wanted. The other entertainers
couldn't get away with shit, not on Jacqueline's watch. Like

(07:45):
any workplace, there were plenty of triss among the employees,
like with Roy Chicola, the manager who was a gem
rat and road motorcycles. Here's this attorney, Nicola, Tito. The
women there liked him and he liked them. It was
kind of funny. There was a Gold Club calendar I
guess of you know, like Miss January and so on,

(08:08):
and you know, he'd probably had dated ten or eleven
of the women on the calendar. Latita told us the
story about an incident with the manager, Norby, and his
girlfriend who also worked at the club. She became suspicious
of him, thinking he was cheating on her with someone
else at the club. You know, he was dating somebody

(08:33):
who was sort of like a I don't think she
was a dancer, but she was there a lot, and
I guess had access to the safe, and so there
were condoms in there in the safe, and you know,
she was noticing that they were. The stack of them
was dwindling, and she became suspicious of Norby, I guess,

(08:56):
how you know, using them or something like that. And
I'm a bad punster. And one of my comments was,
at least they were having safe sex. In her book,
Jacqueline talked about how she had sexual rendezvous with Gold
Club customers and insinuated she and Dennis Rodman spent a

(09:17):
lot of time together. Jacqueline also dated some of her
co workers, like Amandam, who she broke up with because
she was doing too much ecstasy for Jacqueline's taste. But
beyond the ham drum of normal workplace gossip, some bigger
betrayals were on the horizon. We'll be right back. When

(09:54):
the indictment against the club came down in November nineteen
ninety nine, Jacqueline felt like she was hit with a sledgehammer.
She said this in one of her first phone calls
with her My mother found out on CNN that I
got indicted. I didn't even get a chance to call
my mother. I got to call at ten am, get dressed,

(10:16):
be down at the federal building. In an hour. We're indicted.
What I fainted right there in my bedroom. I knew
it was coming, I just didn't know when. But when
it finally comes, it's so overwhelming emotionally, it just it
hits you like a sledgehammer, and you just like, oh,

(10:37):
I can't breathe. These people have me in their grips
right now, Like my life is no longer mine right now,
it belongs to the federal government and it's a frightening
place to be. They said, you did it. You did it,
and that's the bottom line. So prove yourself in a sense,
so you can get the hell out of there. When

(11:00):
that Rico Act comes down, it's over. It's not about
there is no I'm innocent Toil proven guilty anymore. Now
you have to prove that you're innocent. You have to
prove itself. And to me, that's a backwards asked way
to do shit. Like if you're telling me I'm innocent Toil,

(11:22):
I'm proven guilty, that's your burden to prove you proved
me guilty, not me proved myself innocent. To you show
me what I did that warrants you to put all
these charges on me. Oh, you don't have that. I
didn't think so. From the beginning, the defendants were going
through hell. Jacqueline's life was turning upside down, and then

(11:45):
when it came down, it came down and it was frightening.
I went to the banks not knowing they froze all
my assets. I was worth one point five million dollars.
They took everything, They took everything. I lived in very
lavish lifestyle that I worn't my apoM to mild. I

(12:09):
do have people ask me, how do you deal with
losing that type of money? Right? You just do because
there's not need to do about it. You can't get
it back, you don't have it anymore. So you just
have to reinvent your life and we can keep it moving.
One thing that people say about Kaplan, whether on the

(12:32):
government side or the defense, is that he's loyal. He
always looks out for as people, but some of those
people didn't look out for him. In early two thousand,
Ziggy enters a guilty plea and becomes a star witness
for the prosecution against Kaplan. Here's the prosecutor, Art Leach.

(12:52):
Ziggy was one of Steve Kaplan's best friends. And Ziggy
is a Brooklyn guy, New York guy, and Ziggy was
brought down here to help manage the club and did so.
He had insight into all manner, every aspect of the case.

(13:13):
And Ziggy hired an attorney who's fairly famous out of
New York, Ed McDonald, and on Ed's first trip to Atlanta,
he said to me that Ziggy wants to cooperate. He
doesn't want to fight, he wants to sit down have

(13:34):
a profer with you. So Ed came into town, we
sat down, we accepted the profer, and Ziggy was one
of our cooperators throughout the trial. So what you're looking
for when you have a cooperator like that is you
want the inside out view of what's happening within the
Gold Club organization, and that's what Ziggy provided to us.

(13:56):
Ziggy began handing information over to the government. He tells
them the story about Larry Johnson coming to the club
and Caplan saying he should give these guys whatever ever
they won. He tells them about how Kaplan's favorite basketball player,
John Starks, came to the club when Kaplan was in Florida,
how Kaplin immediately hopped on a flight to Atlanta, sent

(14:18):
three entertainers to Stark's hotel room and had two of
them perform oral sex on each other. The third had
intercourse with Starks. Ziggy says that when he asked whether
Kaplan paid the entertainers, Kaplan said they were taken care of.
Ziggy tells the government that Kaplan was hands on at
the Gold Club and knew about the sexual activity. Ziggy

(14:42):
outlines the formula how Kaplan would manipulate customers to get
more money out of them. He also tells them about
a loan sharking agreement Kaplan had with a guy named
Johnny D and tells them about meetings they had with
known gangsters in New York and Kaplan's involvement with Shorty
Mascuzio's death. He tells them about one day in ninety

(15:04):
five when he went with Kaplan to the airport. They
had two cars because they were picking up a big party,
which included Kaplan's brother and an old friend, John Gotti Junior.
Zicky knew who he was from the newspaper by reputation,
of course, but also what Kaplan previously told him. And

(15:26):
this is kind of funny. Everyone seems to have a
different nickname for John Gotti Junior. Kaplan called him Junior,
but then Ziggy starts calling him Griffy, after baseball player
Ken Griffey Junior. Ken Griffy Junior had also followed his
father into his respective profession. After Kaplan and Ziggy pick

(15:48):
everyone up from the airport, they all go out to
a sports bar in town. Ziggy starts talking with Griffy
and eventually the conversation turns to his favorite thing, basketball.
We got into a little bit of a heated exchange
on sports. He was saying football player is better athletes
than basketball players and I was saying, no, they're not.

(16:14):
Ziggy wasn't the only employee at the Gold Club who
started working with the government. A few of them told
the prosecution that they were getting threats of violence from
none other than Steve Kaplan. Remember in two thousand, Kaplan
almost got re arrested because of someone accusing him of
threatening their life. And then Art Leach told us about

(16:38):
this witness after the indictment, and it was one of
our witnesses, and they beat her so severely that basically
all of her front teeth were knocked out in an
effort to intimidate her, and it worked. I mean we
lost her for a long period of time, to say,
six months, where we could not find her, could not
communicate with her. We were concerned for her physical safety

(17:01):
in other words, was she's still alive? And when we
finally found her, it was a really horrible situation. That
witness was Alicia Mitchell, who had worked under Kaplin for
about eight years. Alicia first worked with him at Club
Boca in Florida. She then worked at the Gold Club
as a gold Bucks girl, one of the women selling

(17:23):
the monopoly money called gold Bucks to customers. And then
there's a program, which I had never used the entire
time that I had been within the Department of Justice,
where crime victims, particularly this kind of crime victim, where
something horrible physically has happened, can actually be compensated to

(17:44):
try to repair some of that damage. They did implants
and replaced her teeth, and I never got to see her,
but I just knew through the grapevine that those things
were happening. You just can't have that kind of violence
exercised against one of your witnesses in the case and
not take action. I mean, if you look at it

(18:05):
from our perspective, from the Department of Justice perspective, no
way not gonna allow that to happen and just breathe
by it. Alicia gave two different grand jury testimonies, and
the first she describes her relationship with Steve Kaplan as amicable.
She was actually the same gold Bucks girl who had
skiven money off the top while working. Kaplan scolded her

(18:28):
but didn't fire her, But a few months later she
came back and completely changes her story. Echoing Ziggy, she
tells Leech about a loan sharking scheme in Florida about
how Kaplan and Norby met with gangsters collecting profits off
the street. She says that Kaplan dated her daughter and
called her daughter a scumbag. She says that Kaplan forced

(18:51):
her to have sex with customers or she'd be fired,
and points out that it wasn't just Kaplan running the
sex schemes. All the managers, even the accountant Larry Glight,
were part of arranging sex between entertainers and customers. She
says that Caplan sometimes paid her in cash for her
shifts and begged her not to tell anyone now. She

(19:15):
also says that she'd seen John Gotti Junior at the club,
but she doesn't call him Junior or Griffey. Instead, she
said he introduced himself as Greg. We should point out
that when we mentioned Alicia Mitchell to the defense attorneys,

(19:38):
most of them can't remember who she was or they
thought she was an unreliable witness. Defense counsel would say,
is that, you know, her credibility was called into question,
but you know, I strongly disagree with that. Leech says
that Ziggy also received threats. There were several different instances

(20:00):
where things happened where he felt like he was in
a idiot bodily harm and I believe him. But what
I recall was he was on a Brooklyn street and
he crossed the street in a van, pulled up and
stopped sharply, and guys got out of the van, and

(20:20):
he just thought, it's all over. Right here, it's all done,
and words were exchanged, but they did not harm him.
Steve Kaplan's lawyer, Steve Sadow, doesn't think Ziggy's testimony for
the government is credible at all. He says that Ziggy

(20:40):
quickly changed his tune from the first day they met.
The first person I met at the club was Ziggy
the day of the raid. So I spent time talking
to Ziggy. He get told me how great the club was,
however it was run, how all these allegations were bullshit,
how none of this stuff about the organized crime was true,
it was all bogus. Ziggy stayed part of the defense.

(21:06):
He went and met with a former federal prosecutor with
the strike Force up in the Northeast, and the strike
force attorney took them to the government attorney them into
cooperating witness, and they offered him, as you can imagine,
an amazing deal to cooperate. So he was there ace
in the hole he knew everything about Steve's operation. You know,

(21:30):
every woman, every entertainer, everything. When asked to describe Ziggy,
Sadao says that he's a coward. He was a coward,
no backbone at all. We'll be back. If you're potentially
facing years behind bars, but then receive an offer to

(21:52):
dodge all that, what would you do. When sada was
talking about Ziggy switching sides, he was describing a strategy
used by prosecutors, whether they were pursuing the mafia or otherwise,
hit co defendants, turn them against the lead defendants and
offer a deal to them so they could skip prison time.

(22:13):
Bruce Harvey explains it like this, It's very, very difficult,
if not impossible, for people to resist the siren call
of the government when they are pressuring you to cooperate.

(22:33):
At the end of the day, I think that people
act out of their own self interest, which is understandable,
of course, because that's who should be first in protecting
their interests. People are going to do what they need
to do to help themselves. I see it every day.

(22:59):
I continue to see it every day. The government still
works in that fashion. Congress is exceedingly difficult not to
do that, you get rewarded for cooperating. The government rewards
you for cooperating, The judges reward you for cooperating. It
takes incredible strength, incredible strength and intestinal fortitude to resist that.

(23:25):
So I think it's as simple as that. Here's Sadal again.
What the government likes to do is pick off defend dance,
codefend dance and turned them against the lead defendants to
work up the chain, to get the least culpable to

(23:46):
turn on what they claim to be the most culpable. Now,
out of that group, we lost Ziggy, We lost one another,
one of the entertainers or dancers who turned out to
be key witnesses for the government. The entertainer he's referencing
is Jana Pellnes, who was actually the first person to

(24:07):
take a guilty plea. This could be considered a failure
on the defense because their first priority is to make
sure their clients don't switch sides. I gave her an attorney,
a female attorney who was very close to me, very
friendly attorney who I felt very confident would look after her.

(24:29):
She gave in, She bowed to the pressure. Sadal took
this very personally, and after that I told everyone, including her,
that I would never speak to her again until Steve
Kaplan's case was completely over, and we went through a
period of time for years, so we didn't talk, but
everyone else stayed pat which meant that the government couldn't

(24:50):
tear us apart. Steve Caplan's only concern in putting together
his defense was, nothing is going to happen to my employees.
I'm not selling them out to help myself. If anyone
takes the heat here, it's going to be me. It's
my club. These were my employees. They were loyal to me,
and I'm going to show the loyalty back to them.

(25:15):
Losing Yanna to the government was especially painful for Jacqueline Bush.
Yanna and I are from Milwaukee together. We used to
hang out together. We had the same mutual friends. We
worked in the same strip clubs back there. She and
I were tight, and I couldn't believe that she got

(25:36):
so her. I can say she was just scared. She's terrified.
She didn't want to go to jail because they threatened her.
They told her, you know you're going to jail. We're
gonna take your child from you, like they threatened her.
With all this stuff, so she turned state's evidence. Well,
the sad part for her was you fell for the
oaky dog and the federal government turned you into a

(25:59):
state liar. Jack said that after the indictment came down,
the environment at the club was vicious. Entertainers would tell
customers that she was one of the people indicted. They
were making jokes about her going to prison. She didn't
feel like dancing, she was drinking too much. It's not

(26:22):
funny on any level. It's frightening. I thought I was
going to spend the rest of my life not watching
my kids grow up. If they lost the Goal clubcase,
all of the defendants could spend decades in jail, even
if their sentences were just months long. They could lose
their licenses and their jobs. They could fall into financial

(26:43):
ruin and be labeled a convict. For Jacqueline, something had
to give. She couldn't be at the Goal Club anymore.
She quits. On her last night at the club, she
goes up to the DJ booth and uses the microphone
to thank everyone for their support and concern, and she
ends by saying, and to all the people who have

(27:06):
been dogging me out, when all this is said and done,
I can't wait to come back, look you in the
face and tell you to kiss my fucking ass. The
threat of just being part of a legal scandal was

(27:26):
frightening for all the people at the club. Even the
people who weren't indicted were scared. Here's Norby's lawyer, the
other Bruce Bruce Morris. The FBI made friends with everyone
they could to get them to testify, and part of
the speech they made to them is, listen, you were

(27:48):
part of this. Now we really want your cooperation and
we want you to come in and tell the truth
of what we know happened. And you don't have to
do that, but you know, as a part of it,
you have criminal responsibility here and while we really don't

(28:09):
want to necessarily prosecute you, we always have that option.
And faced with that kind of choice, a number of people, dancers,
floor manager Jennifer Romanello, who worked as a gold Bucks girl,
took the opportunity to join the government team as it were,

(28:32):
knowing that they would not be prosecuted. Attorney Bruce Morris's
client was the manager Norby, and Norby's girlfriend, Jennifer Romanello
also became a government witness. She ends up testifying for
the government, logging hours of taped phone calls between her
and Norby and talking at all hours of the night

(28:52):
with FBI agents. When describing one of the government's witnesses,
a journalist wrote Gold Club Trial jury knows no fury
like testimony from a former girlfriend. That journalist wasn't talking
about Jennifer, though he may as well have been. The
former girlfriend was a woman named Debbie Penson. Debbie used

(29:16):
to work at the Gold Club and said she used
to date Kaplin. In June two thousand, when Sado and
Kaplan directed entertainers to record interviews with witnesses, Kaplan also
hired a private investigator to find Debbie an interviewer. The
PI found Debbie working at a hotel in Las Vegas.

(29:37):
They actually knew each other because he had previously done
business for Kaplin back in Atlanta. They went out to
lunch and the PI told her he was worried about
being investigated by the FBI because of his affiliation with
the club, but this was all just a ruse to record,
which she had to say he was wearing a hidden microphone.

(30:00):
Debbie had a lot on her mind. Kaplin had made
her life miserable. He humuliated her at the Gold Club
when she accidentally walked in on a dancer giving oral
sex to Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. Kaplan
was furious at her for walking into the room. It
went on for hours, it went on for days, she
told the detective. Debbie said, Kaplin loved it, arrived on it,

(30:26):
reveled in it. When the Gold Club dancers had sex
with celebrities. These girls performed things they did, she said,
They did prostitute for him. And you know it, and
I know it. And what did Kaplan do all this for,
Debbie said, free basketball tickets the rest of his life.

(30:51):
On the next episode of Racket, the trial begins. In
the Gold Club case, they're cutting deals with killers and
torturers to get a guy you runs a strip club.
When I say the torture chamber, we're really talking about
your bath up, correct. And I started dancing, and I
was taking my coat off, and I was swinging my
coat over my head, and everybody was going, holy shit,

(31:14):
what the fuck is this? Trials our theater, but with
freedom and liberty steak and they got real personal a
couple of times where there were accusations from the defense
and you know, people are more professional. You'd hope. Oh
my life has been acking, racking, racking, Oh my life,

(31:44):
My life has been, Oh my life. Racket Inside the
Gold Club is a production of School of Humans and
iHeartRadio Rackets, written and narrative by me Christina Lee and

(32:07):
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 mixes by Tune Welders.
This episode features the voiceover talents of Judah Andrews. Executive
producers are Brandon Barr, Elsie Crowley, and Brian Lavin, along

(32:31):
with Scott Grubman and Lauren Zimmerman. School of Humans
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