Operating above the dentist office, driving school, lawyer and insurance agency in the boxy office building in a boring stretch in Bedford was a different kind of business not included in the Walsh Professional Building signage out front with the others.
Up on the third floor was a massage studio, one with online advertisements for "the hottest rub you could imagine" from girls with names like Lola, Kendra, Rayne and Star.
When federal and local authorities finally raided the top floor of the Walsh Professional Building and its covert tenant last fall, they found not just a simple massage parlor called "Studio 54," but a full-on brothel, a secretive den whose business "provided a menu of services ranging from nude massages to sex acts," according to prosecutors.
Soon after, it also turned up something perhaps less surprising, at least in Cuyahoga County: corrupt public officials. The looming shadow of Jimmy Dimora is hard to escape in this working-class Cleveland suburb, after all.
"You've seen a couple of recent massage parlor brothel-type operations we've shut down," County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said in a Cuyahoga Council meeting in early November, five weeks after the raid. "And there will be some corruption arrests coming out of those shortly."
Jim Walsh, the 71-year-old owner of the office building, was arrested on Sept. 30 for running the brothel and money laundering. In December, down went two of the most powerful people in Bedford: municipal court judge Harry J. Jacob III and law director Kenneth Schuman, customers who allegedly went the extra mile of shielding the brothel from the law.
Jim Walsh's listed address is in Willoughby but, since separating from his wife a few years back, he had been living in the third floor of the office building that bears his name. He collected rent from businesses on the first two floors; he ran his own gig on the third.
"I was working at Lido's, the strip club on West 117th St.," says a woman in her mid-20s who we'll call Michelle (not her real name) in a written interview with Scene. That's where she met Walsh, a regular at the establishment. "[He] came in and started telling me about his massage studio he runs in Bedford. So he gave me his number, I called him a few days later, he picked me up and took me to the office."
She and other girls worked there seven days a week, from about 10 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., sometimes later. Their uniform: "sexy lingerie, thigh highs and high heels or bare feet."
Walsh also advertised online, touting the dream of an "unlimited income." From an August 2013 posting: "Girls needed to give body rubs to male based clientelle in a clean, discreet studio. No experience necessary. Great opportunity to make unlimited income. Please Call Candice or Jim [phone number] and send photo to [email protected]"
"When I first started, it was just me for a while," Michelle says. She briefly quit when Jim brought on another girl she didn't get along with ("a cunt," who she blames for bringing law enforcement heat on the business when she was having sex with too many clients). "But I needed the money so I went back. As time went on, we got more and more girls, and by the time we got raided we had six girls there."
Usually all six would be working at the same time, entertaining clients who found the ads (some of which appeared in Scene) in the four private rooms with massage tables. On busy days, Michelle would see up to five men. On slow days, one or two, and sometimes none at all. On those days, they'd all hang out in Walsh's office, smoking weed and watching TV or movies, she said.
According to Michelle, clients would "read a disclaimer stating we were not liable if they were hurt during the massages and stated they were not affiliated with law enforcement. Then they would pay and be taken to the room where the girls would wait three minutes and go in to do the massage."
The online ads were mostly posted on backpage.com. Some were relatively specific. One posted the day of the raid started, "Hot and Sexy VANESSA just a call away! at Studio Fifety 4 - 21":
"Hey, Im Vanessa and Im ready to give you a Great Massage. If your looking for someone who CAN RUB YOU DOWN, Im your girl. I am located in Studio 54 which is on the corner of Northfield Rd and Rockside Rd in Bedford, Ohio. I am waiting for you!! I will discuss the Reverse Rub in the room with you ;) Ask about our two girl special!!!! YOU WON'T BE DISAPOINTED. One girl: 60min $125. Two girl: 60min $250. One girl; 30min $100. SPECIAL!! 30Min REVERSE RUB FOR ONLY $140."
Other ads were more vague, employing the sort of suggestive language that maintained plausible deniability.
The menu: $100 for a half hour, $125 for a full hour. A "reverse rub" (where "half the time I rub you and the other time you rub me," explains Michelle) was an extra $50. Having two girls at the same time was $250 an hour, reverse rub in included. Nearly all the guys bought the full hour with the "reverse rub" ($175), by her estimation. Only a handful went for two girls at the same time. And like any thriving business, Studio 54 accepted credit cards -- a surprising 30 percent or so of clients used them to pay, says Michelle -- and those records were especially helpful when prosecutors were seizing evidence.
Walsh took an even cut of the money from each girl's sessions. If she worked solo, Walsh got half. If a client paid for two girls, Walsh and the girls each got a third of the money.
Michelle claims most men would come solely for real massages -- "Can't a man enjoy a nice, relaxing massage by a pretty girl in something skimpy?" she asks -- and that the women who did accept money for sex did so against the direction of Walsh. That last claim is disputed both by prosecutors and accounts from family members of other Studio 54 employees.
"I didn't think it was fair that we did all the work while he just sat there and did nothing," says Michelle, about Walsh taking an even split of the money from the sessions. "But I couldn't complain because he did pay to post the ads and for food and cigarettes. And if I didn't make any money that day, he'd give me $10 an hour. It was fun, Jim was a nice man, I made good money. He supplied us with food, snacks, drinks, cable TV. He bought us clothes and anything we needed. I know it sounds like he was our pimp, but it was nothing like that."
Except that's exactly what he was. And free cable TV, food and snacks weren't the only things supplied behind his walls.
The Drugs, the Children, and the Prostitution Complaints
The reality of Studio 54 life was much less rosy, at least for the other girls who worked there, even if Michelle claims differently. At least two of the women were heroin users who worked at the Bedford building and at a Sagamore Hills apartment they shared while their children were present. Walsh was at the apartment often too, easily spotted by neighbors in his GMC Yukon with vanity "JWALSH" license plates.
"I guess you could call them Johns -- they'd come and go continuously," says a woman who lived across the women in Sagamore Hills when they lived at the apartment complex in 2011 and 2012, the same time they were working for Walsh. "The girls were obviously strung out on drugs, because in a year period you saw them go from normal looking girls to anorexic looking."
When the girls were there, neighbors spotted guys coming and going every 30 minutes on the half-hour; when one would leave, another, who had been waiting in the parking lot, would come in. Neighbors also knew elementary school-aged children and an infant were there when it happened. They would constantly call child protective services and the police, but nothing seemed to get them to stop.
"Us neighbors really didn't care what the girls were doing, we were just concerned about the kids being there," she says. "Everyone's been calling the police, we see those kids up in the bedroom all day long. What's going on? Everyone's been calling, everyone here did their job, calling child services, the police."
The women were eventually evicted.
"Many of these young women are addicted to drugs or destitute and are being abused by pimps," Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said in a press release after the September raid. "It was an overdose at this bordello -- and the woman's rescue by firefighters and police officers -- that triggered this investigation."
McGinty's referring to an incident at the building that happened one morning in July 2012. One woman -- who lived in the Sagamore Hills apartment described above and is no stranger to many police departments in Northeast Ohio -- called her friend "and said she was going to commit suicide by taking pills." That friend called Bedford police and told them where she was: the third floor of the Walsh building, just a mile from the police department. Police found her "in a locked back office unconscious but breathing, surrounded by pills." Her infant daughter was found alone in another room. The two were taken to a hospital; 6.4 grams of heroin and misoprostol -- a drug used to induce abortions -- were taken from the Walsh building by police.
McGinty cites this as the instigator to the prostitution investigation, but it's likely not the real reason. (Bedford Police Chief Kris Nietert later confirmed to Scene it was not when the investigation started.) This was not the first time police knew something was up in the Walsh building.
Almost two years earlier, the same woman had called 911 some time after 2 a.m. to report someone was following her and the doors being tampered with. Walsh was letting her stay at the building, authorities determined, and found nothing wrong with the doors after checking the premises. She had another run-in with police there three months later, in November 2010, and they picked her up for an outstanding warrant in another town.
Her employer was listed as "Studio 54 Girls, Bedford, OH 44146" in a February 23 contempt of court arrest in a Garfield Heights after she failed to pay a parking ticket.
There were multiple calls and complaints to the Bedford Police Department in the seven months prior to the suicide attempt reporting prostitution activity, with children present, in the Walsh building (read police reports about those complaints here).
On Jan. 15, 2012, records show a husband of one of the workers went to the police station just after 9 p.m.. The report states:
Complainant on station to report his wife being involved in a prostitution ring in Bedford. His concern was that his children were going to the location with his wife. Male was advised its okay to pickup his children and to contact the detective bureau tomorrow. Email copy to DJB.
Five months later, in May 2012, it was still going on. This time, the sister-in-law of the worker made the call:
Complainant called and reported that there are females engaging in prostitution at the Walsh building.
An officer called the complainant back, and she provided information about the suspects. She added that she believes there are small children there while this is taking place. The complainant was advised that officers would check the building to see if anyone was there, including the children.
At 2147 hrs., officers checked the building. There was one vehicle in the parking lot. All doors were locked and officers were unable to gain entry to the building. There appeared to be a light on up on the third floor.
The complainant was advised of our findings, and that this information would be turned over to the detective bureau.
A little more than two weeks after that, an employee of the Summit County Children Services called the Bedford police up again:
Euniece Brooks called from Summit County Childrens and Family Services for a welfare check on an infant who is reported to be with her mother who is prostituting now at the above address. The 3rd floor was all locked up and dark, no one appeared to be there. Summit County Family Services were advised.
Bedford police wouldn't start investigating until months later, and didn't see much progress until the county investigators, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, and the feds were brought in, more than a year after police were directly alerted to the alleged prostitution ring by the husband of one of the workers.
Harry J. Jacob III has lived in Northeast Ohio his entire life. A 1974 Chagrin Falls High School grad, he went on to Kent State and got his degree from the Case Western University School of Law in 1981. His bio on the Bedford Municipal Court site says he's a family man with a wife and two adult children (his daughter is an assistant Geauga County prosecutor) who won the "State Boys Youth Soccer Coach of the Year" in 2002 for running Solon's youth soccer program. He served on church boards, civil service commissions, and Solon's Chamber of Commerce, among other groups.
The court's bio, written prior to investigation, also has a hell of a quote: Judge Jacob "made the effort of promoting, protecting, and improving the honesty and ethics of the local legal community." He served on the Cuyahoga County Bar Association's grievance committee, chaired the Ethics Committee and the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee.
But he's corrupt. Given enough time and the willpower to cross-reference subpoenas with old court records and interviews, you'll find a distinct pattern of Judge Jacob giving favorable treatment to prostitutes from Studio 54 who happened upon his courtroom.
Prosecutors, for instance, were curious about a case file involving a 32-year-old woman named Lisa Goforth. Online court records show she was arrested by the Orange Police Department in October 2012; Judge Jacob got her case and and she ended up pleading guilty to disorderly conduct that December. Here's why investigators want those records:
Lisa Goforth was a Studio 54 girl who also allegedly prostituted on a freelance basis. On Oct. 1, 2012, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office busted her for solicitation at a Homestead Studio Suites hotel: "Lisa Marie Goforth solicited sex for cash over the phone and during the conversation a meeting was set up. Goforth arrived at the location and time predetermined." (She was back advertising her services four days after her arrest, incidentally.)
Because Goforth's solicitation arrest was a misdemeanor and the Bedford court has jurisdiction over those arrests in nearby towns like Orange, Judge Jacob took the case. Lucky for Goforth, the judge was a Studio 54 client, and he amended her case to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct, to which she pleaded no contest. Her 30-day jail sentence was suspended (see her arrest reports and pages from her case here).
Last June, Goforth was arrested again at a Westlake Red Roof Inn along with a 24-year-old woman and a 59-year-old man. County court records say, "On June 19, 2013, Westlake P.D. officers worked jointly with the FBI to investigate prostitution-related complaints in the Western Suburbs. Kuchta, Gearhart and Goforth were all arrested for prostitution-related offenses."
Goforth was charged with possessing criminal tools and prostitution. A month after the arrest -- and two months before the raid of the Walsh building in Bedford -- Cuyahoga County prosecutors dropped the charges against the two women. The office would have been into the investigation at that point, and likely would have been aware of Goforth's involvement in Bedford. (Three months after the raid, Goforth was arrested in Maple Heights for grand theft and is currently in jail.)
And then there's the connection between Judge Jacob and Gina Jaworski, another Studio 54 employee. Though Jacob has since deleted his Facebook account, he was friends with Jaworski, which doesn't mean much in a vacuum. But a source spotted Jacob driving an intoxicated Jaworski home one night. (His luxury sports car is hard to miss, and the same car was parked in his spot at the municipal court the next day.)
County prosecutors obviously notice a trend too: The dates of his accused felony bribery with sex and various other charges match the dates he presided over Jaworski's case in his courtroom stemming from a 2010 traffic ticket and subsequent contempt of court charges, the latter of which was a case he took over and dismissed (see those files here).
April 20, 2012, is a focal point in the Jacob saga and his handling of the Jaworski case. On that day, prosecutors accused him of three felonies and a misdemeanor relating to what he did for, to, and with girls from Studio 54 (read his case file here, his indictment is on page 6). The felony bribery charge: he solicited or accepted sex to corrupt or improperly influence his or another official's official duty. Two felony promoting prostitution charges: he both "induced or procured" two women (listed as "Jane Doe 3 and Jane Doe 4") "to engage in sexual activity for hire," and "did knowingly supervise, manage, or control the activities of a prostitute in engaging in sexual activity for hire." The misdemeanor charge: "did solicit Jane Doe 3 and Jane Doe 4 to engage in sexual activity for hire."
That same day, court records show Jacob dismissed Jaworski's contempt of court charge, and directed the Ohio BMV to end the suspension of her drivers license. She entered a no contest plea on her original speeding charge from 2010 and paid a $100 fine.
Why did it take so long to get a warrant and search the building after so many complaints?
"It was a matter of being able to access the facility in order to get evidence of a crime," says Bedford Police Chief Kris Nietert. Multiple calls about a prostitution ring don't give the police enough evidence for a judge to sign off on a search warrant (which would have likely gone to Judge Jacob, a patron of the business in question, for approval assuming police didn't already know he was involved; a county judge can sign off on warrants, too).
"Those calls don't mean anything unless you can substantiate them," says Nietert. "On those early calls, the big issue was you couldn't get these people -- you can call up and tell me your wife's a prostitute and that's great, but I can't prove that. Without her coming in and saying for herself that it's the case or without me being able to visually see it occur, all I have is hearsay, and we can't do anything with that. That's why it took so long to get to where we're at, because we couldn't substantiate the operation."
Police officers don't have the benefit of hindsight, like reporters looking into the case have, when doing their job, he says.
"You would be able to do it now, there's a lot of things we could substantiate, now, that six or eight months ago--when you're looking through that rearview mirror, it's easy to say hey, why the heck did this take so long," he says. "But again, go back to the county (Jimmy Dimora) case. Why did it it take them three years? You have all these things going on, people telling you stuff, you have got to substantiate it. That's why these cases take so long."
Of course, the complaints turned out to be correct, and there was much more going on than some rub-and-tugs. One source says a Bedford detective came to their house after the September raid, holding the same complaint that Scene obtained filed more than a year earlier, asking for them to elaborate for the first time about what was known.
"He's like, 'I'm sorry that we've come so late,'" the source says. "Like, give me a break, I already know everything, I've had people from downtown (the county and feds) come to my work."
It's unclear what really instigated the investigation or what really prompted the financial investigators from the larger agencies to swoop in during 2013. But Nietert made the call when he realized his department didn't have the resources and expertise needed to fully investigate.
The prosecutor's office declined to comment beyond the usual press release recitations, citing the ongoing investigation. Rumors roll in Bedford's tight circles that Jimmy Dimora, no stranger to the oldest profession in the world himself, who was summoned back to Cuyahoga County back in August (a month before the raid) for presumed talks with the prosecutors in other cases, may have had some information on the brothel, but that's nothing more than rumor. Ken Schuman's brother, Brian, cooperated with federal prosecutors against Dimora for a lesser sentence for his role in paying bribes for county contracts for the Cleveland halfway house he was running.
"I haven't heard that," Nietert says about Dimora possibly giving information on Schuman, Jacob and the Walsh ring. "That's completely new to me."
In addition to accusing Schuman of soliciting prostitutes and trying to mislead investigators looking into Jim Walsh, in the December indictment, Ken Schuman is charged with bribery, having an unlawful interest in a public contract, soliciting or receiving improper compensation and money laundering going back to 2006 when he accepted a $9,500 bribe to influence the hiring of Anthony Calabrese III -- later sentenced in the federal corruption probe -- as Bedford's bond counsel, prosecutors say (read his indictment here). He's also accused of using Bedford city employees "to do work for his outside law practice and to run personal errands on city time." He also was the law director in the tiny village of Bentleyville and did law work for Maple Heights and Bedford Heights.
In the first half of 2012, family members of a Studio 54 worker and people from child protective services told Bedford police that prostitution was happening on the third floor of the Walsh building. In July of that year, they responded to an overdose of one of the prostitutes there, finding heroin and abortion drugs nearby. None of that was enough for police to start an investigation, chief Nietert said.
All indications are that the investigation began in 2013, not when authorities responded to the overdose like the prosecutor's office said in a press release. What finally gave police enough to go off of?
"I can't lay it out for you, not at this point," Nietert says. "But you start using other investigative tools and it leads to where you need to be to make your case. You get to a point where you realize that, yeah, there's probably something there, and you've got to get in to be able to do it."
Nietert says he went to the county "at some point" in 2013, before the September raid, when the scope of what he learned of the operation expanded from just prostitution to involving money laundering and other financial crime.
"The financial aspect -- we don't have a financial expert here," says Nietert about Bedford. "Somebody who has access to records and is able to analyze them and determine where money is moving to and from. The county and federal government have people who are skilled in that."
Things moved quickly once he reached out. The Walsh building was raided on Sept. 30. "Michelle," the Studio 54 worker, was there.
"I was in my room with a client doing a massage," she says. "I heard a banging off in the distance and then moments later they were banging on my door. I put my robe on and opened my door, they were standing there with their guns drawn and they snatched me up and took me to the front office and took the client to the back."
She remembers Bedford police officers and FBI agents conducting the raid, some in uniform and some in plain clothes. A press release from the county prosecutor says agents from the U.S. Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service were there with the Bedford cops.
"They searched the whole office for hours," she says. "The ceilings, every drawer in every desk. They ordered a pizza in the middle of this. I sat there for nearly three hours before they took me to the police station."
The agents seized "extensive financial records," including records of everyone who paid with a credit card, during the raid, according to the press release. Records he kept hidden in a safe were seized from his old house where his wife was living. At the Walsh building, computers, external hard drives, cell phones, surveillance footage DVDs, "a pair of panties & mesh negligees" and dozens of other items were taken. Authorities took more than $6,000 in cash, along with Walsh's 2008 GMC Yukon with his "JWALSH" plates.
Pictures, obtained from a source by Scene, of Jim Walsh's office on the third floor shortly after the raid show the ceiling was a focus of attention. The police received information that heroin and other drugs were being trafficked in and out of the building, and it would be hidden in the ceiling.
Investigators from the city and county took several, if not all, of the the women in for questioning. Michelle said she was kept in the police station for three full days, where she was questioned by investigators about the operation. They let her go after three days with no charges, and no threat of charges hoping for cooperation in the prosecution of the case: "No agreement, they just questioned me and let me go. They didn't want the girls, they wanted Jim Walsh." Jaworski, living in Streetsboro at that point, was picked up and taken to downtown Cleveland to be questioned about Jacob.
During the Sept. 30 raid, Jacob and Schuman were still working in Bedford, but the investigation was still churning.
When both of their indictments were handed down in December, it accused Schuman of felony obstruction of justice. In a Cuyahoga County courtroom three weeks ago, assistant prosecutor Matthew Meyer said Schuman interfered with a Bedford police investigation "on behalf of a woman with whom he had a relationship." He also faces a first degree misdemeanor from the same day for "falsification": making false statements "with the purpose to mislead a public official in performing the public official's official function."
On Oct. 13, even after the Walsh bust and at least with the knowledge that investigators were seriously looking into the Bedford organization, prosecutors say Schuman solicited "Jane Doe 1 to engage in sexual activity for hire."
Chief Nietert claims he didn't know Schuman and Jacob were involved until after the investigation began. "You just don't anticipate those are the types of people you are going to find involved," he says. "Things like that just add more work, to be honest. It creates a whole new problem for your investigation because now you have other things you have to look at. You can't just not look at it."
Jacob took a "medical leave" from the municipal court on Nov. 12. Schuman followed suit nine days later.
The investigation is still ongoing. A new batch of subpoenas were delivered to Bedford a week and a half ago (the city refused to release those; previous subpoenas were only released after dogged reporting and requests from the Plain Dealer's Rachel Dissell and involvement of their lawyer), and Nietert said there are detectives still working the case everyday.
And more people will be going down.
"There's an entire operation happening behind the scenes," he says. "It's an entire operation that probably has more significance and ramification than the charging of a judge and a prostitute. Sure it's an interesting topic, but it's only a small piece of the entire puzzle."
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