Ash & Burn

William Ash calls himself Mister Madam, but in the South Florida gay community, this ex-con's name is mud

Ash's probation was revoked because of the prostitution bust and several other violations. He pleaded no contest to a charge of living off the earnings of a prostitute and on October 7, 1996, was sentenced to one year of house arrest, followed by two years of probation, during which he was not to own or operate an escort business. On April 30, 1997, Ash violated his house arrest by leaving home without permission. On his 33rd birthday, June 6, he began serving the last half of his sentence in county jail. At first he was eligible for work release, but that didn't last long. On October 7, 1997, he lent his car to another work-release inmate, who used it to escape. Ash's charity was a violation of the the rules; the court terminated his work-release privilege. He was released from county jail on December 7, 1997.

Shortly after Ash left the lockup, Norman Kent had his first encounter with him -- albeit not face to face. Kent was and remains a well-known figure in South Florida, due in part to his stint as the morning-drive host for WFTL-AM (1400) from 1989 to 1996. A criminal defense attorney and gay activist, Kent had represented clients in cases related to medical marijuana for AIDS and solicitation of paid sex. He also has consistently pursued his lifelong interest in writing, contributing articles to HOTspots! Magazine and Scoop before founding The Express in early 2000.

Late in 1997 Juan Camandona, owner of Manhattan's Nightclub in Fort Lauderdale, had found interested buyers for the venue. (The club, located at 120 SW Third St., is now known as Play.) Camandona asked Kent to represent him in the transaction. The would-be buyers -- William Ash, James Hagenson, and Michael Kempf -- intended to convert the spot into a gay club called Gravity.

Ash launched a gay-nightclub promotion last year, but he'd burned too many bridges to make it work
Pompano Bill
Ash launched a gay-nightclub promotion last year, but he'd burned too many bridges to make it work

Kent thought the deal sounded dicey; he advised Camandona not to go through with it. "But he was desperate to get out of his club," the attorney says. "Bill Ash charmed him incredibly." Ash was supposed to have delivered a cashier's check to Camandona before taking over the club on New Year's Eve. Adds Kent: "He gave some stories about how Federal Express screwed up, how the plane with the check crashed in Amsterdam, that he'd have to give [Camandona] a regular check." Ash gave Camandona three checks written from the account of Michael Kempf. The checks bounced. Kent had the locks changed on the club, but Ash kept the receipts from the busy New Year's Eve.

Ash did not return, nor did he contact Kent about the lockout, Kent says. He urged the Fort Lauderdale police to press charges in the case, but as it turned out, the account's owner, Kempf, was dead. "You can't prosecute a dead man," the lawyer says.

If you chose one month of the year in which to launch a gay nightclub in South Florida, February would be most auspicious. Broward's PrideFest and Pride Parade, events sponsored by Pride South Florida (PSF) to foster awareness of gay issues, are held late that month. Meanwhile, the Dade Human Rights Foundation holds its Winter Party on South Beach around the same time. Winter Party raises about a quarter-million dollars each year and is used to help fund dozens of Miami-Dade County gay organizations, such as Project Yes, a suicide-prevention agency that focuses on gay and lesbian youth. The events bring in thousands of tourists from around the country.

Eric Levin, owner of Chili Pepper, recalls being introduced to Ash by a former Chili Pepper employee early in 2000. "The purpose of the meeting was to get [Storm] started," Levin says. "He pitched it as a Sunday tea dance that was going to be a mixture of gay and straight promotions. He was going to do a weekly Sunday event that was going to raise money for charity -- AIDS awareness and research."

Ash began running ads in gay newspapers in late January touting Storm as the official gathering spot in Broward County for Winter Party 2000, scheduled for early March. Steven Baird, chairman of the Winter Party, was alarmed when he saw the ads, as he knew nothing of Storm or the claims its owners were making. Winter Party Weekend is a registered trademark belonging to the Dade Human Rights Foundation -- and the nonprofit gay-rights organization goes to great lengths to protect it.

Baird and other foundation board members began leaving Ash telephone messages on February 5 to discuss the infringement. On the morning of February 11, Ash finally called Baird, a Miami-based attorney. "He was just hysterical," Baird recalls. "From the get-go he was hysterical. I was accused of tearing the [gay] community apart." Ash hung up on Baird.

Later that day Baird composed a cease-and-desist letter and sent it to Ash. The letter concluded: "[We] view your assertions of charitable motivation as extremely suspect. (You hung up on me before I had a chance to respond to your self-praising tirade.) Your behavior, your attitude and, most importantly, the unauthorized and infringing ads you have placed, indicate that your true motivation here is primarily to put money in your own pocket." Ash altered the ads to refer instead to a Winter Dance, and the foundation took no further legal action.

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