When a pair of political insiders set out to strike it rich in the strip club business, they picked a site in a middle-class suburb where one of them was close to the mayor.
Then they turned to organized crime associates and felons to help bankroll and run the enterprise. When it needed janitorial service, the club paid a firm founded by the suburb's mayor.
It proved to be a lucrative business model for Polekatz Gentlemen's Club in southwest suburban Bridgeview.
A Tribune investigation has uncovered the behind-the-scenes story of Polekatz: how political players, ex-cops and mob associates helped build and run a multimillion-dollar strip club, paying for high salaries, luxury cars and lavish homes.
The club's shadowy control and murky funding illustrate how easy it can be for felons to get in the business of selling liquor and skin despite laws aimed at keeping them out. The mayor is the first line in enforcing such laws, and Bridgeview Mayor Steve Landek's ties to Polekatz only heighten the concern of watchdogs.
The findings, gathered from court records and public documents, set off alarm bells for the Chicago Crime Commission, which has been exposing organized crime for nearly a century.
"It looks like this club is the result of investments by people with backgrounds that don't lend themselves to holding liquor licenses," said Art Bilek, commission vice president. "For a sensitive establishment like a strip joint, it is very critical the mayor understands who owns it, who is paying to operate it and who is taking the profits out of it."
Landek publicly opposed the strip club, but the village eventually settled a lawsuit that let it open in 2005.
Polekatz's listed owner has always been an attorney, Stephen Dabrowski. But by 2007 a lawsuit was filed that claimed Polekatz was secretly owned by Steve Reynolds, a former Landek aide and close friend of Dabrowski's. The lawsuit was filed by Reynolds' wife shortly after his death.
The lawsuit is ongoing and has spurred depositions and court records that detail the role of felons as lenders and high-paid consultants. Felons are not allowed under Illinois law to have an ownership interest in a liquor license unless granted an exemption.
Landek, who is also a state lawmaker, declined to give a detailed interview. He said he listens to the advice of attorneys when it comes to approving Polekatz's liquor license.
Bridgeview attorneys said it is best for the judge overseeing the lawsuit to decide who owns the club. Meanwhile, they said state law gives Landek little wiggle room to shut it down since no felons are listed as "owners."
Dabrowski denies he is a front, saying he controls "everything" about the club.
By several accounts, the idea for Polekatz started with Reynolds, a muscular political insider who was a warehouse supervisor for the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
Back in 2001, Reynolds talked about building a southwest suburban strip club with political consultant David Donahue, as the pair worked to re-elect Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese.
"It started out just the two of us," Donahue said in a 2009 deposition.
An untapped market existed in the southwest suburbs' middle-class region. Most of the area's strip joints were in struggling towns such as Harvey or Markham.
And Reynolds was establishing connections with a political up-and-comer in the region: Landek. He had been in local politics since the 1970s, first at the park district, then the village and township.
The two met at a political event, Landek said in a deposition not directly related to the Polekatz lawsuit. Landek said he would later turn to Reynolds to submit purchase orders at the forest preserve district for the mayor's janitorial supply firm, Eco-Chem.
Landek said he hired Reynolds — who had once been a police officer — in late 2002 for special mayoral assignments in which he would probe local bars and the suburb's public works department.
By the summer of 2003, Reynolds was scouting sites in Bridgeview for his club. Then a strip club application came for a building in an industrial park off Harlem Avenue.
The Village Board voted down the idea, resulting in a lawsuit.
By late 2004, Bridgeview officials signed off on the settlement to let the club open. And Landek issued the club's liquor license.
Polekatz's listed owner: the attorney Dabrowski, a longtime friend of Reynolds'.
Dabrowski said in his deposition that Reynolds was involved in the club's founding and operations, but denied Reynolds ever held an ownership interest.
Political consultant Donahue said he and Reynolds didn't own the club on paper and even set up an off-shore company to funnel money to "shield" their interest. He said in his deposition that being listed as an owner could cast a shadow on his consulting work.
The mayor was certainly aware of Reynolds' involvement. Landek contacted Reynolds to arrange a walk-through before the Polekatz grand opening. It was Reynolds, he said, who guided him around for part of the tour.
From the ground floor
Beyond village approval, those behind Polekatz needed money.
Reynolds' fiancee at the time, Adriana Mazutis, said the couple plowed a significant amount of cash into the project after refinancing their houses. The consultant Donahue said he put in about $85,000. The attorney-owner Dabrowski said he came up with roughly $25,000 to start the club.
Those involved also turned to friends and others for loans over the years. One of the biggest came in cash, stacked "in paper bags," Mazutis said in a deposition.
A loan of $500,000 came from former Franklin Park police Officer Anthony Quaranta, records show.
Joseph D. Mangiamele, who pleaded guilty in 1998 in a college basketball point-shaving scheme, lent the club $200,000. Mangiamele told the Tribune he was doing a friend a favor in lending the money and didn't know at first it was going to a strip club.
Frank Lawson, a truck driver at the time with a felony drug conviction on his record, said he put in about $25,000. He didn't return phone calls.
Sam S. Sarcinelli lent $50,000 to deck out the club with TVs. Identified by the crime commission as an organized crime associate, he was imprisoned in the 1970s and '80s for an insurance scam, a major cocaine-selling operation and a stock swindle.
Sarcinelli, 78, told the Tribune that is all behind him.
"That was another life," he said.
Sarcinelli said in his deposition that he thought mayoral aide Reynolds was the club's owner: "If you walk like a duck and you talk like a duck and you shed water like a duck, you're a duck."
Cash rolls in
When Polekatz's doors finally opened in mid-2005, cash started rolling in — roughly $4.3 million annually just to the club, according to court records.
The revenue paid the leases on BMWs, Cadillacs, a Mercedes and a Mini Cooper driven by Reynolds, Dabrowski, the truck driver Lawson and others, records show.
Fred Pascente got a car — in addition to his pay as a consultant — and his rent paid on a town house. The former Chicago police detective isn't allowed in Las Vegas casinos because the Chicago Crime Commission labeled him an organized crime associate, documents show. He pleaded guilty in the mid-1990s in an insurance fraud scheme.
Pascente declined to comment, other than to say he is reformed and not an organized crime associate.
For Reynolds and Mazutis, who were married in 2006, the club at one point was paying the mortgage on three houses: two in the suburbs and one in Grand Haven, Mich. On top of that, Mazutis said she was being paid upward of $5,000 a week.
Reynolds paid himself in cash from "dancer revenue and champagne rooms," his consultant pal Donahue said in his deposition. But as for how much, "I didn't ask; he didn't tell me."
When Reynolds had a falling out with his wife, he moved into a $1.2 million Elmhurst house that Sarcinelli said he bought at Reynolds' urging. Sarcinelli said the club paid him about $12,000 a month rent on the house. The club also installed ATMs owned by Sarcinelli's company.
Meanwhile, the club paid Eco-Chem, the company founded by the mayor, for maintenance and cleaning supplies, Dabrowski said in response to questions from the Tribune.
The Tribune found copies in court files of two Polekatz checks written to "Eco Chem" totaling $2,855. One was dated in July 2006, and the second was dated in March 2007.
A few months before the first check, Mayor Landek came off state records as the company's longtime secretary and part-owner. In an email, Landek told the Tribune he "relinquished" the company to employees "to avoid any potential conflict of interest" in late 2005.
Yet, it was Landek's girlfriend and one of his relatives who took over the company at that point, according to state records. And Landek was still listed as the company's registered agent.
In a brief interview, Landek told the Tribune he "may have been aware" that Eco-Chem sold janitorial supplies to Polekatz.
Dabrowski said he was "aware of the connection" to Landek "but saw no harm in it." It remained unclear how many times Eco-Chem was paid or how much.
On March 29, 2007, Reynolds was vacationing in Phoenix and in the midst of divorcing Mazutis, whom he had dated for 20 years.
Sarcinelli said in his deposition he got a call from Reynolds that day — the man wanted out of Polekatz and back into his marriage. The two singled out one potential buyer, Michael Wellek, a prolific suburban strip joint owner who once hid $12 million from the IRS in a warehouse.
Reynolds died the next day, setting off a chain of events that would eventually lay out the story of Polekatz in court records.
The medical examiner ruled Reynolds' death was caused by heart disease in combination with alcohol and opiates. Mazutis now believed she owned the club through his estate.
But debt was piling up at Polekatz. Some wanted to cash out, including the political consultant Donahue.
"I just told them they should find a million dollars to buy me out," Donahue said.
Amid the mess, ex-cop Quaranta and ex-con Demitri Stavropoulos stepped up.
Stavropoulos, identified by the Chicago Crime Commission as an organized crime associate, was only about a year removed from federal prison for running a multistate bookmaking ring.
Quaranta quit the Franklin Park police in late 2002, about the time prosecutors dropped charges that he had illegal steroids delivered to his house.
Quaranta and Stavropoulos became $5,000-a-week consultants to Polekatz, and the widow Mazutis was out. Stavropoulos' brother recorded a $1.2 million loan to the club on public records.
Stavropoulos and Quaranta declined to be interviewed.
Mazutis, who filed suit to gain control of the club in mid-2007, declined to comment.
And the attorney Dabrowski, who told the Tribune he is the sole owner who oversees "everything," said he didn't know his several consultants and lenders had criminal backgrounds.
The allegations surrounding club ownership drew Cook County Judge Rita Novak to remark during a hearing last year: "Frankly, if these facts are true, charitably you'd call them unsavory. Some of them might even appear sinister."
Bridgeview is a defendant in the lawsuit. And village attorneys sat through hours of depositions in 2009, including those of Dabrowski, Mazutis, Sarcinelli, Donahue, Quaranta and Stavropoulos.
Even though village attorneys heard ex-cons were involved and the ownership was being questioned in court, the mayor signed off on liquor licenses for the club later that year and again in late 2010.
Landek said he listens to village attorneys on whether to approve the license. Attorney Mary Patricia Burns said it is best for the village to let the judge sort out the ownership.
"We are not in the position as the village to weigh who is telling the truth and who is not telling the truth," Burns said.
Bridgeview attorney Vincent Pinelli said Landek can do little about consultants and lenders to the club, so long as local laws are being followed.
Unimpeded in Bridgeview, those involved in Polekatz continue to branch out.
Political consultant Donahue has been trying to open a strip club in west suburban Broadview off Interstate 290. Ex-cop Quaranta opened a Polekatz in Gary, Ind., and moved to start a "bikini bar" in Houston.
Quaranta remains a consultant at Polekatz, but Dabrowski said Stavropoulos, Pascente, Lawson and Sarcinelli are no longer involved. Mangiamele said most of his money was paid back.