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VOL. 123 | NO. 32 | Friday, February 15, 2008

Lunati Sentenced To 18 Months In Prison

By Bill Dries

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The owner of the city’s best known strip club was sentenced today to 18 months in prison on a federal conspiracy charge.

Ralph Lunati pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Under terms of the plea deal, Lunati could have withdrawn his guilty plea had U.S. District Court Judge Hardy Mays sentenced him to more than 18 months.

“I deeply regret and apologize to everyone,” Lunati told Mays before sentencing. “I didn’t realize the girl shows were prostitution. But I should have.”

Lunati was referring to the conspiracy charge that centers on sex shows at Platinum Plus that featured two women performing sexual acts for money or tips from patrons. Lunati and his attorneys, Leslie Ballin and Ted Hansom, tried to distance him from the enterprise by saying the women paid the club to perform there and then made their money from the tips.

Mays, however, pointed out that the club was dependent on such shows and the income from them. He cited the ATMs in the club that charged a $5 fee to make a withdrawal. The fee went to the club. And getting change or an advance from the bar came with an agreement that the club got to keep 10 percent of that.

“It is also apparent that this … was a core part of his business and perhaps without them his business wouldn’t have succeeded,” Mays said before addressing Lunati directly. “You have not only income but an attraction that kept people coming to these clubs. … This was not a singular act. It was not an impulse.”

As part of the plea deal, Lunati also gives up the real estate that was once the city’s most popular strip club, Platinum Plus, 2514 and 2518 Mount Moriah Road, until it was raided and closed in Dec. 2006. The $207,423 in cash seized in the club when it was raided is also forfeited as part of the deal. Mays imposed no fine because of the forfeiture, which is four times the maximum fine allowable under federal law. After the hearing, U.S. Attorney David Kustoff and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons announced that the building, land and belongings still in the building should be auctioned off some time in March.

And Lunati gives up his interest in the Tunica Cabaret strip club, 5599 Tenn. 61 South and another $19,297 in cash seized there in the same set of raids.

The raids came after a two-year-long undercover police investigation and included the federal indictments against Lunati as well as Tunica Cabaret co-owner Jason C. Youngblood.

Youngblood pleaded guilty in August to one count of managing a location used in the sale or distribution of drugs. Mays sentenced him in December to two years’ probation.

The redacted judgment covers offenses “committed on or after Nov. 1, 1987,” according to court records. Some part of the court files involving Youngblood were also sealed.

Memphis police officers Anthony Godwin, the son of Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin, and Mark Jordan were undercover for two years. They posed as drug dealers selling drugs in both clubs. They then moved up to working directly for the clubs including as doormen and deejays while learning the inner workings of the business.

Hansom said after the hearing that he believes Lunati will emerge from prison in a year and a half and leave behind the adult nightclub industry he’s worked in for at least 20 years.

Read more about Lunati and the case in Tuesday’s edition of The Daily News.

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