After the upstart Club Onyx started taking business from other strip clubs, the operators of rival Platinum 21 dreamed up ways to shut it down.
They tried littering the place with roaches, then infesting it with rats. And when all else failed, prosecutors say, they tried to burn the place down.
The January 2007 fire shut down Club Onyx for six months and caused $1.8 million in damage and lost sales, according to court documents. It also led to a federal case against three employees of Platinum 21, who were each sentenced Tuesday to federal prison on conspiracy to commit arson charges.
Sandeo Dyson, a 46-year-old security chief who set the club ablaze, and Boyd Smith, the 41-year-old manager charged with helping to plot the arson, were both sentenced to five years in prison. Harold "Bit" Thrower, the club's corporate manager, was sentenced to three years for arranging the deal.
"Setting afire a rival business to gain a competitive edge is not only a threat to free enterprise, it is a crime of violence," said Gregory Gant, the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Atlanta bureau. "Every time an arsonist strikes a match, the loss of human life is a distinct possibility."
Competition is heated among the 35 or so strip clubs in the Atlanta area, said a local lawyer who represents the adult industry, adding that he's aware of at least two other arson plots since the early 1980s among dueling club owners. The crowded market is fed by a steady stream of convention attendees and other tourists, coupled with laws that allow drinks to be served at the clubs.
"Atlanta has the very rare combination of alcohol and nude dancing, which you don't find in many places in the country," said Alan Begner, whose clients have included adult book stores, clubs and strippers. "And that also means there is competition."
Club Onyx shook up Atlanta's adult entertainment scene in late 2006, hosting parties for rap stars and attracting an upscale young clientele. The club soon became a destination for high-rollers who flocked to its spacious dance floor and themed events. And soon it was hurting the bottom line of Platinum 21, an aging club in northeast Atlanta, according to court testimony by Thrower.
Thrower compared it to a "single-wide trailer competing with the Taj Mahal" at trial last year.
Thrower told his employees in November 2006 that their pay would be cut if the club's revenues continued to drop. He told ATF investigators that he hired Dyson, an Army veteran, to "solve the Club Onyx problem," according to a federal affidavit.
But when rodents and bugs didn't derail the club's success, Thrower testified he and Smith, the club's manager, paid Dyson $5,000 to burn it down.
The blaze devastated the club, whose manager declined to comment Tuesday. But it left an internal surveillance system intact. The videotape showed a man starting the fire and then scurrying out of the building. Still, the case went unsolved for six months until ATF agents zeroed in on Thrower.
He led them to Smith and Dyson, an Army medic who was moonlighting at Platinum 21. Thrower and Dyson both pleaded guilty and testified against Smith during a six-day trial in February.
Smith's attorney during the trial argued his client had nothing to do with the blaze and that prosecutors were relying on unsavory witnesses worried about protecting themselves. The jury deliberated for four hours before convicting Smith last February.
At the sentencing hearing, Dyson apologized for damaging the reputation of the Army while Smith professed his innocence, maintaining he played a minor role in the plot. Thrower, meanwhile, received a lesser sentence because of his history of cooperating with authorities.