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Big Secrets Erupt in a Small Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wooden shack set back on a bleak stretch of highway outside Ft. Campbell sells Chinese food now. But in the days when off-duty soldiers and locals paraded through its back rooms like carny gawkers, the New Life fitness center was a house of secrets. Most people here had heard the whispers about what went on inside, but no one could have imagined where all those secrets would lead.

The secrets are out now, spreading faster than a barn fire, coursing too quickly for most people in this military-base town of 3,000 to tell the real from the fanciful. At times it seems as if every prominent, red-blooded man in Oak Grove ducked into the New Life Fitness and Massage Parlor for flings with hostesses who went by such racy monickers as “Harley” and “Mercedes.”

It was stunning enough when Tammy Papler, the convicted madam who called herself “Mercedes,” raged during a Town Council meeting in mid-July that Oak Grove’s police and leaders took bribes, botched an unsolved murder case and sought sexual favors at her now-shuttered massage parlor. “This town is crooked,” she barked, “and I’ve got the paperwork to prove it!”

Papler’s allegations were quickly disputed by Oak Grove officials. Michael Burman, the city attorney, questioned her reliability and noted her 1994 arrest for promoting prostitution. “Her allegations shift faster than we can keep up with,” Burman said.

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Then “Harley” came forward to second Papler’s allegations--and Oak Grove’s somnolent civic affairs took on the frenzied air of a backwoods cockfight. “Harley” turned out to be Patty Belew, 26, a town councilwoman who admitted she had turned tricks for two years at the massage parlor before marrying into one of the community’s oldest and largest clans.

Insistent that “the truth has to come out,” Belew has lent Papler’s corruption charges enough credibility to help spur the FBI and the Kentucky State Police to investigate Oak Grove’s government. But Belew fears her “one moment of standing up” could jeopardize her council seat, her job as a mobile home saleswoman and the affection of her family.

“I feel like that lady in ‘Harper Valley PTA,’ ” a weary-eyed Belew said, recalling the 1960s country-song heroine who took on her entire town and won her daughter’s admiration by defiantly exposing its pious hypocrites. “I’m just afraid it ain’t going to end that way.”

That it might not is a reflection of the hard reality of life in American military base towns. Most bases have a tawdry strip nearby where young soldiers can ease their boredom. But when base towns transform into robust communities, depending less on honky-tonk sections for jobs and tax revenue, the adult businesses that prosper there are not so easily uprooted.

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Oak Grove grew from an expanse of burley tobacco farms and trailer parks into a sprawling site of tract homes for soldiers and military retirees. Yet it remained dogged by a reputation for corruption--a taint some here trace to the gaudily painted shanties that have lined Ft. Campbell Boulevard for four decades.

In the early 1950s, police and officials were prosecuted for harassing soldiers who patronized the strip. In recent years, the Christian County sheriff was jailed on federal drug charges. And Oak Grove’s former mayor and police chief were indicted for civic corruption--then later acquitted in federal court.

Only “a clean sweep” by outside authorities, suggested Hopkinsville Community College history professor William T. Turner, a scholar of the area’s past, might “get people around here to even start thinking seriously about whether these places are worth keeping in business. The sad thing is, they’re part of our landscape.”

That landscape has been fertile territory for Papler, 29, a petite woman with a prom queen’s features and a hard-boiled world view, ever since she opened her massage parlor there in 1991. Two years after police raids forced her to close down New Life in 1994, she opened up a new video store next door, not far from Soft-Hearted Sam’s Pawnshop and a lingerie modeling shop that boldly advertises “Lookers!”

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Belew wishes she had never set foot on the highway. When she left the strip in 1994, she was so relieved to be gone that for months afterward, she rarely drove there. “I didn’t want to get near that place,” she recalls now.

Belew’s decision to leave was a stroke of good fortune. Just weeks after she left, two massage parlor hostesses were found dead, their throats slashed, in one of New Life’s back rooms. Soon afterward, Christian County sheriff’s deputies raided the parlor and shut it down.

Without any past arrests, Belew was able to land a respectable job. She lightened the shaggy brown mane around her heart-shaped face. She formed a new family out of the shards of a failed first marriage. And in November 1996, she was elected town councilwoman. Selling double-wide trailers and voting on sewer construction plans were mundane matters, but far preferable to coupling with strangers in the dim back rooms of a massage parlor.

It was not until the night of the council meeting on July 15 that Belew felt the facade of her new life about to rip away. When she drove up to the tiny red brick building that serves as Oak Grove’s City Hall and Utility Office, she was stunned to see her old bosses, Papler and her sleepy-eyed husband, Ronnie, waiting in a car parked outside the council’s meeting room.

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“What are you doing here?” Belew whispered.

“I’m fixing to go in there and end this,” Papler said.

It had been nearly three years since they had seen each other. While Belew had eased her way into respectability, Papler was trying to hold on to the middle-class world she made in the suburban-style ranch house on the Tennessee line she shared with Ronnie, two sons and Baby, her scrawny terrier.

The Paplers had plea-bargained after their arrests, serving two years probation. Now Tammy Papler was back on the strip, owner of Cherry Video, a film store renting Disney classics along with an ample inventory of porno flicks.

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Oak Grove officials informed her that her store was subject to a new law imposing $5,000 annual fees on X-rated firms--a steep rise from typical $50 license fees. Town attorney Burman justifies the levies as a way “to regulate these [adult] businesses.”

Papler was outraged, a skepticism shared by some observers. “Oak Grove is making money on these places when they should be trying to shut them down,” said historian Turner, who is also on the board of the area’s largest bank.

Striding into the hall where Belew sat nervously with Oak Grove officials, Papler rose as soon as the call came for the “citizens’ portion.”

Police and officials had slept with New Life’s prostitutes, she charged, her voice keening. Cops misused evidence left from the unsolved 1994 slayings. One officer, Papler said, “failed a lie-detector test” and was a murder suspect (a charge later verified by Christian County Sheriff’s Maj. Billy Gloyd, who also noted the Paplers had not been ruled out as suspects). And Papler claimed she was forced to pay money to police and buy them equipment.

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“This town ain’t got nothing but a bunch of hypocrites,” she yelled before being hustled out of the meeting room.

The exchanges between Papler, Mayor Bobby Mace and Police Chief Milton Perry flew so fast that when she asked Perry if he remembered pocketing a $1,500 cash offering from her during a 1993 encounter in front of City Hall, the sweating chief blurted out: “Yes, I do.”

Last week, Perry elaborated, saying he had taken the money in front of “City Hall to make sure we had plenty of witnesses. I was afraid she was trying to set me up.”

Perry said he asked John Chewning, then the town’s attorney, what he should do with the cash. The lawyer, he says, told him: “Milton, you can’t accept it as personal money.” Perry said he used some of the money for a staff Christmas party. Papler insists that police divvied it up as a holiday bonus.

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Relations between the town’s seven-officer Police Department and its merchants have long been cozy, Perry says, because the town was too poor to afford the amenities a modern police force needs. “We needed all the donations we could get,” Perry said. When the department needed a new squad car a few years ago, a local veterans group bought one, equipped with “lights and a sireen,” Perry said proudly.

Perry said he would not have condoned any improper contacts between police and the hostesses at the massage parlor. But he admitted he was chagrined when he found that one of his officers had added a new light bar to his squad car, compliments of the New Life fitness center. “It was done behind my back,” Perry said. But the officer kept the light bar.

Morale is low these days inside the old white hut where Perry and his officers are based. One cop had to flee a local cafe, Perry says, when a group of soldiers began snickering about his department’s notoriety. “It’s taking a toll on everybody,” he said.

Still, Papler’s charges might have been dismissed as pure vengeance if Patty Belew had not come to her defense. Belew says she had little choice. As the July 15 council meeting erupted into chaos, Papler yelled: “If y’all don’t believe me, there’s other people, OK?” Then she named Belew, saying: “She’s one of the most honest people that I know, OK?”

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Papler’s veiled reference shook Belew. It was only a matter of time before her past became common knowledge to everyone in town. How would her boss react? How would she explain to her young daughters? Not knowing where to turn, she says, she consulted with Oak Grove officials. But when Burman recommended that she might consider resigning from the council to avoid embarrassment, Belew bridled.

“It was time to stand up,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be left the only bad person up there.”

Two days after the council meeting, Belew drove to Papler’s Tennessee house and defiantly told reporters who had gathered there that she had worked for two years as a prostitute at Papler’s massage parlor.

Belew had joined New Life in November 1991 after answering a classified ad. A retired soldier’s daughter, she had no savings and two young daughters from a failed marriage. “I figured I’d stay just a few weeks, long enough to save some money and get a regular job,” she says now. “But I started making excuses to myself. The money was too easy.”

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She quit several times, but always returned. Making $1,500 a week, she was beginning to build a nest egg.

Most of the men she had sex with were “Screaming Eagle” paratrooper trainees from the 101st Airborne across the highway. But there were familiar faces from around town. Some, Belew says, were prominent citizens. Some, she says, were local law officers, who often sprawled out in the lobby, giggling every time the massage tables squeaked.

When Belew went out in public with her two young daughters, she sometimes passed old customers. “They’d wink at me or give me these knowing stares. My stomach would just drop,” she said.

She had begun dating Joe Belew, a member of an old family with deep lines into the area’s construction and mobile home business. When marriage became a prospect, she worked up the courage to tell him. Joe felt blindsided, but they stayed together.

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After their wedding, Belew fashioned a new life in Oak Grove. Smirking faces were everywhere, but she took comfort in changing herself. Belew took real estate courses and applied for a Realtor’s license. Then, on a whim in the summer of 1996, she decided to run for a Town Council seat.

Like any politician with secrets to hide, Belew worried an opponent might bring up her past. But this was small-town politics. There were no speeches or campaigning, just her name with five others on a ballot. When she won last November with 123 votes--many cast by Belews and locals who knew them--she thought she had finally righted her wrecked life.

“It made me feel for the first time that I wasn’t trash,” Belew said.

Now there is talk of a recall movement. Her boss put her on a forced sabbatical, and Belew fears that she will not be allowed back.

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Some people turned against her when they learned she and Papler recently hired an entertainment lawyer to explore movie deals. “Here you’ve got a councilwoman who’s siding with someone attacking the city,” said Bill Shaut, a bed-and-breakfast owner who heads Oak Grove’s Chamber of Commerce. “How can she stay on the council if she’s against us?”

Still, from the scores of callers who have rung her up late into the night with new tips about town corruption, Belew figures she has some friends left. “See?” she pointed when a passing car honked in support as she stopped to chat with Papler near her video store. At a nearby bank branch, teller Christine Neiman hailed Belew and Papler as “good women. There’s crooked people in every town. Sometimes you need people who’ve seen it close up to start the ball rolling.”

On a recent steamy night, when Papler, Belew, town officials and dozens of onlookers crowded into the City Hall meeting room to hash over the furor one more time, the women noticed several men sitting off by themselves. Strangers in the crowd of familiar faces, they were plainclothes Kentucky State Police agents.

The investigators did not acknowledge the women.

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“That’s OK,” Papler said later. “We’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted.”


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