Lawsuit alleges Shelby Co. owned strip club, failed to close it under nuisance order

Published: Sep. 11, 2017 at 6:06 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 12, 2017 at 10:22 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A lawsuit, expected to be filed in Shelby County Circuit Court Wednesday, will allege the county owned a troubled strip club in defiance of its own order to shut it down.

The suit, drafted by Memphis attorneys Murray Wells and Aaron Neglia, is on behalf of Charles Williams. According to the suit's draft and to a Memphis police report affidavit, Williams was shot inside the men's room of Epic Gentlemen's Club, located at 1575 E. Brooks Road in Whitehaven, on Jan. 18. The suit alleges the club's negligence led to the shooting, which left Williams a paraplegic.

While researching the club's property records, Wells added another defendant to the suit's draft: Shelby County. The records revealed the county owned the strip club's property at the time of the shooting. "We were fairly shocked to learn that Shelby County owned an operating strip club," Wells said.

It's a strip club that was also under a county order to be shut down.

Memphis police records, Shelby County prosecutor records, and WMC Action News 5's own story archive confirmed the MPD Organized Crime Unit raided the club in 2010. Back then, it was named Babes of Babylon. Larry Godwin, then MPD's director, said in the year between Oct. 2009 and Oct. 2010, his officers responded to 44 incidences at Babes of Babylon. "Armed parties, fights, rapes, armed robberies, disturbances, and drug sales," Godwin said at a news conference held outside the property in Dec. 2010.

Drugs, assaults, and prostitution got so bad at the club, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich ordered it shut down as an official nuisance in 2011. She issued another order, known officially as a memorandum of understanding (MOU), requiring Babes of Babylon be "...remodeled to a bar/restaurant venue with no adult license." That never happened.

"They never carried through with the order, and they allowed (the strip club) to move forward," said Wells.

The club simply changed names to Epic Gentlemen's Club. In 2016, the property owner defaulted on the property taxes. According to county property sales records, Shelby County bought the property at an Aug. 2016 tax sale. Shelby County allowed the place to keep operating as a strip club, all the way up to the night Charles Williams was shot in its men's room, even though Weirich had ordered it shut down and re-purposed as a restaurant five years earlier. "They did nothing to enforce the order. They did nothing to keep patrons safe," Wells said.

Weirich and her press officer declined our request for an on-camera interview, but in an email, she said, "When this property was sold (to Shelby County), the nuisance action was wiped away. Additionally, (my order) in this matter specifies that the terms reached by this office and Lance Lester, owner of Babes of Babylon, apply only to Lance Lester as owner of Babes of Babylon."

But according to the lawsuit's draft, Lester was still "...the operator of the club" when the county bought the property in August 2016. Only the club's name had changed. The draft lawsuit even names Lester as a defendant. Out of four phone numbers we found for Lester, two are inoperable, one indicated it doesn't accept calls, and another had been disconnected. Weirich and her press officer declined further comment since she, too, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit's draft.

"Everyone knew this was a bad place, Shelby County more than anybody," Wells said. "And they did less than nothing."

When Wells files the suit Wednesday, it will request a maximum judgment of $150 million for what it claims was Shelby County's negligence in owning a dangerous, nuisance strip club. "The Shelby County Attorney's Office does not comment on anticipated litigation," said Assistant Shelby County Attorney Scott Blount.

The county sold the club's property this past June to Danny Owens, a notorious strip club operator who was sentenced more than 20 years ago to prison for gambling, prostitution, and money laundering. After serving 20 years of a 27-year sentence, Owens was moved to a Memphis halfway house in 2016, then released a few months later.

The club's currently named Main Attraction Gentlemen's Club. According to its Shelby County Business Tax License application, the club's owner is Renisha Williams. Neither she nor Owens is named in the lawsuit's draft.

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