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Ash & Burn

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.

New Times is not the first publication Ash has stiffed. In November 1996 a Broward County judge granted the Sun-Sentinel a $16,416.36 judgment against Ash for ads he had placed in the paper for Crystals Entertainment. Ash pleaded ignorance when asked about the judgment, saying he'd never heard of Crystals. After New Times faxed him the court documents from the case, which indicate papers were served to Ash's Fort Lauderdale home at the time on SW 18th Court, he called back: "I called the Sun-Sentinel. They do have a Bill Ash on file, but it's a fiftysomething person with a different Social Security number. He rattled it off to me, and it wasn't mine." Who was "he"? "I don't remember his name," Ash responded quickly. The Sun-Sentinel declined to provide details about the case.

Ash makes no apology for what he calls a "colorful and unusual life." His response to the Sun-Sentinel judgment is typical: He doesn't so much deny his misdeeds; he spins them into a vast web with shape but no substance. Indeed he's more than willing to answer questions about particular episodes, but it's a Proustian discourse, a stream of consciousness that, at conversation's end, offers nothing in the way of actual information.

Consider his off-the-cuff claim that he's a radio personality involved with morning radio bits that are "campy and gay and very light." So where could one listen to him in South Florida? His reply is protean: "Y-100 used to hold it on the morning show. And then it went over to Channel 6. Then it was on the Web. And then it got cut out of there when the new news manager came in. It got snapped out on the budget cuts along with, basically, their entertainment and a whole bunch of other things, and they got rid of most of their Web stuff. Then Channel 4 picked it up. And then Channel 4 just recently went through a management change, so I don't think it's on a television station now."

So no one can hear him now? "I think Howard Stern uses some bits, like all that stuff he had in the background when they're doing funny things." That sound bite of someone shouting "Fabulous" on Stern's show? That's Ash's voice, he avows.

Ash claims links to other media as well. "I talk to The [National] Enquirer at least once a month," he boasts. "They're constantly calling to confirm stories, stuff like that. Anything to do with big stars in town that they suspect [escort] girls were involved with. They'll call and say, "Is this true? What can you tell us?'"

In fact Ash professes to have been quoted extensively in newspapers. When New Times could find no evidence to back the claim, Ash faxed eight pages of text -- none of which included a dateline or publishing origin. One undated story purports to be the account of Ash's climb from rags to riches in the escort business. "Mr. Ash's tale began in a tiny coal town in Northeastern Pennsylvania," the story reads. "Feeling somewhat like an outcast while growing up, Mr. Ash left the Avoca area in his teens and followed the sun straight to Florida. Although he struggled financially for quite some time, Mr. Ash always kept his chin up and finally landed a job at a small escort service, working the phones." Ash became a "mothering hen" for the girls, "a modern-day Henry Higgins."

Ash is quoted: "It was almost like there was this whole market out there just waiting for me. It was as if I had finally found my calling. The girls and I, we all have something in common: the fantasies of very wealthy men and keeping them well satisfied. The girls love me. They know they will never have to worry about me trying to sleep with them -- ever! They see me as their fairy grandmother."

Referring to Ash as "Mister Madam," the account continues: "Employing hundreds of girls and discreetly fulfilling the wildest fantasies of thousands of extraordinarily rich clients soon became Mr. Ash's life, yet he always funneled his money back into the community. From throwing exorbitant AIDS benefits, at which Madonna was known to show up with her entourage, to donating huge amounts of money to women's and homeless shelters, Mr. Ash became the man with a cause and his cause was to help others. It still is today."

Ash did indeed move to South Florida as a young adult. The rest of the story he faxed over is somewhat less grounded in reality. Although Ash did not discuss his early years with New Times, he has left a lengthy record of his activities in criminal and civil court files. According to Fort Lauderdale police records, in 1983 Ash, then 19 years old, was arrested for attempting to pay for a meal at the Italian Garden Restaurant with a double-endorsed check. The restaurant wouldn't accept it, and Ash had no cash, so police were called. The original endorser of the check told police he had neither endorsed it nor given it to Ash.

Apparently Ash began earning some income during this period working for escort services, though he also entered into other business ventures. In March 1987 Ash gave James W. Waldman, a Boca Raton attorney who had once represented him, a $1500 check from the account of a business called Sandollar Ceramics. The check bounced, but Waldman did not report it to police until October 1988.

In the meantime Ash owned and operated a small shop called Self-Designs by Tricia at the now-shuttered Bazaar on West Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. In September 1988 Ash ordered 56 paintings from Frank Walcutt, a Deerfield Beach businessman. When one of Walcutt's employees delivered the paintings, valued at $6677, Ash told her to return later because he didn't have his checkbook. When Walcutt returned to collect the money four days later, he found that the business had been closed. Some of the paintings hadn't gone far: Walcutt found a few of them hanging as decorations on the walls of businesses adjacent to Self-Designs. Ash was arrested and charged with grand theft. He was released on bond in October 1988. Court records do not indicate how the case concluded.

He was arrested again in June 1989 for the rubber check he'd passed to Waldman; in August 1989 a Broward County circuit judge sentenced Ash to 90 days' probation for the Waldman check-kiting. A month later Ash violated the probation when he burglarized a van; he was also charged with resisting arrest when he refused to put his hands behind his back for cuffing, according to court files.

Ash apparently gave up retail sales after these arrests; in August 1993 the "modern-day Henry Higgins" donned the hat of a manager trainee at a McDonald's in Coral Springs. After little more than two weeks on the job, Ash filed a claim with the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security, charging he had been injured at work. According to Gregory Johnsen, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represented McDonald's in the case, Ash claimed the restaurant's manager had punched him in the face. "Our assertion was that it had never happened," Johnsen says. The judge who presided over the case agreed, writing that Ash did not provide any evidence he had been injured, nor did she did believe Ash was injured. The judge ordered Ash to pay McDonald's $3550 in investigation and surveillance costs. Ash, however, did not show up for the final court hearing "due to an alleged terminal illness," according to court documents. The judgment remains unpaid.

Ash remembers differently. "I never lost," he asserts. "McDonald's paid for all medical expenses and things like that. I never lost anything." Asked about the terminal illness, Ash responds, "Umm, I wasn't in town. There was no terminal illness."

Handicapped Sales Workshop, which sold products assembled by disabled people, was next to let the fox into the hen house when it hired Ash as a salesman in October 1993. He left the job within two months, but the company was not rid of him. In December a Handicapped Sales Workshop salesman telephoned a regular customer to solicit a reorder. A clerk told the salesman the company had already reordered -- from William Ash. The company soon discovered that Ash had photocopied the workshop's client lists, account information, and sales presentations. He then began his own business, Handicapped Workshop. The company filed a civil suit in Broward County circuit court claiming Ash had violated the terms of an employment agreement, which prohibited him, as an ex-employee, from competing with the company for one year after voluntary or involuntary termination. In January 1994 a judge ordered Ash to return all client lists to Handicapped Sales Workshop and to cease competing for one year.

How and when Ash became involved with entertainment promotions are unclear, but by the early 1990s he was touting himself as an advance man. John Weatherhead had been director of CenterOne, a nonprofit HIV/AIDS counseling center, for about three years in 1994 when William Ash approached him. Ash claimed he had connections with major singing artists and could bring Tina Turner to Fort Lauderdale for a fundraising concert.

These were the days before the protease-inhibitor "cocktail" treatment was available to slow down the advance of the disease, Weatherhead recalls, a time when CenterOne's support groups and alternative therapies, such as massage, were the only balm for the sickest patients. CenterOne sometimes received money from fundraisers held on its behalf at local clubs, but it generally did not orchestrate benefit concerts from the ground up. "But if there was a possibility of making some significant money off a big name, that became a possibility," says Weatherhead, who resigned as director earlier this year. "[Ash] went through a whole litany of contacts he had. And apparently he does have some contacts, but I think they tend to be the result of his most recent scam."

Days after his conversation with Ash, Weatherhead received a call from a reporter at a tabloid newspaper (either The National Enquirer or the Star -- he can't remember which). A volunteer at CenterOne, William Ash, had called the tabloid, the reporter said, and disclosed that Tina Turner was a client at the center and was HIV-positive. "Obviously when we found out what was going on, we totally got rid of the man," Weatherhead says of Ash. He recalls that one of the tabloids did indeed publish a story, but its gist was that Turner's publicist had exposed the HIV sham. American Media, which owns both The National Enquirer and Star, did not respond to inquiries about the story. Ash tells New Times he was never a volunteer at CenterOne, nor was he involved with any promotion.

Why would Ash have baited CenterOne? "It's really difficult to assess what his motivations were," Weatherhead says. "I think he wanted to assist, but I think something bigger was operating there: self-promotion and self-gratification, making a name for himself in the community. He's a rather pathetic character."

If you'd walked onto the deck of the Las Vegas Express the afternoon of June 3, 1995, you might have thought a royal celebration was at hand. Two mimes greeted guests as they approached the gangway, which was covered with balloon arches. Inside the ship's lower decks, wall-to-wall balloons floated about the ceilings, their strings dangling upon partygoers. A thousand balloons were suspended above the top deck. Among the entertainers who mingled with guests were a juggler, the mimes, and a magician. Stationed around the ship were a caricaturist, a psychic, and an illusionist. But the act that stole the show was a stilt walker manipulating the strings to a huge puppet. Above the ship flew a small prop plane toting a banner that read "Happy Birthday."

The lavish setting didn't surprise Michael Pine, who, as owner of Balloon Productions, had supplied the balloons and other centerpieces. After all, the bash was for Wayne Huizenga, one of the most powerful figures in South Florida. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Huizenga had built Waste Management Inc. into the world's biggest garbage company. From there Huizenga took over Blockbuster Video, eventually becoming vice chairman of Viacom Inc., which merged with Blockbuster in 1994. Pine had done jobs for both Huizenga and Viacom, including a celebration of the Viacom/Blockbuster merger held at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. So when a meeting planner named William Ash walked into his office and said he was planning Huizenga's birthday party, Pine did not hesitate.

Pine had been onboard putting final touches on the balloon settings shortly before the ship was to set out to sea for several hours with the 200 or so guests. His last task was to drop the balloons. "Everyone went to sing "Happy Birthday' up on deck, and the balloon release was supposed to go off when he blows out the candles. When they brought the cake out, they started singing to this guy Bill [Ash]. I knew something was rotten in Denmark." Pine recalls his thoughts: "I didn't just see what I saw. I really don't want to know anything about this. Get my money and get the hell off the boat."

When Pine asked for the $1814 payment, Ash signed a check but left the amount and payee spaces blank. "That's pretty unusual -- very unusual," Pine says, but he figured Ash didn't want to hold him up from debarking the ship, which was just casting off. When Pine attempted to cash the check, he discovered Ash's account had been closed. He filed a report with the Broward Sheriff's Office.

David Watts, owner of A ABC's of Parties, which supplied the rainbow of entertainers for the party, also filed a police report to recover the $4650 he'd lost that night. "Bill Waldman" had contacted A ABC's and hired the performers, giving Watts a credit card number. Watts faxed "Waldman" a contract for the performers, which the customer signed and faxed back. "Waldman" was to come to the office and sign a credit card voucher but never did. After Watts sent the credit card number for payment, MasterCard informed him that the card belonged to Corina Waldman and that the number had been stolen.

Ash's lavish excess did not end with his 31st birthday bash. On June 26 Ash telephoned Rena's Flowers of Merritt in Plantation and ordered delivery of two flower arrangements to the nearby Fashion Mall. One arrangement was sent to Ash's workplace, The Gallery, the second to a hairdresser named Denise who worked at the Yellow Strawberry salon. However, Ash had used a MasterCard number belonging to a Gallery customer, who refused to pay the $170 charge.

The three cases converged. On August 22, 1995, he was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to pay restitution for obtaining property with a worthless check, grand theft in the third degree, and fraudulent use of a credit card. But by early 1996 he was in trouble again. On March 8 undercover detectives had conducted a prostitution sting at 3003 N. University Dr. in Sunrise. One of the busted prostitutes told detectives she was employed by an escort service operated by William Ash. Half of her earnings were paid to Ash, she said. The next day a male prostitute who had agreed to work with police delivered several escorts' earnings to Ash and another man, who were parked in the lot at Shells Seafood Restaurant on North University Drive in Sunrise. When Ash and his compatriot took the money, police arrested them.

This mundane felony becomes a racy tale of star-studded intrigue with Ash's retelling. The bust was the result, Ash claims, of celebrities -- think Bobby Brown and Harrison Ford -- pressuring police to crack down on Ash's business because the escort service had become so popular with so many celebs that some of the escorts were selling gossip to the tabloids. "They were looking to blame it on somebody, and I was just the one who got caught up in it," Ash says of the arrest. Sgt. James Hughes, the Sunrise police officer who arrested Ash, remembers differently. "We were just running a standard sting operation at a hotel," he comments.

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.

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.

In January 2000, Ash had called Pride South Florida's co-chair, Richard Cimoch, and proposed helping the nonprofit organization book acts for PrideFest at Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale on February 23. Each year thousands attend the festival, the largest gay gathering in Broward County. In addition Ash offered his new venture, Storm, as a venue for partying after Pride Parade on February 27. Cimoch and other PSF planners went to Chili Pepper to check it out, and a Chili Pepper employee explained to them how Ash was subcontracting certain times at the club for Storm. "It seemed like it was on the up-and-up," Cimoch says.

Ash lined up some big-name acts, most prominently Martha Wash of "It's Raining Men" fame. PSF also booked acts on its own. Cimoch, however, found out on the day of PrideFest -- which 15,000 people attended -- that Wash had canceled. "He gave us a song and dance about a death in her family and this, that, and the other," Cimoch says. "There's not a lot you can do. We rearranged the entertainment and stretched out some of the other acts so it would last a whole day."

Storm had been heavily promoted during PrideFest, and the start-up club was touted on a float during the Pride Parade -- a parade for which Norm Kent was grand marshal. Kent, remembering the Manhattan/ Gravity mess, had viewed Ash's reemergence with great perturbation. The day after the parade, February 28, Kent's fledgling Express printed an exposé that included comments from the Winter Party's Baird and club owners who had been burned by Ash. Some readers criticized Kent for publishing the article, saying he was being overly critical of someone who just wanted to contribute to the gay community, Kent recalls.

Just as Storm was set to open, Ash began spreading the word that it and another gay club, the Saint, on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale, were merging. He repeated the story to a reporter at The Express and to Kent. However, Kent was the attorney for Saint owner Richard Knaur and knew the claim was bogus. Unfortunately certain Saint employees were not as well informed. "[Ash] charmed the employees of the Saint into thinking they were merging," Kent says. "[They] went to work at Storm the day it opened because they were convinced by Bill Ash that they were supposed to. They closed the Saint and went to work at the Storm."

Ash had contacted Jump Start Booking Agency in Chicago attempting to book musical acts for Storm. Raul Rodriguez, an agent with Jump Start, was leery of dealing with Ash. During the summer of 1999, Ash had booked Jennifer Holliday, a diva famous for "I Am Love" and "Hard Time for Lovers," for his birthday party. But the engagement was canceled when Holliday had the chance to perform at a divas concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, Rodriguez says. He offered to reschedule Holliday, in accordance with a provision in the contract. But Ash started getting "paranoid" about Holliday showing up on the rescheduled date, threatening Rodriguez that he would "drag her name through the mud, blah, blah, blah," he says. "We had to put security on her," Rodriguez says of Holliday's appearance at Ash's birthday party.

"There were no police or security with her," Ash counters. "Her and I were in a limousine -- just her, myself, and my lover."

When Ash called Rodriguez in early 2000, the agent expressed his reluctance to work with him. "He said, "Let's let bygones be bygones,'" says Rodriguez, who finally agreed to book a list of acts. But he recalls warning Ash: ""I'm not bending on this. If the money's not in, if deposits aren't in....' Naturally he didn't come up with the money, at which point I called the Chili Pepper and said, "Do you realize what this guy is doing on your behalf? Your name is being dragged through the mud.'"

Storm's final affront to Chili Pepper came when the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco raided the place on March 5, a week after its opening, acting on an anonymous tip that Storm was selling liquor to minors. Levin was out of town at the time but learned about the arrests the next day. "The bust basically stopped the promotion," Levin says. "[Ash] caused a big scene for himself. We felt it was best for our business to just part ways. From what I heard, he blew up at the police officers and was blaming everyone but himself."

The sale of alcohol to minors is a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1000 fine. The charge against Ash is still pending.

In the aftermath of the Storm debacle, Pride South Florida board members looked more closely at Ash's role in PrideFest. They learned Ash never actually had a contract with the "canceled" Martha Wash. "We talked amongst the group, but there wasn't much we could do," co-chair Cimoch says. "By then the whole business was defunct. It wasn't worth pursuing -- except to learn from a mistake and to make sure that in the future contracts would have our name on them so we'd have control."

Ash's predilection for fabricating easily refutable details is evidenced by his comments about Storm. In Ash's version of events, underage, not of-age, patrons were given wristbands and thus were able to tear them off and buy booze with impunity. Ash claims Storm's credibility was compromised when Kent's Express published the exposé about Ash's background. "It was in everyone's best interest to start pushing me into the background because I wasn't so clean, and Norm Kent knew this because he'd represented me as an attorney in the past." As such, Kent violated attorney/client confidentiality, Ash asserts.

Kent says he has never represented Ash, adding that this ludicrous claim doesn't surprise him. "His mind is so fertile, his imagination so great, there's no story he will not try to top," Kent says. "And he can't remember from day to day what story he's told because it's all a lie. He'll reverse himself in the course of a 15-minute conversation -- three times."

Ash still blames Kent for the failure of Storm, alleging that the attorney's interest in other gay clubs had him bent on Storm's destruction. Several weeks after the closing, Ash tried to exact his revenge. Kent received calls from reporters at The Herald and the Sun-Sentinel asking about a juicy tale concerning the Coliseum, a gay club he represented. The reporters had received letters from a man claiming his nephew had overdosed on heroin in the club. The Coliseum management threw the boy out on the street, and he was nearly hit by speeding cars, the letter stated. No such thing had occurred, Kent told the reporters, but the story made sense when Kent learned the letter's author was William Ash. Andreas Tzortzis, the Sun-Sentinel reporter who received the letter, confirms Kent's story. After talking with Kent, Tzortzis left several messages with Ash but never received a call back. No story about the incident ever ran.

"Bill Ash says that I'm responsible for shutting him down," Kent says. "And you know what? He's right. I gave the anonymous tip about underage kids drinking at Storm."

Ash remains unrepentant but has no plan for more promotions. He is, however, reconsidering an offer he claims to have had some years ago to write a book: The Memoirs of Mister Madam. At the time, the $15,000 he was offered didn't seem sufficient, as the revelations contained within the tome's pages might scare customers away from the escort service, he confides. But hey, everything's fair game for the right price. "I've had a crazy, wild life," he crows. "I've taken a lot of raps for other people's problems -- in exchange for them paying me a lot of money and a very, very good living."


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