IRS Raid Is Just Flesh Wound in War on Sex Shop

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last sex shop has survived again.

Community pickets could not stop it.

The Whittier police lacked jurisdiction.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had its turn, arresting employees and patrons and threatening legal action.

Last month, however, Whittier Book and News pulled through what most taxpayers would consider the ultimate test, a bout with the Internal Revenue Service.

In a June 11 morning raid, the IRS swooped down on Whittier Book and News and several other outlets of the 17-store adult bookstore chain to which it belongs. The government sought merchandise and property worth $495,142 to pay back taxes.

Agents limited the take to items such as video cameras and cash registers.

"The IRS is not in the pornography industry," said an investigator. They left behind a pile of sex magazines, along with X-rated videotapes and sex paraphernalia.

Before local residents could comment on the shop's demise, Whittier Book and News had reopened. Even the IRS could inflict no more than a flesh wound on the last so-called adult business in a once-thriving corridor of strip shows, massage parlors and prostitution.

"The taxpayer cleared their account the next day," said an IRS investigator, who chose to remain anonymous. He added that with interest and penalties, the amount owed by parent company EWAP Inc. far exceeded half a million dollars.

The investigator said the company owed taxes for as far back as September, 1985.

"No comment," said Robert DePiano, the attorney and spokesman for EWAP, when asked why the company had not met its tax obligation for years.

He denied that EWAP stands for Erotic Words and Pictures, as the police said. "There are rumors that it stands for many things," he said. "It's not an acronym. It's just EWAP Inc. I mean, what's IBM? Some people say it stands for International Business Machines, but who knows. It's just known as IBM."

Most of EWAP's outlets, such as the one in Lynwood, bear the name Le Sex Shoppe. DePiano explained that the Whittier location has a different title because not all the material is X-rated. A recent inspection of its bookshelves uncovered Louis L'Amour novels and even a Hardy Boys mystery across the store from books such as "Nominated for Nymph."

By any name, the adult bookstore at 10616 Whittier Blvd. has long been a source of frustration to local law enforcement officers and families living nearby. It moved into the neighborhood in 1977 as a business called Library One during a time when local efforts to oppose adult businesses reached their peak.

"We were one of the main areas of adult-oriented business in Southern California. A little conservative community like Whittier," said Lt. Tom Marino, a station commander with the Whittier Police Department.

He said the first adult business moved to Whittier Boulevard, just east of the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway, in about 1970.

"When one adult business is successful, they come in droves," Assistant Chief of Police Brad Hoover said.

In all, 13 adult bookstores, nude modeling studios and massage parlors called Whittier home by 1975, along with an estimated 60 to 80 prostitutes. Families in the area formed Whittier Area Citizens for Decency Through Law and could dispatch dozens of pickets to shops such as Models in Action, Pick-a-Dilly Models or Magic Touch Massage.

Whittier police, under the direction of Officer Marino, began criminal investigations and what is known as civil abatement procedures against businesses in the red-light district. After gathering evidence to show a pattern of prostitution, the department had the firepower it needed to shut down the operations as public nuisances.

By 1979, only two adult businesses remained, in part because neither was involved in prostitution. The October, 1987, earthquake damaged the former Pussycat Theater downtown, forcing it to shut down. The operators sold out, and the theater is now being renovated as a first-run, multiscreen cinema.

The lone survivor is Whittier Book and News.

There never has been anything Whittier police could do about the cramped, unobtrusive storefront, lodged between a Latino bakery and a printing store that specializes in wedding invitations. The south side of Whittier Boulevard is county territory, in the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"I went to the hearings by the county Planning Commission to prevent that bookstore from coming in," Marino said. His efforts failed and EWAP Inc. set up shop even as the city was turning the boulevard's north side from a red-light zone to a strip of grassy park, where children now play pick-up soccer games.

Since last November, the Sheriff's Department has entered the fray. The department has adopted its own civil-abatement strategy, and the outcome is still uncertain.

Vice squad deputies have fewer tools at their disposal than did the Whittier police when they dealt with the north side of the street 15 years ago. "We used pornography statutes at the time and took material that judges deemed pornographic," Hoover said. "When we were doing it, the definition of pornography was not as restrictive as it is today."

Even so, two Hawaiian Gardens adult bookstores have closed since the Sheriff's Department began an abatement process against them, said Sgt. Greg Johnson of the vice bureau. There are currently only three adult bookstores remaining in the 39 cities and unincorporated county lands patrolled by the Sheriff's Department.

Abatement procedures were started against Whittier Book and News after repeated incidents of lewd conduct, Johnson said.

"Before improvements were made," Johnson said, "we could make 15 arrests in a day. It (lewd conduct) was rampant.

"Generally speaking, it was homosexual activity in the video arcade section: indecent exposure, sex acts" between strangers.

"There were no acts of prostitution. It was between patrons. I recall some time ago that we arrested a clerk for obstructing justice when he was identifying undercover operatives to patrons."

Johnson said the first step in abatement is to tell the owners, "You have a real problem here, and it's time to do something about it."

"They were somewhat cooperative," Johnson said.

Management improved lighting and added video surveillance cameras. Signs outside the 12 viewing booths now warn patrons in English and Spanish against switching booths.

Johnson said that EWAP has resisted removing the doors from the booths, which are about the size of department store dressing room stalls. The company also has failed to hire a full-time security guard. Although arrests have declined to one or two a month, "as long as there are any arrests, we aren't satisfied," Johnson said. "We want full-time security and if the owner does not agree, we can get a court injunction."

If lewd conduct ceases, Johnson said, the department will consider the problem solved.

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