James Kimble was jolted awake, all alone in his rural, isolated, Put-in-Bay home near the Lake Erie island’s little-used airport.
It was at least two suspicious voices coming from outside his house, he’d later tell investigators. He looked at his clock: 3:42 am. It was a Wednesday morning in August 2020, about a month after he was brought in to take over the island’s scandal-plagued police department.
He immediately sprung into action and headed to his living room. He peeked outside to try to get eyes on who the hell could be approaching his sanctuary at such a time.
That’s when he noticed the lasers.
The new police boss hit the deck. First, the voices that woke him. Now, two laser sights were pointed at his house, he’d say. He thought he was under siege.
Doing his best John McClane, the officer crawled across the ground on his hands and knees to grab his gun, in case he needed to fight back against the possibly armed invaders.
Gun in hand, he waited. And waited. And waited. And waited out the rest of the darkness before his wife and kids came home in the daylight.
Kimble knew why laser-sighted men must have been coming for him that morning: He’d tell the state investigators he brought in to crack down on what he alleged was a vast organized crime operation that it must have been retaliation for recently refusing a bribe at a local watering hole. And that bribe attempt was surely connected to the millionaire Florida strip club mogul and alleged island vice peddler he just learned about. Human trafficking, prostitution, drug distribution, money laundering – Kimble was told this guy was running it all during his summers on Put-in-Bay. Now add attempted bribery of the police chief to the list.
The new police boss was a clean cop – seemingly a rarity for Put-in-Bay – who refused to be corrupted by the bad seeds that have had run of the island for far too long.
And so Kimble instigated what would be a 10-month investigation led by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) and the state’s Organized Crime Investigations Commission. Their main target: John Blanke, that Florida strip club owner and alleged organized crime boss who for years has been throwing raucous after-hours parties for locals at his Put-in-Bay summer property that he called “The Disco.”
The crimes they suspected Blanke of committing: Engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, bribery, trafficking in persons, compelling prostitution, promoting prostitution, prostitution, trafficking in drugs. The big ones, the years-in-prison and millions-of-dollars-seized charges.
Scandals arrive on the island with the regularity of a ferry schedule, many of them dealing with the cops.
Now, the new interim chief, hired from the nearby Wood County Sheriff’s Office where he was a deputy sergeant for years, would prove his worth. The investigation would finally clean up Put-in-Bay.
There was a problem, though: It was all bullshit.
Rob and Kelly Mohn, 65- and 60-year-old semi-retirees and rare year-round islanders, were thrust into a confusing spotlight one evening late last August.
“A friend of ours was blowing up our phone talking about some newscast,” Kelly Mohn said.
Apparently Rob tried to bribe the police chief at a bar two years prior?
“We started getting texts from all our friends. Our son joked, ‘I didn’t know dad had that kind of money.’”
It took a while for the Mohns to figure out what the heck was going on. But they’d soon learn that Channel 13 – Toledo’s ABC affiliate – had just identified Rob Mohn as a major figure in Put-in-Bay’s underworld in the lead segment of its 6 p.m. newscast, accusing him of trying to bribe Chief Kimble.
“Bribery is a felony!” Kelly told Scene. “There was a half hour where we thought, ‘This can’t be happening.’ Everybody on the island knows this is something we couldn’t have done.”
Channel 13 “I-Team” reporter Shaun Hegarty told his viewers that the BCI documents revealed no criminal charges, “but this interaction was reported by the chief in August 2020.” For a full 25 seconds, the evening newscast broadcasted Rob Mohn’s name on screen as the guy who tried to bribe Chief Kimble, showing a screenshot of the chief’s email to state investigators written more than five months after the bribe was supposed to have taken place [sic]:
Early in the month of August, Chief Deputy Mark Hummer and I were sitting at Joe's Bar. We had just concluded a conversation with Village Administrator Anne Auge. As Hummer and I were sitting there, a couple of males and one female walked in the bar. The two males sat right next to me, we were nearly touching elbows, and at that time the bar was nearly empty. The gentleman later on identified as Rob Mohn, was the male sitting right next to me, he did acknowledge me as Chief, by saying "Hi Chief". Rob reached into his pocket and pulled out a large stack of cash and sat it on the bar between me and him. He said to the bartender "Today is your lucky day, your about the reap the benefits of the [redacted] stimulus package". At that time my carry out food came out and I grabbed my food and left the bar. As I was exiting, I grabbed a Gazette newspaper.
As the newscast wrapped up, the calls and texts continued to come in. And, months after the news broke, the Mohns are still trying to figure out how Kimble could believe a bribe was offered and why, all of a sudden, their reputations were on the line.
“All Rob did was give money to the bartender for our bill and a tip,” said Kelly, who was with her husband that afternoon in question at Joe’s bar (the other man Kimble said was with them was just a random guy who just happened to walk in at the same time). “We said ‘hi’ to the chief but that was the end of it. That was our only interaction.”
Kelly explained to Scene what really happened: Her husband was a bartender at another establishment on the island – a side gig for fun in his retirement after serving as a ferry operator – and that they are friends with a guy named Logan, a bartender at Joe’s Bar. Earlier that day, Logan went to the bar where Rob was working, had a drink and some food, and tipped Rob $8 and joked that it was the “Logan stimulus package.” This was at the height of the pandemic, around the time stimulus checks were being issued by the government.
“That was a high tip,” Kelly said. “Rob came home later and got me and said, ‘We’re going to Joe’s and I’m going to give him back his $8.’ Well, we walk into the bar to the corner that we call ‘The Office,’ where all the islanders go and have their cocktails. I said ‘hi’ to the chief and sat down. Rob got out his money, and he’s kind of finicky about how it’s set, so he kind of takes the tip money from earlier from his pockets and puts it in order with the rest of his cash: Ones, then fives, then tens. He asks for our bill after a little bit and the chief was waiting for to-go food. He put the money on the bar to pay for our tab and give Logan his tip back. Rob sat next to the chief but by no means did he slide the money that way or anything like that. Nothing like anything to do with a bribe. Logan, the bartender and our friend, came and grabbed the tab and Rob said something like, ‘It’s the Mohn stimulus money,’ like as a joke like Logan did earlier. Rob just changed the name when he was paying.”
The Mohns say the money – Kelly guessed probably $28 in all – was their tab and that tip. The cash was payment to the bartender, directed to the bartender, and taken by the bartender for the goods and services rendered before the Mohns went about the rest of their day. The “stimulus” comment was an inside joke between Rob Mohn and the bartender, a friend. But James Kimble said this interaction was an attempted bribe of the new interim police chief.
(Kimble didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from Scene, neither did Mark Hummer, the Put-in-Bay deputy chief Kimble said he was with that day at Joe’s.)
The Mohns hadn’t a second thought about the tip and brief interaction with their friend until the newscast and frantic texts two years later.
And they didn’t know it somehow became part of the catalyst for a year-long organized crime investigation on the island.
Kimble, new to the island and new to the job in the tumultuous summer of 2020, had apparently just learned about Blanke, who’d spent summers on the island for decades, either partying with or drawing complaints from residents.
One of them, his neighbor and biggest critic, had been complaining about his after-hour parties for years. But in 2020 the neighbor escalated his gripes with an anonymous letter sent to nearly every law enforcement agency in Ohio, just days before the “bribe” and lasers at Kimble’s home.
“Hello,” the letter read, “I am writing about an illegal bar and adult entertainment club on South Bass Island. It is well known on the island that the property at [address redacted] is an after-hours bar that includes alcohol service and fully nude dancing. There are also rumors of human trafficking, prostitution, fights, drugs, and overdoses. This has been going on for many years.”
In an October 2020 proposal to form an anti-organized crime task force, the special agent in charge of the Ohio BCI’s Investigative Services Division wrote how Kimble had connected the dots between the Mohns and Blanke:
“Chief Kimble said that shortly thereafter his suspicions were aroused” by John Blanke, “he was approached by a boat operator for [redacted] who offered him a roll of cash an stated: ‘This is from the [redacted] stimulus package.’ The chief, who was with another officer, did not accept the money and shortly afterwards was awoken around 2 o’clock in the morning when he heard voices outside his residence on the island. The chief got up to investigate and observed a laser sight coming into his bedroom window. The chief felt this was an intimidation tactic to get him to either resign or accept the bribe and comply with the illicit activity.”
Kelly Mohn has little idea how that leap was made. She’s a manager at a hotel next to an island bar that Blanke frequents, but that’s about it for any connection between him and the Mohns.
They’re friendly with Blanke, Kelly said, “but we don’t really hang out or go to dinner or drinks or anything. If I see him we’ll say ‘hi,’ but we don’t go out of our way to find each other.”
But authorities were sold on Kimble’s theory, and everyone got involved.
The Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission task force into John Blanke was formed, led by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and its law enforcement arm, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal investigation. Kimble served on it, as did the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office, the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, and the Ohio Department of Public Safety. Cooperation in certain aspects were provided by the FBI, IRS and Ohio Department of Taxation.
The investigation formally kicked off in October 2020 and was led, on the ground during the following summer by four Ohio BCI agents going undercover as wealthy business owners, driving rented golf carts and visiting all the local bars to see if anyone could tell them anything about Blanke and how they could get into his parties. Nobody told them anything of real value. And nobody said Blanke did anything illegal.
Surveillance didn’t turn out any better.
“Special Agent Tom Verhiley, twenty-three hundred hours, July 9, 2021. Directly in front of [address redacted by Scene], suspected area of The Disco. This is the activity going on.”
Insects are chirping. But the faint sound of faraway and undistinguishable dance music reverberates in the air.
“The noise you hear is from downtown Put-in-Bay.”
One of Ohio’s top criminal investigators is slowly and frustratingly narrating a minute-long video he’s taking with a cell phone outside Blanke’s summer home about a 15-minute walk, or a quick golf cart ride, from the island’s main strip.
There are three other undercovers with him around the property, their third time on the island to try and prove Kimble’s allegations that Blanke is actively running an illegal club where he runs drugs and prostitutes.
But right now, like every time they’ve been on the island, literally nothing is happening at the property they were told by Chief Kimble that everything happens. Frustration is clear in Verhiley’s voice.
“No activity” coming from the property.
The video shuts off.
Maybe they were just early? Blanke’s parties don’t typically pop off until later anyway.
“Special agent Tom Verhiley, it’s approximately 1:38 a.m., on July 10, 2021,” the undercover BCI investigator whispers, narrating his next surveillance video directed at the target property, again capturing nothing besides cicadas and distant music. “We’re at the location of The Disco… Nothing going on at this location.”
One more for the night.
“Special Agent Tom Verhiley with Special Agent Scott Stranahan, BCI. It’s approximately 1:40 in the morning, July 10, in front of the Disco. And this is what’s going on.”
Verhiley lets his camera roll for a full 30 seconds, saying nothing, showing the lifeless property. The video ends abruptly.
The four organized crime investigators went back to the Perry Holiday Hotel, got a few hours of sleep, checked out of their rooms, returned their golf carts, and boarded the Jet Express ferry for the mainland, records show. The agents had spent nights on the island in local bars, posing as wealthy businessmen, asking about Blanke and trying to suss out his parties.
Turns out, Blanke hadn’t even been on the island in quite some time. The stake-outs were a waste of time.
Once they were back on the mainland after their dud of a weekend, a frustrated Verhiley called Chief Kimble, who was unaware the undercover agents were, in fact, on the island the previous two days chasing dead ends and phantom parties.
Verhiley “specifically asked Chief Kimble if John Blanke was active,” the special agent’s report from that day says. (Blanke’s name is redacted in the report, but Scene can confirm it’s him.) The agent knew Blanke was not actually active. “Chief Kimble stated John Blanke is currently active and has been for over three weeks. He said there have been several complaints received by the Put-in-Bay Police Department” about the “Disco.”
That doesn’t appear to be true.
There hadn’t been a complaint or a call for service about Blanke’s parties up to that point in 2021, according to Put-in-Bay dispatch records, and none since the previous fall. There were 40 in 2020, mostly coming from a few specific neighbors who’d call as soon as they could hear music, but there hadn’t been any complaints for the better part of a year.
Which tracked with what the investigators discovered first-hand on the ground.
“They’re idiots,” John Blanke told Scene. “It’s all fucking bullshit. Here you have a chief of police who’s a storyteller, a fictional storyteller, that tried to bring me down for bullshit made up in his fucking head.”
Blanke, 54, spends most of the year in Hollywood, Florida. He owns Vixen’s Cabaret strip club in Davie and several strip clubs in Fort Myers and Tampa, and a couple of restaurants. He previously owned Scarlett’s in the Toledo area. He’s a self-professed millionaire who flies his friends around with him and has been known to throw his money around with abandon. He and his crew are rarely seen without their Vixen’s-branded t-shirts and baseball hats. Because of his job and public persona, he feels he’s falsely and unfairly portrayed as a criminal.
He only learned he was the target of the massive investigation in 2020 and 2021 last summer when the Sandusky Register first reported on the existence of the task force investigation. The paper didn’t use his name – Blanke has threatened to sue them – but people in-the-know knew it was referring to Blanke
“Yes I love pussy, yes I love booze, yes I love money – the rest, I do without,” he said. “I got nothing to hide. If you really look at my life, it’s not near as exciting as what you think. When you’re in this industry, people think we’re automatically into drugs and prostitution.”
While he was rarely on the island hosting parties during the summer of 2021 when the investigation was active and this past summer – ”I don’t do it as much now because I’m old” – the 54-year-old has spent the better part of two decades developing a reputation as the biggest private party host on the island. Especially for the locals, seasonal bartenders and workers who headed to his “Disco” after the licensed establishments closed down. It was their turn to have a night, and they’d party until after the sun came up.
“Back in the day I used to live at what I called ‘the compound,’” he said, staying in someone’s garage when he’d come to the island to party. “We put a shower in, and mattresses on the floor, and we used to sleep there like a dorm. In Put-in-Bay, all you need is a place to sleep because you just sleep, get up, take a shower, and go party.”
One day nearly two decades ago, an islander convinced him to buy a property on Trenton Avenue.
“In the old days, all the bartenders couldn’t drink until the end of the shift, and then we’d go to somebody’s house and we’d party in somebody’s kitchen. And I thought that kind of sucked. So, if I’m buying this property, let me build a disco, a club, and all of us could party there and have fun. Like actual fun, instead of sitting and looking at each other in some random kitchen. So I ended up buying the property and the house next door. And that’s how it started.”
He bought that house, and on the back of that four acre lot sits the barn that he converted into “The Disco.” It’s got a large bar, a stripper pole (“98 percent of the time that anybody gets on that pole, it’s just a regular civilian, including guys who’ll strip down into their underwear,” he says), a DJ booth, pinball machines, a shuffleboard table, bathrooms.
He says – and this is important in the eyes of state liquor agents – nobody has to pay a cent to get in and all the booze is on the house because otherwise he’d need a liquor license and endure the state regulation that comes with it. The locals and the mostly-seasonal staffers on the island can come whenever he’s throwing a party. He’ll have local bartenders dole out free drinks to his guests, who can tip the bartenders if they want.
“The whole reason I built this thing was to have fun,” he said. “People do tip the bartenders. What usually happens is a couple of bartenders, when they get off work, they’ll go behind the bar and start slinging drinks. Sometimes it might be five people and sometimes there might be 150. Whoever walks through the door is welcome. But if you start a fight or a problem then you are not welcome.”
That year when there were 40 police dispatch records for The Disco? The summer of state Covid regulations, when alcohol sales at bars cut off at 10 p.m. and establishments were enforcing other restrictions.
Blanke’s place picked up the partying slack on the island.
“(The cops) were out at my house every single night,” he says of 2020. “Dude, I had to leave the island. I’m in my hot tub at 10 in the morning, jamming out with my boombox and the cops come saying they had a noise complaint. The next day, I left the island because I couldn’t take the cops anymore.”
Blanke’s parties have been an open-secret for so long that they can barely be considered a secret anymore.
“The reason why I’m so good at what I do,” he said, “is because what makes me happier than having a good time is watching others have a good time, watching my people have a good time. People ask why I buy booze for all these people I don’t know. It’s because I can. Because I’m blessed. I came from nothing and I’m blessed to have the money I have. Spending a few thousand in booze a year is nothing – I threw 3,000 ones in my club last night.”
Blanke’s business partner John Gallagher, added: “Last week I saw him throw $6,000 in ones in his club (in Florida), to make it rain for the party, for the girls to have a better time, for the customers to have a better time. He gets it going. He handed out stacks of cash for people to give to the girls because he wants excitement in his clubs. He wants it going, he wants people to be having a good time and the energy to be right.”
Those less versed in the vice universe could see a flashy strip club owner and think he must be doing something illegal, that he just looks like the type of dude involved in money laundering. And that’s how rumors start, and they’ve been going around for years, and they ended up in the anonymous letter to local and state authorities that helped kick this whole thing off.
“That letter is trying to say that there’s prostitution and drugs and all this,” a former Put-in-Bay cop who frequently patrolled that area and responded to many noise complaints told Scene. “Every bar you go into there’s probably someone doing a bump of cocaine, whether it’s a bartender or schoolteacher. When I went there, I never saw any drugs. I never saw any prostitution. They have a stripper pole there and I’ve seen girls dance on it, but it’s nothing illegal. If you live next to him, it sounded like a full-blown nightclub, but in the township where he is there’s no noise ordinance so he’s not breaking any laws. He has a bar there and his bar looks nicer than half the places on Put-in-Bay, and he has his own bartenders. People were saying, ‘Oh, he sells alcohol illegally,’ but the alcohol is free. So if I go there and say ‘can me and Doug have two shots of Jameson,’ sure, they just give it to us. Now if you want tip them, that’s on you, but you don’t have to. That’s their way around it – you wanna tip, go ahead. But you don’t have to pay and that’s why they couldn’t find any violations. Then this letter also stated that he has beds for girls or whatever, but have you ever been to Put-in-Bay? Every house has multiple bedrooms.”
“I had my issues with Blanke at one point,” the cop said, “and I started fucking with all their people. Anyone going to their house, I would pull over for an open container violation, for drinking. I would ticket every person going there. Every noise complaint, I would go there and cause a ruckus and make my presence known.”
But, he says, Blanke was clean.
Investigators found the same thing, even when they dug deeper.
“The problem is this: Based on [Kimble’s] gut concern, it appears he involved a host of three-letter agencies that spent an incredible amount of time and money, and the result is nobody found anything,” said Blanke associate John Gallagher. “They had every three-letter agency in the world go through his financial records and everything else. And of course they came up empty.”
The BCI did get the IRS to investigate Blanke for money laundering. In July 2021, Special Agent Verhiley met with the Internal Revenue Service, which “reviewed the results of the investigative financial report. Agents deduced that all of the reported investigative financial reports obtained were filed in accordance of the Bank Security Act guidelines and it did not appear as though there was money structuring taking place on behalf of [redacted]. The reports reflected there were casino payouts or proceeds indicating no structuring or fraudulent activity. Additionally, the transactions did not appear to be structured in any way, to which [redacted] did not try to avoid the $10,000.00 threshold.”
Simply put: Blanke’s money was clean and legal.
For as loudly as the investigation began in 2020 – alleged bribes, laser sights, and an underworld vice peddler – it closed with a whimper in August 2021.
“During the four surveillance details, there have been no loud after-hours parties at [redacted] and [redacted] was never observed on the island,” states the concluding paragraphs of the case file written on August 17, 2021. “Based on all of the aforementioned inconsistencies of [redacted] and everything associated with the venue, Special Agent Thomas Verhiley is requesting this matter be closed on the OOCIC portion of the case file.”
Ottawa County Sheriff Stephen Levorchick served on the task force, providing the state investigators with information and context. He had been fielding noise complaints for years from Blanke’s neighbor and was glad that the state investigated Blanke, he says, so there was finally an answer as to whether or not he’s actually a criminal.
“There was no criminal activity found and it answered a lot of questions,” Levorchick says. “In law enforcement, we shouldn’t go into investigations looking for indictments and looking for criminal charges. The end goal should be honest answers and justice. And I’m proud that we at least took [rumors about Blanke] to another investigative organization that has the resources and ability to conduct such an investigation. We didn’t take it upon ourselves to – pardon my language – do a half-assed investigation and just pawn it off. Knowing the State of Ohio, with their resources, would conduct a thorough investigation and then come back with no findings of criminal activity, that’s a plus. That’s a good thing. That makes me feel better about my community.”
The Ohio Attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case or respond to a list of detailed questions.
Blanke, for his part, is defiant in the face of the investigation and is in the midst of working to ensure that the parties at his “disco” aren’t the only entertainment he’s responsible for on the island. Blanke and a group of investors bought and tore down the old T&J’s Smokehouse on the main strip and are planning to build another bar and resort, this one the official kind.
They also wouldn’t mind an apology from Kimble.
“Either the chief was completely hoodwinked by people who fed him information, and he should express an apology for being hoodwinked, or be admonished,” Gallagher said.
The Mohns would like one too.
“All we’re asking for is him to make an apology,” Kelly Mohn said. “We didn’t want him suspended or to lose his job. I really just want it written down that he was wrong and everything would be ok.”
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