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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008 01:53 pm

Perversion of justice

When a cop charged with 49 felonies pleads guilty to two misdemeanors and goes free, there’s clearly something rotten in Danville. But what?

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David Lewis was charged with 49 felonies based on allegations made by seven strippers who performed at this now-defunct nightclub.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

On the morning of April 11, 2007, David Lewis appeared before a Vermilion County grand jury in response to a subpoena. As a part-time police officer for the village of Belgium, Ill. (about five miles south of Danville), Lewis was used to testifying in such proceedings. But this time was disturbingly different: Instead of appearing as a witness, he was the accused.

Exercising his Fifth Amendment right, Lewis declined to answer any questions. A few hours later, his attorney notified him that he'd been indicted on 49 felony counts. Lewis turned himself in that afternoon.

It wasn't until his arraignment, the next day, that he discovered the gravity of the charges: one count of obstructing justice, three counts of criminal sexual abuse, seven counts of criminal sexual assault, seven counts of armed violence, 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, and 21 counts of official misconduct. Lewis' bond was set at $250,000, and he was placed in solitary confinement.

Seventeen of the charges were class X felonies with special penalties, each carrying the possibility of a 60-year prison term to be served consecutively with other terms. Calculating by the grimmest formula, Lewis faced a potential sentence of 1,200 years behind bars.

The charges sprang from complaints made by seven women, all of whom told authorities that Lewis had made sexual advances toward them while wearing his police uniform. One woman said Lewis approached her in a parking lot and showed her a picture of his penis next to a beer bottle. Another woman said he lured her to the police station to take a Breathalyzer test, then dropped his uniform trousers and had sex with her on the bathroom sink. Another said Lewis pulled her over as though making a traffic stop, then reached into her car and grabbed her crotch while forcing his tongue into her mouth.

The details of the charges varied from victim to victim, but the women had one thing in common: They all performed as strippers at a Belgium tavern called the Playpen.

At trial a year later, a judge acquitted Lewis on two counts involving a dancer called Mercedes — the woman who complained of the traffic-stop encounter. Eventually the state dropped the remaining counts in exchange for Lewis's acceptance of two misdemeanor pleas.

The gaping disparity between 49 felonies worth 1,200 years in prison and two misdemeanors worth zero to 364 days in jail proves that something about the Lewis case stinks. But what? Was Lewis — as Mercedes says — a pervert who used his police powers to terrorize vulnerable young women? Or was this case coldly concocted — as Lewis insists — in retaliation for his sniffing around the Playpen for information possibly linking the state's attorney's office with gangs, prostitution, and cocaine?

When every party in a conflict is plagued by personal demons, it's difficult to determine who's telling the truth — or, in this case, a lower percentage of untruths. The one scenario that makes certain sense casts Lewis as a bug who got caught in a much bigger web.

The characters in this story occupy a pretty narrow segment of the moral spectrum — gangsters, exotic dancers, strip-club owners and patrons, power-happy part-time police, and several lawyers. There are too few heroes and too many snakes to make this tale anything other than a messy soap opera — complicated, convoluted, and not entirely believable.

It's set in Danville and a satellite village called Belgium, where the meager population of 466 may double on Saturday nights thanks to the village's policy of permitting bars to stay open until 3 a.m.

The Playpen, now closed, was one of the most popular. Danielle Perry, who danced under the name Mercedes, remembers patrons lining up outside the door when she first started working there in 2005, about two years after the club opened. The queues included coal miners, college basketball coaches, construction workers, farmers, gang members, railroad workers, and traveling businessmen.

"You get all kinds . . . you would be amazed," she says. "I mean, it was a small podunk little town out in nowhere, but everybody knew the Playpen was there."

The club was known as far away as Chicago, where producers with The Jerry Springer Show would occasionally call looking for "guests" for pay-per-view episodes. The Playpen dancers got limousine rides and overnight lodging in Chicago.

Thursdays and Saturdays were the boom nights — Thursdays because of the weekly wet-T-shirt contest combined with dime draft beer, Saturdays just because. As many as 15 dancers would work, taking turns onstage doing three-song sets — scantily clad during the first tune, disrobing during the second, and wearing nothing but stilettos during the third. In the club's VIP room, a customer willing to pay $25 for a "private dance" could enjoy the girl of his choice, grinding through an entire song just for him.

The club was owned by Scott Corrie and his uncle Vince Corrie, who made only occasional appearances at the club, leaving his nephew to run the club with the help of manager Tom "T.J." Leitzen.

Scott Corrie had his own table reserved near the stage, encircled with velvet rope. He was frequently joined by an assortment of powerful friends. Lewis and some dancers say they often saw gang members at his table; another group of gang members sat at a table near the back. Lewis kept notes of their names, nicknames and social habits, but didn't realize that Wille Thomas, Billy Hible, Fredell Bryant, Zyrone Petty and Jo Jo Alvarez were "ranking" members of the Gangster Disciples, Black P. Stones, and Renegade Vice Lords.

Frequently Corrie was joined by Clint Gray, owner of a sandwich shop called Fat Boy Subs and, coincidentally, David Lewis' brother. Corrie declined to be interviewed for this story, but Gray, who calls him "a very dear friend," confirms that Corrie's hard-partying ways earned him the nickname Belushi. Gray also describes Corrie as a "weak" man, the adult incarnation of "the little chubby kid" who made an easy target for middle-school bullies. Gray says he hung out with Corrie to protect him from Lewis, whose bulging biceps and cocksure attitude intimidated the club owner.

"Dave's a very aggressive person," Gray says. "He used his job as a police officer like he was controlling the Playpen, like it was his own little entity."

Lewis has a different perspective. If he made his presence known at the Playpen, he was just doing his job as a cop.

Lewis, 46, is an electrical engineer by trade. Married at age 18, he and his first wife had five children, and Lewis took pride in helping coach their various athletic teams. A weight-training hobbyist, he acquired the nickname Gunner. He began making extra cash as a doorman or bouncer when his oldest daughter entered college.

After his divorce, in 2000, Lewis stepped up this avocation by becoming an auxiliary officer in the Belgium Police Department, a seven-man part-time force where his long-time friend Dale Ghibaudy serves as chief. In 2003, Lewis became a certified, sworn peace officer. He says he did it not only to augment his income but also out of a sense of civic duty. The fact that he literally knew everybody and his dog helped him keep the job in perspective.

"I was always, in my opinion, one of the better-liked cops, because I didn't take a real hard-line approach. I had reasonable common sense. I would try to defuse something before I took someone to jail," he says. "I'm that kind of cop."

His approach to the Playpen wasn't quite so laid-back. He developed a habit of pulling into the parking lot and running every license plate number through his mobile data terminal, checking for warrants. He never bothered the gangsters because they didn't carry product, but he would give underage patrons Breathalyzer tests. His brother Gray says Lewis' presence was bad for business.

"I'd say, 'Dave, what are you doing? You're ruining Scott's business. Nobody's going to come in and drink if there's a cop car camped out in the parking lot,' " Gray says.

Gray had a financial stake in the club's success:He loaned Corrie $7,000 to cover liquor taxes. A filing with the Illinois secretary of state's office shows that the debt was secured by Corrie's vending-machine operation, D-D Distributing.

Lewis worked two shifts per week, 8 p.m.-3 a.m., on Thursdays and Saturdays, the Playpen's busiest nights. Besides the parking-lot patrol he would also conduct at least two "walk-throughs" per night: Enter the club, chat with Corrie or the manager, observe who was there, check the bathrooms for criminal activity.

Each of these visits caused a commotion. As soon as he walked in, girls would swarm him, rubbing his chest and grabbing his crotch. Lewis would politely push them away.

In a recorded interview with an investigator hired by Lewis' attorney, former Playpen manager Leitzen said that this scene played out every night with every cop and involved virtually every dancer — except Mercedes.

"They would do it to a lot of cops and all the cops would do the same thing, so I don't know if . . . [Lewis] was, you know, honoring the uniform or he just didn't like it," Leitzen said. "I don't know if it's, like, policy that you can't touch a cop, but he didn't seem to be letting them enjoy themselves."

Lewis’s attorney Mark Christoff calls the case against his client “extraordinarily over-charged.”
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Leitzen added that Lewis attracted more attention than the other cops because he had previously worked at the Playpen as a bouncer, so the dancers were more familiar with him.

How intimately and willingly familiar they were became the crucial question of the criminal case. For example, Lewis admits that he touched a dancer who went by the moniker Malibu Barbie by "smacking her on the ass" one night as she exited the stage. In her version, Lewis "reached up under my little tube dress" and briefly touched her genitals (she wasn't wearing panties).

Malibu has a more personal complaint about Lewis: In 2006, he married her now-22-year-old sister, Candace, who briefly worked at the Playpen as a waitress. Candace and Lewis have a 2-year-old son, Christian.

"He was a big flirt," Malibu says, adding that what he did was common "in that environment" and no different from many customers' actions — except that Lewis was wearing a police uniform. Because he was on duty and wearing a gun, this one-time occurrence resulted in three felony charges, including a class X charge for aggravated criminal sexual assault by penetration.

All the charges against Lewis have this sameamplified tenor: The allegation that he showed one dancer a picture of his penis is charged as both a class 3 felony official misconduct and as a class X felony for armed violence, because Lewis allegedly displayed the snapshot while in uniform. Accusations that Lewis "talked about sex" and stated that he would like to have sex with a dancer called Heaven were similarly charged as two counts of official misconduct and two class X felonies of armed violence.

Nancy Crowder, executive director of the Vermilion County Rape Crisis Center, can't recall another case being pursued so vigorously. Normally the decision on whether to press charges hinges on the "personal moral feelings" of the particular prosecutor assigned to the case, Crowder says: "I think it just depends on the attorney and how much his heart is in it."

In this case, the charges were brought by Assistant State's Attorney Larry Mills, who, according to Crowder, didn't have a track record of aggressively pursuing sex crimes. In fact, Crowder says, she has on more than one occasion complained to Mills' boss, State's Attorney Frank Young, that Mills had failed to follow through on promises made to victims to issue warrants for the arrest of their attackers.

"I was happy to see that they had filed charges, but it did surprise me," she says. "We thought unless the state had something, they wouldn't have brought all those charges against [Lewis], but I don't know the whole deal." She says none of the women involved in the case sought services at her center.

Mark Christoff, Lewis' attorney and a former cop and former Indiana assistant state's attorney, calls the 49 counts against Lewis "extraordinarily overcharged." He theorizes that Mills presented the case to the Vermilion County grand jury to avoid the preliminary hearing process, which would have allowed the defense to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

"The reason I think they took it to a grand jury is because this evidence is so weak," Christoff says. "The grand jury only gets to hear what the prosecution wants them to hear, and they clearly, with those witnesses, didn't want anybody cross-examining them."

Two of the named complainants failed to appear at the grand jury.

Illinois Times left numerous phone messages with Young's secretary, seeking an interview with either Young or Mills, but received no response.

Lewis, who had 458 days in jail — about three months of it in solitary confinement — to stew over these allegations, scoffs that even a part-time podunk cop like himself knows better than to expect a prosecutor to take a case with no physical evidence, no witnesses, no precise dates or times.

"These are some bleepin' strippers! What are they thinking? I wear a badge; the credibility should swing my way. Every one of these girls has a troubled background," Lewis rails. "It's so bizarre, I couldn't believe it went this far. Being a cop, knowing the law, I could never have arrested me for this."

In the predawn hours of March 17, 2006, Danielle Perry finished her shift as Mercedes and left the Playpen for home. She was being followed by another dancer, showing her a back route to reduce her odds of being nabbed for drunken driving.

Perry herself didn't have any worries; she never drank alcohol at the Playpen. In fact, she worked out a deal with Leitzen, the manager, so that if a customer wanted to buy her a drink the bartender would mix orange juice with cranberry juice. "It would look like a mixed drink and they would pay for a mixed drink, so the bar would make their money," she says.

Being a teetotaler wasn't the only trait that set her apart from her co-workers. Perry, 25 and now working as a certified nursing assistant, grew up in a religious home with a mother who owned a flower shop and a father who owned a trucking company. Her mother died when Perry was 16, and she found herself squabbling with her father. She left home, got married, and had a baby, then realized that her marriage was falling apart. She sought work at the Playpen during a difficult divorce. The late-night schedule and easy money made it possible for her to attend community college and take care of her young daughter during the day. She says she never danced nude, though other dancers and customers dispute that claim.

Danielle Perry, now working as a nursing assistant, stands by her accusation that Lewis sexually assaulted her.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

She rarely socialized with Playpen personnel. "Never did I hang out with them outside the club. I didn't associate myself with that place," she says.

She also didn't flirt with Lewis as the other girls did. Her first impression of him — "What a cocky asshole!" — developed over time into disgust. "I thought he was frickin' weird," she says.

She and Lewis have divergent accounts of the traffic stop. Both say he flashed his lights at her near the railroad tracks on Lyons Road and that she rolled down her window and asked, "What'd I do, Gunner?" He says he hadn't realized it was Perry because she was driving an SUV loaned to her by a friend and it had no license plates (an Indiana registration sticker was affixed inside the back window). She says that's "bullshit — he knew it was me in the car."

Lewis says that as he approached her window she recognized him and yelled, "I don't have time for this," and drove off.

Perry has a more sinister account. She says Lewis approached her window, reached in and placed one hand behind her neck and the other on her crotch, and began kissing her. She struggled free and sped away, stopping in the next town to look for a cop and throw up. When she got home, she woke her father up and told him, in tears, about the assault.

Danielle Perry, now working as a nursing assistant, stands by her accusation that Lewis sexually assaulted her.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Lewis denies kissing or groping Perry. He says he drove back to the Belgium police station and dialed Perry's cell phone, intending to tell her that he would arrest her for fleeing a traffic stop if he saw her within the next 48 hours. She says she answered the phone, heard him say, "Danielle?" and instantly hung up. When he phoned her again — this time about an hour later, from his home — the call went straight to her voice mail. He says the reason he called a second time was to tell her he had calmed down and wouldn't arrest her.

Perry, who has never altered her account, says Lewis's version defies common sense. If she had truly committed a violation, why didn't he call another officer to stop her?

"He knew he was wrong," she says. "He turned around and went home, tried to call me and make it right."

Perry knew that her job as a stripper would dent her credibility; she knew that the only people she could turn to for recourse were other cops, who might even be pals with Lewis. But the next afternoon she gathered her courage, took two friends with her for support, and filed a formal complaint with the Vermilion County Sheriff's Department.

Curiously, nothing came of the complaint until almost a year later.

In December 2006, Lewis was contacted by an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That agent and an Illinois State Police agent met with Lewis and Chief Ghibaudy at the Belgium police station. Lewis says the FBI agent was investigating allegations that prosecutor Mills was trading favors at the courthouse for people who could supply him with prostitutes or cocaine.

That allegation would be difficult to prove. Another prosecutor interviewed for this story, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says there's back-hallway curiosity about why Mills chooses to "nolle prosequi" (or no longer pursue prosecution of) certain cases, but no one has gathered enough examples to demonstrate a clear pattern. Mills recently dropped a Class 1 felony firearms charge against Robert Palmer, a gang member who had been named in a 2006 DPD safety bulletin, when the Black P. Stones had ordered a hit on two officers (Mills had also elected to drop a domestic battery charge against Palmer in 2006). The other gang member listed in that bulletin was Playpen regular Fredell Bryant, who is now in federal custody awaiting trial on narcotics charges.

Mills has never been charged with any drug-related offenses. Aside from one DUI conviction, he has no blemishes on his record, just an eccentric persona that has helped generate a cloud of suspicion. A big man with a receding hairline and a 2-foot long ponytail, Mills is rumored to essentially live at the courthouse — his car is there in the wee hours, and his house is in such a state of disrepair that it appears uninhabitable. Yet he is informally recognized as the first assistant state's attorney and respected for what Christoff calls "his encyclopedic knowledge of Illinois compiled statutes" and his workaholic tendencies.

No one other than Ghibaudy will confirm for the record that the FBI has any interest in Mills. However, law-enforcement officers from three other agencies, speaking on background, said they were aware that a federal agency was collecting information on Mills, and at least two dancers later told Christoff's investigator (a retired Danville police officer) that the same FBI agent had visited them, asking similar questions. One dancer even produced the agent's business card.

A high-ranking gang member, whose identity was verified through the legal system, spoke to Illinois Times on the condition of anonymity and said Mills has been known to dismiss a case in exchange for an ounce or two of cocaine or a sexual favor. The gang member says he recently provided this information to the FBI.

Lewis, on the other hand, says the only help he was able to provide the FBI in December 2006 was to decode stripper names. Hoping to be more useful, Lewis started an informal investigation, asking dancers and bartenders whether they had seen Mills in the club, whether he used cocaine or patronized prostitutes, and telling them he was asking because the FBI needed to know. It was a stunningly stupid thing to do.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah — he was probably real impressed that they even wanted to talk to him. That was not a good move on his part," Christoff says. "I told Dave: One of the mistakes he made was becoming a cop at the age of 43. That's something you do when you're 25, and then you learn by being in that environment that there's certain things you do and certain things you don't to cover your own ass."

Later that same month, a young woman named Audrey White filed a complaint against Lewis. She told authorities that she had seen him at the Playpen and that he had stopped by her house, knocked on her door, and taken her for a ride in his squad car and kissed her. Her mother — alarmed that her daughter had left home in a police car — had dialed 911.

[imag-5]

But White, who sometimes performed at Playpen's amateur nights, had known Lewis for years and had accepted rides from him before. At the time she made her report, she was employed by Lewis' brother Clint Gray. In fact, Gray had taken her to the Playpen the night that Lewis picked her up.

Neither White nor her mother could be reached for this story.

Records show that White's complaint to the sheriff's department sparked a renewed interest in Perry's March 2006 complaint. Detectives reconnected with her, and she provided the phone numbers of other dancers who, she believed, had had encounters with Lewis. One of those was Trinity, who asked that her real name be kept confidential. She confirmed that, yes, Lewis had shown her a picture of his penis next to a beer bottle; she had laughed it off and walked away. She describes him as hopelessly but harmlessly horny, a man who might ask but knew how to take no for an answer. "I've known Gunner for years; I know how he is," she told Illinois Times. "He's a womanizer — always has been, always will be."

She doesn't believe Perry's allegation, because Lewis has also stopped her several times and, she says, "never touched me." She would have never pursued any charges against him if sheriff's deputies hadn't come knocking on her front door. "I didn't want any part of this crap," she says.

Nevertheless, in April 2007 she and six other women were summoned before the grand jury.

In a story Lewis tells repeatedly and consistently, he claims that on the morning he appeared before the grand jury Mills met him in the corridor and asked what he had told the FBI. Caught off guard, Lewis lied: "I don't know what you're talking about, Larry." The prosecutor responded, "Wrong answer!" spun on his heel, and walked away.

The only public record supporting Lewis's claim was a hearing on his motion to have Mills removed from the case and replaced with an attorney from the Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutors. Judge Claudia Anderson, hesitant to set a precedent in which defense attorneys could get staff prosecutors thrown off cases in their own courthouse, hammered Christoff about the request, and he explained gingerly that he had reason to believe that a federal agency was investigating "a member of the state's attorney's office." Mills' boss, State's Attorney Frank Young, did not object.

SAAP Michael Vujovich inherited the behemoth case. Christoff prevailed on a motion to sever the seven complainants, and Vujovich elected to try the state's best case first: the traffic stop involving Danielle Perry.

Even Christoff agrees that Perry made an impressive witness. "She cried, she was emotive, she appeared to be a good-looking, demure, sweet, quiet girl" — here he pauses dramatically — "who dances naked on men for a living. Ya know?"

Using Perry's cell-phone records and her testimony about being unable to call for help, Christoff implied that the traffic stop never happened. Lewis chose not to take the stand in his own defense. During deliberations, the jury sent out an obvious question: "Why did Lewis call Perry at 3:23 a.m.?" The verdict: guilty.

After the trial, Christoff discovered that Perry hadn't disclosed her married name and that she hadn't given a straight answer about a felony conviction in another county for deceptive practices. The conviction was the result of her sister's borrowing Perry's checkbook and bouncing checks, but Christoff used the information to move for a new trial.

That wasn't all. The morning after Lewis was found guilty, Christoff got a phone call from Heaven — the stripper who was the complainant in 15 of the counts, including the sex-on-the-bathroom-sink scene. She told Christoff that Scott Corrie and Gray had asked the dancers to come up with complaints to get Lewis in trouble because his presence was hurting business at the club.

Christoff took a tape recorder to Heaven's home and conducted a lengthy interview. The story she told varied only slightly from her grand-jury testimony: She said she requested the Breathalyzer test and happily had intercourse with Lewis. It was one of two sexual encounters they had, and both were consensual, according to the dancer. "If anything, maybe I raped him," she said.

Corrie and other dancers have disputed Heaven's credibility, but Gray clearly believes that he had some personal influence over the case, at one point meeting with State's Attorney Young to ask him to reduce the charges. "What happened was not the result that I hoped for. I was hoping for him to get professional help," Gray says. "I thought it was absolutely horseshit and they're trying to crucify my brother for being a dumbshit, basically."

Heaven has never backed off her recantation. Though she now requests that her legal name not be published, she stuck by her account in interviews with investigators from the sheriff's department, a civil attorney's investigator, and, earlier this month, with Illinois Times. In April, she repeated her story on the witness stand at Lewis' second trial, and he was found not guilty.

Vujovich acknowledges that Heaven's change of heart torpedoed all of the other charges.

"For her to piss backward on us like she did, I think, just undermined our efforts to have a successful prosecution on the remaining cases," he says. He emphasizes that the plea bargain prevents Lewis from seeking work in law enforcement ever again.

Freedom is about the only valuable Lewis has left. During the 15 months he spent in jail he lost his job as an electrical engineer, his condo, and his SUV — not to mention his deep tan, about 70 pounds of muscle, and quite nearly his sanity. He almost lost his family. He is still mystified at the mountainous case against him and figures that his amateurish snooping on Mills is the only logical explanation.

"You know what happened? They thought I knew more than I really knew, and they panicked. They really did," he says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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