Legal twists tangle sex case
Nude dance studio owner balks at being labeled a sex offender
Ky Christy admits he has made a lot of mistakes in the last few years.
First, he opened a nude dance studio without understanding the inner workings of Portland's sex industry. That led to hiring a 16-year-old dancer without checking to see if she was at least 18 Ñ the legal age to work in an adult business.
Then he lied to police about checking her identification.
But his biggest mistake, he said, was pleading guilty to one count of attempting to use a minor in a sex display last August.
The 33-year-old Christy said he originally accepted the plea bargain agreement because he thought he would receive probation. Instead, after pleading guilty Christy learned he would be sentenced to 20 months in jail and be required to register as a sex offender for the next 10 years.
Now Christy is on the verge of making what could turn out to be another mistake: He has asked to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial on the original charges. The Multnomah County district attorney's office is fighting the withdrawal attempt; a hearing is scheduled for today.
'It isn't the jail time I'm worried about, it's the sex offender registration,' Christy said. 'I made some mistakes but never touched the girl or forced her to do anything against her will. I'm not a sex offender.'
Deputy District Attorney Christine Mascal, who prosecuted the case, said Christy knew what he was doing and is simply going back on his word. Mascal said Christy knew the girl was only 16.
'He pleaded guilty to knowing, now he's getting cold feet because he's looking at pen time,' Mascal said. If the case goes to trial, Mascal is confident she will be able to prove Christy knew the girl was a minor.
If he is found guilty, the sentence could be much harsher than the deal he initially agreed to. The Measure 11 offense carries a minimum 70-month prison sentence, and anyone convicted of such a crime must register with the state as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Authorities say no one forced him to open a nude dance studio. He voluntarily started a business where women get paid to strip and perform lewd acts before complete strangers. And one of his dancers was underage.
'We believe it is a business that preys on women,' said Portland police Sgt. Mike Stevenson of the Drugs and Vice Division. 'It puts women in the position of thinking that the only way they can make money is to sell their bodies. And when the women are minors, that impacts the entire community.'
At the same time, Christy has never been convicted of any other crime. He had operated a successful martial arts studio whose clients included police officers.
'I have no excuse,' he said. 'It's my fault. I didn't see her ID, and it was my responsibility. But I didn't know she was 16.'
Selling women for money
When Christy opened Aja's Lingerie Modeling in August 2000, he was looking for easy money.
Christy had worked for much of his life, moving with his family to the Aloha area from Vietnam when he was 4. After high school, Christy earned an associate degree in architecture from the National Education Center in Glendale, Ariz., only to realize it would take years of managing the details of construction projects before he would design anything.
Frustrated, Christy fell back on an old interest Ñ martial arts Ñ and began operating and teaching at the Straight Blast Gym in Beaverton. But after a few years, Christy sought an easier way to make a living. When a friend said there was a lot of money in operating adult businesses, Christy looked into it.
By the mid-1990s, hundreds of adult businesses were springing up throughout the Portland area. Government regulation is minimal, since courts have ruled that nude dancing is free speech protected by the Oregon Constitution. Entertainers must be 18 or older and, of course, prostitution is illegal. But nude dancers are allowed to perform a variety of sex acts Ñ simulated and real Ñ on themselves.
Christy said he had frequented strip clubs and had no problem with them. He also was aware that Portland had hundreds of escort services but considered them a front for prostitution.
'I consider nude dancing to be entertainment, and I know prostitution is a crime,' Christy said.
He quickly decided that a strip club would be too much trouble; dealing with employee taxes and Oregon Liquor Control Commission regulations seemed like too much work.
In contrast, a nude dance studio sounded easy. Euphemistically called 'lingerie modeling studios,' such businesses are essentially a series of small rooms where men buy private performances by erotic entertainers. Customers pay a flat fee to the businesses Ñ usually under $50 Ñ and an additional $20 or so to the dancer for a basic half-hour strip tease.
Customers who want more than a nude dance negotiate with a dancer or dancers. The more dancers involved, the higher the cost. Legally, the customers and dancers cannot touch one another in a sexual manner during the performances.
Although such businesses open and close all the time, approximately 20 shops currently are offering private nude shows in the Portland area, Stevenson said.
Such businesses are legal under the Oregon Constitution. Although a recent Douglas County court ruling suggests that certain forms of contact between dancers might be illegal, it has been appealed and probably will take years to resolve.
When searching for a business, Christy discovered that private dance studios could be tremendously profitable; one studio he checked out was clearing almost $15,000 a month. The owners weren't even on the premises very often Ñ the dancers basically took care of all day-to-day matters.
'It looked like an easy way to make a lot of money,' Christy said. 'It was as simple as that.'
The bare truth
But as it turned out, the business was anything but simple.
Although most studios are located on the outskirts of town, Christy decided to open his downtown. He leased the third floor of a brick building at 314 W. Burnside St. for $1,000 a month, then spent $30,000 building small rooms and installing a video monitoring system to make sure that nothing illegal happened in them.
When Christy opened Aja's, he thought it would cater to visiting businessmen who would be willing to drop a couple of hundred dollars for a experience they could share with their friends. Instead, few customers showed up, and those who did thought they could buy sex Ñ pure and simple.
'They'd come up and ask, 'How much for sex?' ' Christy said. 'When I said that was illegal, they'd get disgusted and leave.'
Puzzled, Christy began calling other studio owners to find out what he was doing wrong. What he learned surprised him.
According to Christy, nude dance studios in Portland are supported by a core group of several hundred men who visit them almost every night. Many purchase performances at several studios a night, driving from one to another before they run out of money.
Most studios are located on the outskirts of town, Christy said, because downtown's heavy traffic and limited parking are a hassle.
Christy also learned a painful economics lesson. When he opened Aja's, Portland's adult business industry was booming. But, as Christy now sees things, the supply was exceeding the demand. With so many nude dance studios, customers were demanding Ñ and getting Ñ more services for less money.
Portland police Lt. Cliff Madison agrees.
'I have no doubt that's the case. It's a simple matter of supply and demand, and there's a lot of people in the industry,' said Madison, head of the Drugs and Vice Division.
Business eventually began to pick up and by early December 2000, Aja's was making between $300 and $400 a day in $40 fees, known as payments to the 'house.' But Christy was stressed by the constant pressure of the business and decided to get out in summer 2001.
The dream of easy money had turned into a nightmare.
From bad to worse
Christy said he didn't find any takers right away but the owner of another nude dance studio eventually agreed to buy Aja's in November and take possession in January.
Before the deal closed, however, Christy got a call from a woman wanting to work at his studio. Christy said he understood her to say she was working at another studio but did not like the owner. When she came by a few days later, Christy showed her around. He said she was attractive and sounded levelheaded, so he decided to let her work there.
Christy said he asked to see her ID, but she said it was at home. He intended to have her bring it in before allowing her to work, he said, but forgot. As it turned out, she was only 16.
The girl's mother called Portland police on Dec. 20, 2001. According to police records, the mother said she'd found some paperwork that indicated her daughter was working at Aja's under the name Aspen. Drugs and Vice Unit investigator Greg Duvic called Aja's and asked who was working there. The woman who answered the phone told him Aspen and Kayla.
Duvic and several other investigators went to Aja's to see if Aspen was the 16-year-old girl. While the others waited outside, Duvic went upstairs posing as a customer. A woman who identified herself as Kayla opened the door, let him in and asked if he was interested in a nude show. He said yes and asked whether anyone else was working there who could participate.
Kayla went into a back room and returned with a girl she introduced as Aspen. Duvic thought she looked younger than 18. He then asked both women if they would do a show, and when they said yes, Duvic called the other investigators on his cell phone and asked them to secure the studio.
During an interview with police, Aspen gave them her real name and admitted that she was only 16. As the police were preparing to leave, Christy walked into the business.
Informed of the situation, Christy agreed to talk with the investigators without consulting an attorney. He told them how the girl had called him for work, but he lied about knowing her age. Instead of saying he never confirmed her age, Christy told officers she had showed him an Oregon ID card that said she was 18.
Christy said he panicked and made a mistake in lying about seeing the card.
'When the cops said she was underage, I was shocked,' he said. 'She looked older to me, and I thought she had already been working at another studio.'
The police did not arrest Christy, who now says he didn't understand how much trouble he was in at the time. He finished selling Aja's in late January. He helped open another nude dance studio in Beaverton but sold his share after a few weeks.
Then a Multnomah County grand jury indicted Christy on six counts of using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct. He was arrested on Valentine's Day 2001 and lodged in the Multnomah County Justice Center jail.
When the story was picked up by the media, Christy instantly became the poster boy for the dark side of Portland's sex industry. His mug shot appeared in the local newspapers and on all four television stations.
'That was when I realized how serious this was,' he said.
Breaking the deal
Still, Christy was convinced that he had not broken the law. The indictment charged him with 'knowingly' using a child in a sexually explicit display. Because he never checked her ID, Christy insists he didn't know her true age.
The Multnomah County district attorney's office offered Christy a deal. They said if he pleaded guilty to one count of the 'sexually explicit conduct' charge, they would agree to recommend a sentence of 20 months in jail and 10 years as a registered sex offender.
Christy accepted the deal, pleading guilty during an Aug. 14 court hearing. But he balked at another part of the deal Ñ publicly admitting he knew the girl was 16.
'I admit it was my responsibility, but it's tough for me to say I knew,' Christy told Multnomah County Circuit Judge Jerome LaBarre during the hearing.
Despite the waffling, LaBarre accepted the guilty plea and set sentencing for Sept. 16.
A few days later, Christy decided to withdraw his plea. According to Christy, he misunderstood how firm the deal was at the hearing. He assumed the judge would look at his record, accept his argument that he did not know the girl was 16 and consider placing him on probation. Instead, Christy now says, the judge took his guilty plea as meaning he accepted the recommended sentence Ñ something Christy says he never intended to do.
'I thought I could plead to not checking her age, and the judge would take that into account,' he said. 'I thought I could get probation. But after the plea, my lawyer said no, the deal was 20 months and 10 years as a registered sex offender. That's not what I thought I agreed to.'
The Multnomah County district attorney's office is fighting the withdrawal attempt, arguing that Christy knew what he was doing and has simply changed his mind. Mascal concedes that Christy was naive when he opened Aja's. But she says he is still on the verge of making the biggest mistake of his young life.
'It doesn't make sense to me to look a gift horse in the mouth,' she says of the original deal, 'but that's what he's doing.'