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Publication date: 03/13/2003

Cops raid vice den
Of The Examiner Staff

A monthlong undercover investigation into crack dealing and pimping at Market Street's historic Strand Theater culminated Wednesday in a police raid that netted several drug pushers who had turned the dank porno palace into a drug and sex bazaar.

Investigators say that Strand customers who settled in to watch dated pornography on a fuzzy screen were regularly greeted by a stream of dealers and hookers selling $20 bags of crack and a wide variety of sexual acts.

Despite signs in the lobby warning against smoking and "illegal activities," the 725-seat theater was constantly hazy with crack smoke, cops said.

"Basically what you have here is a house full of blatant drug sales and prostitution," said Capt. Tim Hettrich, head of the SFPD's vice unit.

Undercover investigators said the illicit transactions were generally concentrated in the dim theater balcony, where prostitutes could be heard sexually servicing johns and flickering lighters and the glow of crack pipes provided the only illumination.

Dealers would stash their wares in the balcony and then roam the theater in search of buyers. During the investigation, undercover narcotics officers made more than a dozen cocaine buys.

More than a dozen cops barged into the theater late Wednesday, flipping on lights and seizing records. Dealers and customers tried to scatter out a side exit but were stopped. Moments before the raid, one alleged crack dealer, Keith Lawyer, turned on undercover narcotics officer John Keane, threatening to kill him if he didn't take a hit off of his crack pipe.

"You better come down here right now and smoke this rock with me or I will kill you!" Lawyer screamed at Keane, according to the police reports.

As cops descended on him, Lawyer dropped a hunting knife with a 3½-inch blade on the floor.

Despite the dangers confronted, Keane called the raid "a huge success."

"We got most of the guys we were after and hopefully that sort of activity won't occur at the Strand Theater any more," said Keane.

Police confiscated about $1,000 worth of cocaine and arrested 10 suspects on charges ranging from possession to intent to distribute to parole violations.

Hettrich said the dope dealers moved into the theater after his unit started cracking down on street dealers. Since the summer, the unit has made more than 200 drug arrests in the mid-Market area in an effort to improve quality of life for residents who are constantly harassed by dealers.

"These people must have thought, 'Oh, this is a safe haven to deal narcotics' -- and then they got their girlfriends in here to perform sex acts," said Hettrich.

The theater's books showed that the Strand averaged about 100 customers a day -- more on the first of the month when government checks arrive and welfare recipients go looking for drugs to buy.

Theater manager Steve Kolovis denied knowing anything about drugs and sex in the theater.

"What (expletive) crack smoke," he said. "How should I know what the (expletive) they do up there."

But Hettrich pointed out that the front desk sold lubes and condoms -- not typical movie-going refreshments.

Also caught in the raid were several comparatively innocent pornography enthusiasts, including a clean-cut sales manager on his lunch break and a man named Joe, who said he recently moved here from Massachusetts, "because you get the most SSI (welfare) money here."

"I'm just here to watch a movie -- that's all," he said.

The Strand, a former vaudeville house that has been a Market Street fixture since 1917, has been through numerous incarnations over the years. Originally called The Empress, it is long and narrow with towering ceilings, a steep balcony and a stage for the musicians who accompanied silent movies.

It is now a decayed landmark plagued by peeling wallpaper, stained walls and ripped upholstery. It became a porno theater in 1994 after a failed effort to make it a first-run movie house for independent films.

Roger Gordon, who directs a mid-Market business improvement organization called Urban Solutions, praised the cops for rooting criminals out of the theater and expressed hope that further improvements could be made.

"It would be great to recapture that space for public use, to bring folks together there for legitimate entertainment," Gordon said.

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