Two undercover police stings in Hollywood — in February and July — have resulted in the arrests of 19 men. The nature of the incidents continue to face criticism from the public and from the attorneys representing the men.
The Hollywood Police Department conducted the latest operation July 25 at the Pleasure Emporium, located at 1321 South 30th Avenue, in an area dotted largely with warehouses and commercial properties — I-95 is on one side and railroad tracks are on the other.
The men were arrested for “exposure of sexual organs and/or unnatural lascivious acts,” for allegedly masturbating in the open or performing oral sex or other sex acts inside a private area. The charges are misdemeanors, although at least one man is facing a felony charge for allegedly trying to flee the scene and resisting arrest, according to police reports.
The July arrests and resulting media coverage have brought outcries of police overreaching and a curious prioritization of time and resources in a city that faces serious crime. None of the Pleasure Emporium charges include drugs, prostitution or the presence of minors.
Local media has also been under fire for quickly publishing the names and photographs of the men arrested last month before police were asked any questions or any vetting of the situation took place. The publicity has cost at least one of the men his job and others have reported being outed for being gay and/or tormented by neighbors and others who saw the news coverage.
Several of the men from both stings have hired South Florida attorneys. Some cases have pled out and most are pending. Attorneys have described the operation as a “ridiculous charade,” “gay witch hunt,” and a “criminalizing of gay behavior.”
Police say both operations were set in motion after allegedly receiving “several” anonymous complaints about the business. SFGN obtained one anonymous complaint dated January 23, 2018, sent by an apparent patron of the Pleasure Emporium to Hollywood Police.
“On my visits I observed different very disturbing scenarios in both theaters ... I saw orgies, male on male sex in the middle of the central hall of each theater. There was no privacy at the same time I saw male on male sex inside the booths and in the hallways,” part of the complaint states. It also alleges prostitution involving males and females, without offering any specifics.
The Pleasure Emporium has two small theaters in the back of the business for the viewing of pornographic videos. One of the theaters is marked “straight” and one “gay.” There are also private viewing rooms that can be locked from the inside. The entire video viewing area is only accessible by those who pay a $25 fee at the front area, which includes a retail shop section with various items for sale.
The men who were arrested were in the back area of the business, either in the theater area, private room area or the hallway, according to police reports.
Miami attorney Abbie B. Cuellar, a partner at Miami’s Amador & Cuellar law firm, represents a man who lost his job in the medical field after his arrest late last month. She said he was also effectively outed as a gay man, something he was persecuted for before he came to South Florida from Cuba.
“It’s getting worse for my client. He’s obviously having a difficult time finding a job and has requested unemployment. I’m confident if I go to trial I’m going to win, but it’s a process. In the meantime, he’s languishing,” Cuellar said August 7.
“He was very driven and happy in his career and was working to be a nurse practitioner. If he pleads out, to a future employer they will think: he must be some kind of pedophile or deviant,” she said.
Cuellar said she hopes the other men don’t plead out their cases, but go to trial or work to get the charges dropped.
“This is serving the public good by doing this? Using limited resources on men who are involved in consensual acts?” she said.
Further, Cuellar said the behavior of the undercover police is questionable.
“They encouraged the individuals to come into one of the private rooms [and] encouraged them to touch themselves and engage in consensual touching with each other,” she said. “They proceeded to then watch them until the men completed whatever they were doing, and then allowed them to leave the room and arrested them outside in the hall. They arrested everyone they found in the back area.”
Cuellar said that as a former prosecutor, she has never heard of police officers engaged in watching “alleged criminal behavior” to that extent.
“If, in fact, what these men were doing was illegal, then the mere exposure would have been sufficient to arrest them under the police department’s theory that this behavior was a crime,” Cuellar said. “This is also a classic case of entrapment.”
After SFGN published its original story online last week, many took to social media to express their dismay on SFGN’s Facebook page.
“How the fuck is it illegal for consenting adults to fool around in a back room video area of an adult store? Fuck you Hollywood Police, this is disgusting. You humiliated yourselves more than you purposely humiliated the men in my eyes,” said one comment.
“What about all the ‘straight’ strip clubs or ‘gentlemen clubs’ are you telling me NOTHING goes on in those establishments? Please!” said another comment.
North Miami Beach Attorney Rhonda F. Gelfman is representing one of the men arrested during the February operation. She told SFGN she’s filing a motion to dismiss the charges against her client, but also says her firm is considering a class action lawsuit.
“This is bigger than what I expected,” Gelfman said. “Now our firm will be representing more men. This is not right.”
Gelfman’s office said the actions of the Hollywood Police Department are “criminalizing gay behavior.” She said the sting should never have happened.
Meanwhile, Miranda Grossman, the Hollywood Police Department's public information manager told SFGN last week that the police investigate “any sort of complaints or tips that they get, from narcotics to traffic.”
“They received a tip and it’s a retail establishment, a business open to the public, a public venue,” Grossman previously said. “These types of investigations occur, not just at the Pleasure Emporium, but at places like massage parlors. There were men in there who were self-pleasuring and that’s a misdemeanor in public,” she said.
SFGN attempted to contact Grossman this week for any updates and also Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy a second time for his take on the arrests. Attempts to reach both were not successful.
“It’s clearly a witch hunt targeting gay men,” Cuellar said. “They went in to smear, humiliate and out them.”