By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
As such, he never lacked for entertainment.
There was the guy who wore a dog collar and little else and who insisted on walking on all fours. There was the wealthy executive who donned chains and loincloth and rolled in the dirt, pleading that he was a Roman slave who needed whipping. There were the wannabe goths who wore capes, capped their teeth with porcelain fangs, and clustered in the corners biting one another. On the celebrity side, there was Madonna, who was so fond of observing these hijinks that she had much of her photo book, succinctly titled Sex, shot at the club. Al Pacino came to study up for an acting role. Marini remembers him as an apt student.
Just watching was a big part of the attraction. Customers paid $50 a head and could stay all night and into the next day. The place didn't serve alcohol, so closing laws didn't apply. The house supplied chips, sold soft drinks, and had TVs showing porn flicks on a continuous loop.
The club started out in the basement of the triangle-shaped building at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street. Business boomed, so the owners decided to expand. They leased an entire building, a five-story property a couple of blocks away on Tenth Avenue between Little West 12th and West 13th streets. This allowed for a true palace of perversion: straight singles on one floor, couples on another, gay men on a third, lesbians on a fourth. The rooftop was a round-the-clock party until neighbors complained their kids were watching, goggle-eyed.
Marini was there almost every night, guarding the till, policing the biters, and helping to handle the occasional over-rambunctious guest, like bad-boy actor Mickey Rourke, who once got the heave-ho. Marini was there right up until the day when the State of New York stepped in and spoiled all the fun by condemning the property.
The state's problem wasn't the nonstop fetish displays or the uninhibited amateur performances. Mayor Giuliani had already tried to shut the place down for unsafe sex practices; club lawyers beat him in court. Rather, the Vault's downfall was an accident of geography, the club being located right where the state Department of Transportation had decided to let West Street broaden into a new six-lane north-south corridor formally known as Route 9A.
But this too had its perverse advantages. State condemnation laws demand full compensation for any such "taking," and the Vault's owners made the most of their situation. They hired a top lawyer and insisted on being paid for everything from the cloth banner that hung outside promising an "Afternoon Delight," to the improvised whipping posts tacked to the walls. This eventually led to one of the more fascinating performances that Marini got to observe during his always eventful tenure there: club proprietors and their Mafia partners sitting down to whack up more than $1.8 million in payments provided courtesy of New York's taxpayers.
Marini never saw his employers happier than when they got the state's money. "It was the biggest score they made from the place," he says.
He saw it all: former Vault manager Anthony Marini
photo: Tina Zimmer
Cooke was an ex-bus driver whose talent was creating and constructing the various sex toys strewn about the palace. Carpenter was considered the brains of the club, a tough-talking former banker who wasn't afraid to confront mobsters or misbehaving celebrities. To promote her anything-goes salon after its move to the new building, Carpenter got a mannequin, dressed it in black leather and matching mask, and hung it off the side of the building with a spotlight on it. Police soon burst in, assumingnot unreasonablythat some overeager customer had hung himself.
Also celebrating the state's generosity was another organized-crime figure, this one a genuine tough guy named Billy Perrotta. Rotondo recruited Perrotta to help out with the club, since he had experience with strip clubs and bars and thus was somewhat familiar with the sex trade. Perrotta, in turn, enticed his brother-in-law, a legitimate businessman named David Waxtel, to sink some $100,000 of his own money into the place.
Waxtel, the owner of a successful printing company, says he made the investment just to have something to do. "I was bored out of my mind," he says. "This was exciting, it was fresh. Madonna, Penthouse petsthey were all there."
Before he got involved in the Vault, Waxtel's chief diversion was playing organized war games with antique toy soldiers that he collects as a hobby. Although he still owns a piece of a successful downtown gay bar, he says he was badly out of his league when it came to the sex club. As part of his deal, Waxtel was supposed to get $1,000 a weekthe same figure the wiseguys were supposedly taking out of the place. But Waxtel soon realized that his partners were steadily dipping into the till and putting their relatives on the payroll. "The stealing was so brazen," he says. "I walked into this world and it was a nightmare. An entertaining nightmare, but a nightmare. Here I am, this naive businessman, surrounded by these professional criminals."
Then Waxtel got lucky. "Thank God I was able to get my money out," he says. "The only thing that saved us was that condemnation. No matter how much we made, the Mafia guys, everyone, was stealing from the place. My own brother-in-law. They were desperate to get that money."
Marini, a big guy from the north Bronx, was a lot savvier about how things worked at the club. He had started out providing security and worked his way up the ladder. Like Waxtel, he liked the excitement of the place, even if he was wary of his associates. He first heard about the state's takeover plan from Rotondo, who showed up one day with the news. "He was all excited," says Marini. "He says, 'This will be great. The state is a cash cow.'"
Marini estimates that the $1,850,000 that the state ultimately paid in compensation for the club's fixtures wascharitably speakingabout 10 times what they were worth.
"There just wasn't much there," says Marini. "The sound system was just a stereo setup that cost $500 new. It was worth maybe 50 bucks if you could sell it. For the porn movies, we had this shitty old VCR hooked up to the TVs. Everything else was stuff Frank assembled out of scrap."
Aside from four bars, a few sinks, and refrigerated coolers, the rest of the fixtures in the dungeon-like outpost consisted of the basic tools of the S&M trade. These were designed to assist imagination more than performance and were several notches below standard gym equipment in sophistication and expense.
There were hitching posts, wood beams with metal rings bolted to them; a couple of "spanking horses," essentially sawhorses clad in padded vinyl designed to tilt riders' posteriors heavenwards; and narrow iron cages just big enough to fit two or three customers eager to experience that intimate jailhouse feeling.
For sophisticates, the club had a pair of what are known in the trade as St. Andrew's crosses, X-shaped metal bars with straps for the wrists and ankles. (One version spun the strappee on a large Wheel of Fortunestyle contraption.)
The club's only possession of any real potential valueat least to aficionados of late-20th-century sadomasochism toolswas a twin-seater electric chair capable of delivering nasty jolts when attached to body parts. The chair was donated to the club by Andrew Crispo, a wealthy art dealer who made S&M history when he beat sordid kidnapping and torture charges in 1988.
High-stepping at the Vault
photo: Efrain Gonzales
"That was the word that came down: Nail everything to the floor to make it look permanent," he says. "The rule was, the state was only going to pay for permanent fixtures, so we had to make them permanent." Marini says Cooke spent hours bolting and welding everything he couldtables, chairs, cagesto the floor.
Waxtel agrees that the club's wiseguy owners pushed the envelope to up the compensation fee. "They had the state pay for every light bulb in the place," says Waxtel. "Then they had to pay the estimated cost of a professional electrician to install that light bulb at 'x' number of hours. That's how crazy it was. Every water fixture, every sprinkler headanything that could not be removed they had to pay for."
What's most astonishing about these accounts is that state records, unearthed through a Freedom of Information request, show that things went down precisely as Marini and Waxtel describe them. ("Oh, yeah, the Vault. I've heard about this one," laughed a state aide when queried about the affair.)
Records show that the state comptroller's office, charged with reviewing all payouts, cut an initial check in 1996 to Frank's Emporium Inc.the club's corporate monikerfor $229,000. That was supposed to be the entire amount the fixtures were worth. It was a number reached only after two separate appraisals were conducted by state consultants. Judging from their accounts, the first appraisers who went through the place don't seem to have missed much. Their reports duly noted each spanking horse, hitching post, and St. Andrew's cross.
"[One] custom-made torture chair, double-sided with 7 leather restrainers each side and with cross bars," is one such appraisal entry. "Spectator platform facing hitching post," reads another. There was also a "hanging rack," a "leather sling," and a "gynecologist's examination chair, steel frame."
According to Marini, the examining chair was picked up on the sidewalk outside St. Vincent's Hospital after a couple of nurse- customers tipped off the Vault's owners that some medical equipment with kinky potential was being disposed of at the facility.
When that first check arrived, the sex entrepreneurs pounced. Wiseguy Billy Perrotta, whose capacity for violence made even Rotondo watch his step around him, immediately claimed $80,000 as his cut, Marini says. Rotondo, Waxtel, and the two original owners, Cooke and Carpenter, divvied up the rest.
But the $229,000 was only the start. State condemnation law allows claimants to accept such initial payments while still challenging the official estimate of their property's value. The Vault's crew retained a top-notch condemnation attorney named Michael Rikon, who quickly filed a lawsuit demanding $2.5 million in compensation as the real cost of the fixtures that were going to be lost.
To come up with that higher number, the club hired its own appraiser. Marini said that walk-through was done in private. "I was there when a couple of guys from the appraisal company came in," he says. "Billy [Perrotta] asked me to leave the room. It was the only time they ever made me leave."
Rikon, the attorney pressing the case on the Vault's behalf, told the Voice that the new appraiser was a qualified professional who handled the evaluation with the same careful expertise that would be applied to any other jobeven though the club's furnishings were a little off (or on) the beaten track.
"I recall that there were some very unusual trade fixtures," says Rikon.
The lawsuit was filed in the state's Court of Claims, and records there show that the appraiser ground out an excruciatingly detailed 168-page inventory of the club's contents, noting 579 separate items. The list noted not only every "kneeling horse" but the size and length of the anchors used to affix them to the floor. "Leather wrist restraints" included notations on the size of the eye-bolts used to peg them to the "hanging frame."
Here's item No. 133 on the list: "One custom-built 'Iron Maiden' type punishment unit, constructed of plywood and wooden plank, 34 W x 18 D x 68 H, having two doors on front with hook and eye lock, 4-tier interior form structure with 'stock-type' partial opening on top, ¾" plywood and plank, painted black."
Once the inventory was filed with the court, Rikon pressed for a trial date. As is customary in such cases, according to Rikon, the judge conducted a pre-trial "viewing" of the property.
"As I recall, the judge was there at least two and a half hours, looking at everything, verifying everything," says Rikon. Shortly after the tour, Rikon got a call from transportation department officials asking to settle.
A handwritten note in the contract file confirms that the state got nailed for a total of $1.85 million in January 1999 at a "pre-trial conference." Asked to review the case, state transportation department officials say that regardless of the kinky nature of the business, the payments reflected prudent decision making.
"The operators exercised their rights under the law and sought a ruling from the courts on initial payments they had received," says transportation department spokeswoman Jennifer Post. "After subsequent talks with the parties, a settlement was reached which involved additional moneys."
State officials noted that the Vault payments were just a small part of the $104 million that was spent to acquire properties for the West Street projecta task that required condemnation of some two dozen properties in a three-and-a-half-block stretch.
'My guess is, the state wasin a rush to finish the West Side Highway," says Vault investor David Waxtel of the sudden settlement. Whatever the reason, Waxtel took his share and moved on. "I got the least amount of anyone," he says bitterly. A closing statement prepared for the final payment shows Rotondo, Perrotta, and club co-founder Frank Cooke each snared an extra $50,000, amounting to more than $200,000 apiece. (Fees paid to attorneys and the appraiser accounted for more than $500,000.)
Rotondo and Perrotta tried to relaunch the club at a site on 12th Avenue and West 23rd Street. But the magic was gone, and the new Vault couldn't match the original. A couple of years later, facing a murder rap, Anthony Rotondo decided to quit the mob and become a cooperating witness for the government. The FBI debriefed him about his sex club business. Memos show that Rotondo gave the G-men the general outlines of the arrangement. He told them about the state transportation department condemnation payment, but he lowballed the amount the partners received, describing the settlement as "approximately one million dollars." Rotondo made no mention of his own cut of the proceeds. He'd have good reason not to: The feds might well have demanded restitution.
Perrotta, who lives in New Jersey, didn't return calls. Janet Carpenter and Frank Cooke later divorced. Cooke, who is in poor health, lives now in upstate New York and couldn't be reached. Carpenter is remarried to a real estate broker named Robert Zarrilli in Staten Island and has obtained her own broker's license. "I don't know if there is anything to talk about," said her husband when he was asked to pass a message to his wife.
Marini has lots to talk about. He has written his own account of his days at the club ("I call it Tales from the Vault," he says). He has also hooked up with a friend and part- time actor from th eBronx, Anthony Aquilino, to try and peddle a movie about the sex club scene. "There's a million stories from that place," he says.
"It is a movie," agrees David Waxtel. "All these lunatics and mobsters running around in an S&M club. I still run into people who ask, 'When are you opening the Vault again?' I go, 'Oh my God, are you out of your mind?' But it was like an icon. Everyone had an experience there."