In the wake of the hysterical media coverage of rape allegations made by two teenage girls at the Tunnel disco the weekend before last, it’s now clearer than ever that club owner Peter Gatien is at the center of a full-fledged “moral panic”—whipped up by the mayor’s office and the New York Post—designed to put him out of business. And as always, the first casualties of a moral panic are truth and equanimity.
A 16-year-old and an 18-year-old claimed that, while high on Ecstasy and alcohol early on the morning of July 25, they were sexually assaulted by two New Jersey men in a restroom at the Tunnel. Predictably enough, Jack Newfield’s Post column the next day tied into a decades-old tradition of tabloid scare stories about sex, drugs, and youth. A regular at local jazz clubs who nonetheless probably hasn’t been in a dance club since Prohibition, Newfield sounded like Saturday Night Live‘s Church Lady when he branded the Tunnel “this satanic place” and said the venue should be padlocked immediately. Mayor Giuliani chimed in, calling Gatien’s West Side disco “a very, very dangerous place….It’s a menace and should be closed.” Echoing his master’s voice, Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington told The New York Times: “I’m going to be doubling my efforts to close the establishment as soon as possible.”
Unfortunately for the credibility of our moral guardians, the rape story has apparently turned out to be a fabrication. The teenage girls, who entered the club with fake IDs, admitted to the district attorney that they lied, reportedly as a way to explain to their parents why they missed curfew. But not before the two accused—Roddy Caraballo, 19, and Orette Fiedtkou, 21—spent most of the week in prison and had their reputations dragged through the mud by the local media. The Post inaccurately reported that, when questioned by police, Fiedtkou confessed to the rape. (While the New Jersey pair have been released, the D.A. is still continuing its investigation of the incident, and has not yet dropped the charges.)
Jack Newfield acknowledges that the press and cops made a big mistake: “They [Caraballo and Fiedtkou] were mistreated. No doubt about it. It was terrible that the police gave out false and misleading information and it was unfortunate that reporters repeated it.”
But this doesn’t mean Newfield is abandoning his crusade to shut down Gatien’s clubs. “A 16–year-old high on Ecstasy, having intercourse in a unisex bathroom is typical of what goes on at the Tunnel,” he contends. “It’s another reason why the [State Liquor Authority] and Mayor Giuliani are right to try and padlock the joint.” The SLA is currently moving to revoke Gatien’s license.
Asked on what basis the city continues to wage war on the disco, Curtis Ritter, a spokesperson for the mayor’s press office, responded: “On the basis of the history of problems at the club, as well as this case, which sheds light on underage drinking and drug use at the Tunnel.”
Every moral panic needs a “folk devil,” and Peter Gatien fits the bill nicely. He’s the perfect bogeyman for campaigning politicians and self-righteous journalists looking for an easy target. Newfield portrays him as clubland’s Lord of the Flies, presiding over the corruption of innocents at his hellish hot spots. But as in the case of the rape accusation, the truth here is more complicated. God knows Gatien is no angel; he’s a flawed character, who through a combination of greed, bad karma, and even worse judgment, finds himself in his current legal morass. But even unpopular symbols of nocturnal decadence deserve fair treatment in the press and under the law.
“I’m not angry at the girls, I’m angry at the administration,” Gatien told the Voice. “Whenever one of his cops gets into trouble for shooting or torturing somebody, Giuliani always says, ‘Let’s not rush to judgment, let’s wait until all the facts are in.’ With me, it’s a case of facts be damned.”
From the beginning, the girls’ story made little sense. Anyone familiar with the crowded restroom where they claimed to be raped knows that it’s well nigh impossible for such an assault to take place without someone hearing struggles or screams for help. Bathroom attendants, club patrons, and bouncers interviewed by the police said they heard nothing. And would two men hang around a club for two hours after committing such a serious crime? In addition, security guards say they spotted the 16–year-old after the rape was supposed to have occurred, sitting on a loading dock outside the club, smiling and swinging her legs, presumably coming down from the Ecstasy.
“All four were in the bathroom at the same time,” says Fiedtkou’s lawyer Richard Stoll. “It was consensual unprotected sex with the permission of all parties. One girl had oral sex performed upon her. The other girl—the 16-year-old—had full sex with my client. According to my client, it involved quite a bit of gymnastics. One of the girls had to straddle the toilet.” The two females reportedly attend a school for troubled teens.
This is not the first time that facts have been twisted to make the Tunnel look worse than it really is. In April, the city shut the club under the Nuisance Abatement Law after under-cover cops bought drugs there. Spurred on by the OD death of a teenage boy at the club in January, a team of at least 50 highly trained narcotics cops, including more than 20 undercovers, targeted the Tunnel over eight consecutive weekends. The operation yielded not the 50 hits of Ecstasy initially reported in all the papers—including by this reporter in the Voice—but a grand total of four E pills, as well as a bag of cocaine, a small bottle of Special K, and a bag of marijuana. The vast majority of the drugs that the gullible cops purchased, when tested, turned out to contain no controlled substances whatsoever.
That’s why New York State Supreme Court Judge Paula Omansky overruled the city—not because of legal machinations by Gatien’s lawyers, as Newfield suggests—and allowed the club to recently reopen. She reasoned in her June 16 decision that “wherever you have young people, wherever you have the excitement of music…there is going to be drugs. The question here is whether or not this club was operated as a haven for drug use….In my opinion, it seems clear that the Tunnel was what it held itself out to be, namely a nightclub for dancing.” Once again, as in the club mogul’s federal drug-racketeering trial last year, the authorities failed to come up with sufficient evidence to get Peter Gatien.
Despite the string of unsuccessful attempts to permanently close the club, the mayor’s office vows to continue the legal fight to shutter the Tunnel once and for all. It seems Gatien can’t win for losing. Even after the girls recanted their rape charges, Rudy Washington told The Times: “The fact that we have a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old in a public location, and there are circumstances that would allow consensual or nonconsensual sex, is something we’re not going to stand for. We can’t allow this as a society to go on.”
Baffled by the city’s logic, attorney Stoll scoffs: “If Mayor Giuliani wants to shut down a club because a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old had consensual sex there, he will also have to shut down every public park and schoolyard in New York State, as well as confiscate every car owned by a teenager.”
Additional reporting by Steph Watts