Crime & Courts

‘Naked is being naked.’ Strip club, prostitution den poses as restaurant, sheriff says

Richland Sheriff takes action on law-breaking “strip club” business

Richland County Sheriff's Department prepares to pit stop work order on Mi Casita's, a restaurant on Decker Blvd. that has been operating as a strip club against zoning rules.
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Richland County Sheriff's Department prepares to pit stop work order on Mi Casita's, a restaurant on Decker Blvd. that has been operating as a strip club against zoning rules.

A Columbia business that purports to be a restaurant has little to no kitchen but does have a room behind a curtain where customers can “get a little extra,” according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

Tryst, a business on River Drive, claims to be a restaurant but is actually a strip club and prostitution house, Lott said. The club’s website features images of women wearing lingerie and string bikinis as well as an advertisement for their June “Studs of Steel” event which has a picture of a shirtless, muscular man.

The State was unable to reach owners of Tryst.

The club is also violating an agreement with the county and nearby community to operate within certain hours and stipulations, the sheriff said.

Investigators discovered the business’ illegal acts during a covert operation, according to Lott. An undercover deputy went into the club and took photos and video of nude women dancing on a stage and observed solicitation of prostitution.

Lott said at Tryst people get alcohol, and they get lap dances and if you pay $300 you get to go behind a curtain that lines the stage.

“That’s where you get a little bit extra,” Lott said. “That is not a restaurant. ... It was like they were daring us to do something.”

At a Tuesday news conference, Lott announced that his department did do something. In the early hours of Sunday morning, the sheriff and dozens of deputies raided Tryst with a search warrant and found “more than a dozen women in scantily clad outfits racing to put clothes on and rush out of the door,” a department statement said.

Deputies issued a stop work order on the business requiring that they halt the stripping. However, the business can remain open. If Tryst continues to have strippers it can be fined more than $1,000 a day.

While illegally operating as a strip club with a restaurant license, Tryst is also violating a zoning ordinance that no sexually oriented business be located within a thousand feet of a church, according to Lott. New Heart Community Church is about 500 feet away.

At the news conference, Lott voiced his most incredulous indictment of Tryst for violating an agreement with the community and law enforcement which the business’ owners made about two years ago.

Under different names, the business at 3722 River Dr. operated as a strip club throughout the 2000s, Lott said, gaining the ire of nearby Earlewood residents. In 2006 a Columbia attorney who was at the club shot and killed a bouncer. In 2010, two more people were shot at what was then Club Crush.

An administrative judge refused to give the business a license in 2013 and it closed down. In 2017, owners looking to reopen the business told community leaders and Richland authorities they wanted to operate Tryst as a legitimate restaurant and help the community, according to Lott. An agreement with the sheriff’s department and neighborhoods to close at 12 a.m. and not operate as a sexually oriented business was codified in the Department of Revenue’s alcohol license for Tryst. The owners went as far as to post the agreement inside the club.

“As we’ve seen in the past, this didn’t last long,” Lott said. “They blatantly disregarded anything in the order that we agreed to. ... It was just a slap in the face of law enforcement and the community with what they were doing.”

Lott is frustrated by the slow process that his department has to go through to close down Tryst.

While deputies closed one club under a new Richland County ordinance that allows the sheriff’s department to shutter “nuisance” businesses and another closed under threat of being shutdown, being an illegally operating strip club and prostitution den does not rise to the county’s requirements for the sheriff to padlock the doors, he said.

Deputies have submitted petitions to the South Carolina Department of Revenue requesting the agency take away Tryst’s license to sell alcohol, effectively stopping the business from making any money. Deputies will be asking an administrative judge at the county to strip Tryst of its business license, Lott said, which would result in fines for every day it was open without the proper credentials.

Lott called out the Department of Revenue for not making the revocation of Tryst’s license a priority.

“That process has got to be faster,” Lott said. “There’s got to be more faith put into the sheriff and law enforcement that when we see something and that we can prove something, that action is taken based on what we can prove. And that’s not the case right now.”

Unlike other clubs that the sheriff’s department targeted, Tryst has not had any recent violent incidents and hasn’t received as many calls for police. Between July 2017 and August 2019, deputies showed up to the business 20 times. Another business the department targeted, Mi Casita recently closed under pressure from the sheriff after it had 50 calls for the police for fights, shootings and a homicide in 2017.

Even without guns firing or fist flying, Lott said Tryst needs to be shut down for what is going on inside.

“When you’re dancing and you have no clothes on and you’re taking money for sex, that’s a sexually-oriented business,” Lott said. “There’s no gray line here. Naked is being naked.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.