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Strip club owner professes legitimacy

Christina Whipple was just getting ready to wake up her two kids for school when her telephone rang early on the morning of March 2.

It was Hamburg police, asking if she could give them a key so they could enter her business, located about 10 minutes away.

She gave the key to two cops who came to her door, woke up her husband, Mark, and told him to take care of the kids. Then she got into her BMW sedan and drove to her business, the 24KT Gold strip club, which the FBI and other police agencies were searching for drugs.

"I was shocked," Whipple recalled last week. "We've tried very hard to keep drugs out of the club."

Meet Christina Whipple, 38, a mother, PTA vice president, soccer coach, volunteer Meals-on-Wheels driver -- and also the owner of two strip clubs.

One of her clubs, Mademoiselle, near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, is still open.

But 24KT Gold, on Route 5 in Hamburg, was shut down by Whipple on June 15 because it lost its liquor license in the wake of the FBI investigation.

>Firmly opposes drugs

She invited The Buffalo News to her club and her immaculate Hamburg home, and in a lengthy interview, insisted that she firmly opposes drugs and prostitution, two of the activities the FBI says went on inside 24KT Gold.

"My husband and I don't use drugs, we don't condone our employees using them. We don't condone prostitution, either," Whipple said. "And no, I have never danced in our club or any other.

"I am the club's owner, and mainly, its bookkeeper. My husband is the manager."

Whipple said she bought her two strip clubs last November. She insisted she runs a legitimate business that employed about 50 people, mostly part-timers, in Hamburg before the FBI raid, and is subject to frequent scrutiny from government agencies.

"What is immoral about it?" she said. "I'm a mom, and I help other moms with jobs that enable them to support their children. A lot of our dancers are single moms, or college students. Some dancers have gone on to work as lawyers, nurses, even in law enforcement I don't see anything wrong with what we do."

The interview was the first public comment from either of the Whipples since the police raids at 24KT Gold on Route 5, and Rick's Tally-Ho, a Cheektowaga club that has no connection to the Whipples.

Police and federal agents raided both establishments following a probe into drug trafficking and prostitution allegations involving dancers and patrons at the clubs. Both have lost their liquor licenses as a result.

Investigators from the Safe Streets Task Force arrested 27 people, including seven dancers and a manager of Rick's Tally-Ho, and a disc jockey who had worked at both clubs.

Police learned that Rick's Tally-Ho and 24KT Gold were frequented by drug dealers who sold cocaine in the establishments, according to a state police investigator. He also alleged that both clubs had "private rooms" where customers could pay dancers for sexual favors.

The State Liquor Authority last week canceled the liquor license of 24KT Gold, and Whipple agreed to pay a $30,000 fine. The agreement allows her to apply for a new liquor license. It also allows her to keep the liquor license at the other establishment she owns, Mademoiselle.

>Whipples not accused

The Whipples were never accused or even mentioned in the 184-page federal indictment that led to the 27 arrests, and they had no knowledge of drug-dealing or prostitution at 24KT Gold, said their attorney, David B. Smith.

"The only person charged in the whole case who ever worked at 24KT Gold was a deejay," Smith said.

The SLA alleged that Mark Whipple was aware of some of the criminal activity, but his wife and lawyer vehemently deny that allegation.

So why did Christina Whipple make what amounts to a plea bargain with the SLA, rather than demand a full hearing?

"If it was up to Christina, she would have wanted to continue fighting for years," Smith said.

"But the legal fees would have been much higher, and if the SLA wound up revoking her license, rather than canceling it, she would have lost the license at Mademoiselle, too. She evaluated the risks and made a business decision to make a deal with the SLA."

Even if Whipple had no idea that drug-dealing and prostitution were going on in her club, as the liquor license holder, she had a responsibility to know, and to prevent such activities, said Bill Crowley, a spokesman for the liquor authority.

"The conditions that were found in the FBI investigation, and our investigation, were intolerable," he said. "If [Whipple] had no involvement in the wrongdoing, she could have asked for a full hearing and presented all the evidence to show she was not involved. She chose not to do that. The authority is pleased that she is no longer a licensee."

Whipple said she accepts the fact that, as the licensee, she was ultimately responsible. She said she posted signs warning of the club's "zero tolerance" drug policy and installed surveillance cameras in every room, including the "VIP Room" where private dancers perform.

Whipple, who plays the violin and piano, said the publicity over the case has been "very stressful." But she said people who know her in Hamburg have been supportive.

>PTA vice president

She said she is especially proud of the volunteer work she does as a vice president of the Hamburg Schools Parent Teacher Association and other organizations.

As one of seven vice presidents in the Hamburg PTA, Whipple is responsible for activities at the Union Pleasant Elementary School, where her children -- Julia, 11, and Jack, 7 -- are students.

"Christina is very involved and very helpful," said Jennifer Hubert, one of the other PTA vice presidents. "She has one of the biggest elementary schools, and personally, I think she's great."

Betty Newell, president of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, was asked if the business group considers 24KT Gold to be an asset or a detriment to the community.

"That's a touchy issue," Newell said, noting that the strip club did provide some jobs but was also a business that bothered some people.

"Adult entertainment is a fact of life," Newell said. "[The closing] is unfortunate for people who worked there, but it's not my cup of tea."

Whipple said she will reopen the club if she gets another liquor license. After the SLA suspended the license in late March, she tried keeping the club open with dancers and soft drinks, but it was not making money.

Whipple said she bought her two strip clubs last November from Michael and Irena Rudan, who run the popular Sundowner club in Niagara Falls, Ont. She declined to name the purchase price.

"They still own the properties and the buildings, and I bought the businesses," Whipple said.

"Not the best timing," said Smith, noting that the FBI crackdown -- which mostly involved activity that took place before Whipple's purchase -- came four months after she bought it.

Whipple, former manager of a dental office, said she bought the clubs because her husband was a longtime manager of the two clubs and was familiar with the businesses. She said her stepmother, Nancy Trysnicky, was a longtime bartender at 24KT Gold.

How would Whipple react if, years from now, her daughter reached age 21 and announced that she wanted to become a strip club dancer?

Whipple hesitated a moment before answering.

"I would ask her, 'Are there better choices you could make?' " Whipple said. "But if that is what she chose as a career, I would accept it and support her."