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Pound of Flesh

John Noltner

When Larry Holmberg opened an adult entertainment center in the shadows of Minneapolis City Hall in 1993, he set off a feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. He had quietly bought McCready's, a popular watering hole on the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue South, remodeled overnight, and then reopened the establishment as Buns & Roses.

City officials were apoplectic. Not only had Holmberg made the switch without notifying them of his intent, but he was also within a stone's throw of a day-care center. "This is outrageous," sputtered City Council member Pat Scott. "That kind of use is a real detriment to the area." Detrimental or not, the move was perfectly legal. The city of Minneapolis was stuck with Larry Holmberg. And vice versa.

Nearly six years later, the club has traded the Buns & Roses moniker for the more salubrious "Rick's Cabaret," the name of the Houston-based dance-club chain to which Holmberg sold the business last November. However, the now-retired operator says, he isn't done with the city. Last month, Holmberg took four Minneapolis police officers to trial, claiming they had assaulted him during a 1995 business inspection. And though the jury threw out his claim, he's already preparing for the next case--the one, he claims, that will blow the lid off a pattern of harassment, intimidation, and impropriety on the part of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Believe it or not, says Holmberg, he got into the adult entertainment industry by default. In 1990, his downtown Anoka pizza parlor went belly-up. Holmberg sold the building to a brother and a cousin who promptly converted it into an adult bookstore. When city officials tried to change zoning laws to shut it down, Holmberg says, his relatives abandoned the business. Holmberg, by his own admission not one to turn down a buck or a good fight, took over and launched a counterattack. He retained Randall Tigue, a prominent First Amendment attorney who'd represented local porn king Ferris Alexander, to fend off the city. The case--which Holmberg eventually won--meant that his reputation as a scrapper was established by the time he ventured into the Minneapolis market.

The vice squad came to check out Buns & Roses during its first week of business in the spring of 1993, says Holmberg--hardly an unusual occurrence given the nature of his business. Police regularly inspect adult bookstores and strip clubs to make sure that customers aren't engaging in sexual activity. What Holmberg did find extraordinary, he testified during the brutality trial, was that on a couple of those visits, some of the cops hit him up to "sponsor" their race cars and horses. "They'd ask me to donate money in exchange for advertisement," he said.

At first, says Holmberg, he refused to support the cops' hobbies. But over the course of a year, he maintains, the more he refused, the more the police conducted business checks--until, he says, he decided to go along. Holmberg contends that he paid $6,000 to Officer Kim Hedberg to sponsor his race car. "After payments to Hedberg were made," his lawsuit alleges, "police harassment at Buns & Roses ceased."

While Hedberg acknowledges that Holmberg sponsored him, he declines to specify the amount, adding that it's no one's business what he does in his spare time. "The department encourages us to have hobbies," he points out. Hedberg says when he approached Holmberg about the race car he told him that he was a cop on the downtown beat, and that he wouldn't cut Buns & Roses any slack if Holmberg decided to contribute. "I told him that I'd continue to do my job," says Hedberg.

Which was exactly what he should have done, says MPD spokeswoman Penny Parrish. Officers often become friends with business owners on their beat, she explains: "If [an officer] had a race car, then that's something private between him and Holmberg." According to Parrish, the department has no policy on sponsorships, except for prohibiting use of its logo without permission. (Shortly after our interview, Parrish called back to say that Police Chief Robert Olson wanted to clarify the department's view: "If I were a sworn officer, and I came up to you and said 'I have a race car, would you sponsor my car,' then there's nothing wrong with this. But if I interjected the fact that I was a police officer, and that my position with the department might help you, then that would be a violation." )

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, also says Holmberg is wrong to contend that the sponsorship pleas were inappropriate. "Businesspeople are approached daily to support some kind of cause," he asserts. "I hardly think they'd give because it's a police officer who's doing the asking." Minneapolis Police Federation President Al Berryman agrees, noting that "it's expensive to maintain a race car. If the money is going for gas or upkeep, I don't see anything wrong with this arrangement." Berryman acknowledges that, in some cases, officers catch heat because of whom they ask to sponsor them: "If it had been someone other than Buns & Roses, people probably wouldn't object," he says. "It's a moral judgment."  

Holmberg, for his part, alleges that not long after he began sponsoring Hedberg, other officers approached him asking for money. One of them, he says, was Bill Bjorklund of the vice unit; Bjorklund says all his hobbies "have been fully funded by myself, and I've never solicited any money from anyone."

Holmberg claims he refused all further requests for sponsorship, and soon the cops' inspections increased in frequency and intensity. "They used to come in once a week [or] once every two weeks," he recalls, "but [by the spring of 1994] they were coming in as often as three times a night." Other adult establishments, he adds, didn't have to endure the same "harassment." In particular, he names Peter Hafiz, owner of downtown's Déjà Vu and Dream Girls, who he claims gave the cops "all kinds of freebies." "The [off-duty] cops didn't have to pay the cover charge, and they each got one free dance per night," Holmberg says.

Calls to Hafiz by City Pages weren't returned. But in 1995, the Star Tribune reported that Déjà Vu dancers appeared at officers' stag parties and performed private dances for them at the club; that Hafiz sponsored a police football team; and that one officer had accepted a set of golf clubs from Hafiz. Meanwhile, the paper reported, police failed to push for prosecution of Déjà Vu for allegedly hiring underage dancers or for allowing lewd performances.

Parrish says the MPD "doesn't have any quotas" for how often police should inspect an adult establishment. "Cops are expected to interact with the businesses on their beat and respond as necessity dictates," she explains. The frequency of such visits "is up to the officers' discretion."

Assistant city attorney Timothy Skarda says the city does not keep track of the number of times police inspect adult establishments. But, he insists, "the police did not single out Larry Holmberg or his business."

Over time, the relationship between Holmberg and the police deteriorated from mutual suspicion to thinly veiled contempt. His lawsuit charges that "entries in official records indicated police hostility" toward Buns & Roses; that "members of the vice squad stated that they sought to put [him] out of business;" and that "on one occasion, [an officer] asked Mr. Holmberg to be cooperative with police [in a way] which appeared to be a request for a payoff." The officers who testified during the brutality trial denied those charges.

Eventually Holmberg, claiming he had come to fear retaliation, began videotaping the cops' visits. On the tapes, some of which were shown in court, the tension between Holmberg and the cops is palpable; Holmberg openly curses at the officers, and you can hear the strain in the officers' voices when they respond. Holmberg confesses to being no choirboy, but adds that he was reaching the end of his rope. "I'm a businessman first and foremost," he says. "And these guys were interfering with my business operations." When asked in court by his attorney whether customers were bothered by the police visits, Holmberg replied: "Yes. They left."

In October 1994, Holmberg filed a lawsuit against the city for violating his civil rights through what he calls a "selective campaign of harassment." The case is pending in Hennepin County District Court. Three months later, Holmberg says, he was contacted by Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow, who was investigating rumors about the relationship between the vice squad and Déjà Vu. They agreed to talk the night of February 1.

But Holmberg was unable to keep the appointment: Half an hour before Grow's arrival, he was arrested by four Minneapolis cops. Officers Mark LaNasa and James Bulleigh testified in court that they, along with officers Steven Setzer and Steven Wickelgren, entered Buns & Roses for a routine business check at 9:15 that night. Both Setzer and LaNasa had been to Buns & Roses at least once before, and during LaNasa's previous visit in September, he and Holmberg exchanged barbs.

(At one time or another, all four officers had worked on the MPD's SWAT team, the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), and both LaNasa and Bulleigh have been the subjects of excessive-force complaints. LaNasa acknowledged in court that during a 1995 raid on a crack house he kicked a man, causing a broken rib and costing the city of Minneapolis $30,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Bulleigh testified that he was given five days without pay for striking a juvenile with a hairbrush.)  

On this night, as was his custom, Holmberg videotaped the inspection. The tape shows that LaNasa headed for the video booths, where he discovered a used tissue lying on the floor. He taunted Holmberg about a "possible health code violation." "Fuck you," Holmberg responded. "You don't look like any health inspector to me. You just want me to go back there so you can hit me, you son of a bitch."

LaNasa responded with a smirk and headed back toward the lobby with Holmberg trailing and muttering under his breath. As the officers got ready to leave, LaNasa turned to Holmberg and said: "You aren't even recording, are you?"

This is the point at which the cops' and Holmberg's versions of the story sharply diverge. Holmberg says LaNasa knocked the camera out of his hands, threw him to the ground, and together with officer Bulleigh carried him out of the club and onto the sidewalk, using his head to push open the door. The cops testified that Holmberg, who they claim had been drinking, hit LaNasa in the face with his camera and then resisted arrest. They denied using excessive force, contending that LaNasa gave Holmberg three verbal warnings which he failed to heed. (The camera, having been knocked to the ground one way or the other, only recorded the audio portion of the scuffle, with Holmberg yelling, "I didn't do anything!" and LaNasa saying, "He's under arrest.")

Holmberg was taken to jail, booked, and charged with five counts, including assault and disorderly conduct. The charges were eventually dropped. Over the following year, says Holmberg, his mental and physical health deteriorated." I was depressed and was having trouble sleeping," he says. "My shoulders ached constantly, and I'd developed TMJ [temporomandibular joint syndrome]." The jaw problem, says Holmberg, was the direct result of LaNasa kneeling on his head as he handcuffed him.

As Holmberg's case was wending its way through the discovery process, the Star Tribune's articles on Déjà Vu appeared, prompting an Internal Affairs investigation of the cops it named. Three of them, including Hedberg and Bjorklund, were transferred to police purgatory; Bjorklund now works the graveyard shift in the Fourth Precinct, while Hedberg has the same shift downtown. The vice squad was unceremoniously disbanded. Police spokeswoman Parrish says the moves came not in response to the allegations of wrongdoing, but rather "as part of Chief Olson's plan to decentralize police operations."

But even as his adversaries were falling, Holmberg began negotiating the sale of Buns & Roses to Rick's Cabaret. "I was getting too old for this shit," he sighs, adding that he never intended to let the cops off the hook. He hired Larry Leventhal, a prominent criminal defense attorney, and filed suit against the four cops in federal court.

On May 12, Holmberg sat in U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim's courtroom and listened to the verdict in that lawsuit. For three weeks, jurors had listened to testimony from former Buns & Roses staffers, doctors, and police experts; Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza and former Los Angeles Police Chief Lou Reiter put in cameo appearances on Holmberg's behalf. Yet in the end, the jury sided with the cops. Holmberg didn't get a dime.

"I'm in shock," says Holmberg. "I don't understand how they could believe what the cops were saying." Leventhal says he suspects the jury was biased because it found Holmberg's business "distasteful." He says he'll ask the judge for a new trial.

Holmberg, for his part, says he plans to push ahead with his earlier harassment lawsuit against the city--and this time with no holds barred. In the brutality case, Tunheim ruled that only information directly related to the conduct of the four officers involved was admissible. "There's some stuff we couldn't talk about in this trial that's going to come out in the next one," Holmberg hints darkly. A trial date in the case has yet to be scheduled.

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