By Michael E. Miller
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As Brian Dodge and Mike Silver approached the entryway to Storm around 9 p.m., the sound of DJ-spun music pulsated into the street from the nightclub. The fledgling gay club -- leasing space at Chili Pepper in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Sundays -- was well into its second day of operation March 5 last year. Inside, about 200 patrons were mingling, drinking, and dancing. Standing five feet, nine inches tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, William Ash, Storm's promoter, was impossible to ignore as he held court within the cavernous space. The gay, garrulous 35-year-old flashed his broad smile as he glad-handed guests. At times he greeted customers as they paid the $5 cover at the security checkpoint.
Dodge and Silver, both age 18, were old enough to enter but too young to drink; the bouncers admitted them but didn't give them the wristbands they supposedly needed to be served alcohol. Undaunted, the young men headed straight to the bar and ordered bottles of Budweiser. A bartender served them without question.
None of Storm's seven bartenders, six of whom served Dodge and Silver during a 20-minute period, suspected the duo were acting as aides to the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (ABT). Six plainclothes agents from the ABT had followed them into the club and, after observing the purchases, began calmly issuing misdemeanor citations to the bartenders. The corpulent Ash loudly protested the bust; he too was cited. The raid effectively doomed Ash's latest in a long line of failed promotional schemes.
Ash had pitched the idea to Chili Pepper owner Eric Levin, who saw it as a chance to revitalize the club at 200 W. Broward Blvd., maybe even re-create some of the near-legendary Sunday tea dances held at the same locale when it was called Backstreets a decade earlier. And it seemed to Levin that the gregarious Ash would be the one to usher in this renaissance. Ash had been a successful promoter of other gay events, from drag queen shows to concerts -- or so Levin's staff had heard through the nightclub grapevine. So in February Levin agreed to let Ash bring in his own staff on Sundays to operate Storm. Ash would keep the $5 per-person admission; Levin would receive the liquor receipts.
But as promotions for the new club began appearing, some observers were alarmed to learn Ash was at the eye of the Storm. "I knew the guy was a fraud, and I tried to stop him before he hurt people," says Norman Kent, an attorney active in gay issues and the publisher of The Express, a gay newspaper.
One national booking agent warned Levin, "This guy isn't on the level."
But such is the power of Ash's personality and promises that Levin ignored the warnings. Levin, however, was only the latest victim to fall under Ash's swagger and charm. During the previous 16 years, Ash had duped and swindled dozens: writing bad checks, using stolen credit cards, burglarizing businesses, evading income tax. "I know how he can spellbind people," Kent says. "It's in his blood; it's in his nature. He doesn't know how else to live."
South Florida teems with grifters, dreamers, and small-time operators hoping to hit the big time. For most of his adult life, Ash's bread and butter has been the seamy escort business. His forays into concert and club promotion have routinely ended in broken promises and rubber checks -- although they were always more ego trips than business ventures. Storm, however, was Ash's big chance to connect with Fort Lauderdale's gay population and burgeoning gay tourism. Alas, the trail of creditors, plaintiffs, and victims Ash has left in the wake of his life of petty crime and perfidy has included a few too many influential figures in the gay community for him to ever go legit.
"There's nothing you're going to write that I'm concerned about at all," Ash declares during a phone interview in early May. New Times had requested a face-to-face interview at Ash's Pembroke Pines apartment, but there's no time for that, he apologizes, because he's packing to go to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the summer with his lover. He won't be back until September, maybe October. The maids are just about done packing, Ash says, and at one point he excuses himself from the interview and says loudly, "Whenever you're ready, I'm ready to go."
When Ash calls New Times from his apartment two weeks later, P-town has been forgotten. He leaves two voice mail messages -- at 1:30 a.m. The first message, which is cut off by the voice mail system after two minutes, concerns his willingness to answer any questions. His inflection is calm and effeminate, a voice he describes as "a more gay voice than anyone else in the world." His second two-minute installment is edgier, warning, "If you go into a lot of negativity, the lawyers will get involved." Still, he bids a chipper adieu: "S'right? S'right."
When Storm went belly-up last year, Ash's attention returned fully to the escort business. He once was forbidden to dabble in the companionship trade under the terms of a court-ordered probation; even though he is no longer under court supervision, he still tries to minimize his role. "I'm an employee only handling the advertisements," he insists. "I've never seen a manager of the business. I've never seen a girl. I've only seen the ads. I have no idea if they have offices or where the offices are or any details of the business." The most recent incarnations of the business are called Angels and Fantasy Escorts. (Businesses are required to register with the Florida Department of State, but escort services, being what they are, usually don't bother.) Whatever his responsibilities with these firms, he's managed to get into another imbroglio, this time with the classified department at New Times over a $6000 unpaid bill for escort ads. The matter has not been resolved.