Sex, Bugs & Rock and Roll

Several beauties in tight skirts worked a room full of men during one of the Final Four basketball tournaments held in Seattle some years back. The guys were all talking about the games. The girls couldn't have cared less, but they played along, nodding and smiling as the men replayed spectacular slam dunks.

The Final Four is always good for the escort business. On this night, high atop a hotel room with a sweeping view of the city, business was especially good. The women had been paid in advance. No hundred-dollar bills flashing around. The whole affair had been put on a credit card – a governor’s credit card.

“No, no, no, it was a governor from out of state,” responded Robert Bennett when asked if the card was signed by the top gun in Olympia. If not one of our own, by chance the governor who moved on to the White House? “Absolutely not,” he bellowed over the phone.

Pressed for more details – What year? Was the governor present in the room? Who else was at the party? Did you service any other politicians or celebrities? – Bennett clammed up, though he did add with a laugh, “The governor wasn’t very discreet, was he?”

The 39-year-old entrepreneur operated one of the biggest escort services in Seattle for almost 15 years. In 1992 the Feds busted down the door and carted off a computerized data base with more than 8,000 client names, lists of his escorts and a shitload of credit card receipts.

No more dinners at the Four Seasons Hotel. No more nights on the club circuit. No more high stakes blackjack games. No more trips to the Bahamas – party excursions where Bennett took along some of his closest friends, paying for their plane tickets and hotel bills. “He loved to spend money,” said one of the escorts who worked for him, “he was very generous toward his friends.”

And he had it to spend. In an interview from the King County jail last month Bennett acknowledged that he made about $200,000 a year over a 10 year period. “I was good at what I did. We kept regular hours,” he said, taking a dig at other services in an industry where the phones frequently don’t get answered.

The Feds determined he pulled down about $1.4 million in credit card billings and personal checks between 1987 and 1992, according to court documents. He owned seven rental properties, which were confiscated by the government along with 15 grand in three bank accounts.

Bennett got into the business after reading an article in a skin magazine about an escort service. “I got a job as a driver at a service,” he said. “The guy who ran it was a jerk. All he wanted to do was rip off the girls and sleep with my girlfriend. So after a few weeks driving girls for this guy I started up my own with my girlfriend. We took all his escorts with us. They couldn’t stand him either.”

Off and running. His two services – Elite Escorts and Personality Services – slowly established a regular customer base along with the “one-timers” and horny businessmen on the hotel circuit. Bennett described his job as a receptionist. “There’s nothing very exciting about it. You’re on the phone all day.”

It didn’t have the glitz of Heidi Fleiss in Hollywood, but his service gained a reputation for having attractive girls who didn’t rip off their customers. Bennett also catered to rock stars passing through on tour. He started out charging a hundred bucks a pop and it worked up to $150 by 1992. He took a 40% cut. “We built up a lot of good will in the community,” said Bennett.

He viewed himself as a go-between, fixing up men with women for dates, an innocent diversion. “I never encouraged any illegal activity and if I found out a girl was involved in illegal activity, I fired her. The purpose of the agency was to provide companionship, not cross over the line. It was a very fine line and I walked down the middle of it,” he said.

Trouble is, it’s not a fine line at all. More like walking straight over the rim into a volcano with your eyes wide open. Even if Bennett only intended to provide companionship and candlelit dinners – and that’s a big if – he’s not off the hook in the eyes of the law.

Prosecutors call this the “ostrich” defense–sticking your head in the sand. Court papers filed by the Feds give this defense a therapeutic touch: he is a “facilitator.” The government does not have to prove he engaged in any unlawful activity. They need only prove that he did knowingly “aid, assist and facilitate an environment in which prostitution activity could be made easier.”

But the irony here, as frequently happens in money-for-nooky cases, is that the real “crime” was not prostitution. The Feds nailed Bennett on racketeering and money laundering charges. That credit card the governor allegedly used came back to haunt the escort service.

“I used credit cards because they are a valuable business tool,” said Bennett, “I did not know it was going to be a problem.” But he ran the credit cards through a catering service, a limousine service and a rock-n-roll booking agency, not the escort service.

Bingo. A crime in the making, however innocent on the surface.

He was indicted on five counts of credit card fraud, 19 counts of money laundering, 25 counts of violating the federal travel act by conducting an unlawful enterprise involving interstate commerce (that’s 800-number phone calls to a credit card validation line) and one count of racketeering. Assistant U. S. Attorney Angelo Calfo said the charges were filed under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act rather than under state anti-prostitution laws so Bennett’s property could be seized. He was convicted by a federal jury on all counts. Under federal guidelines, he could have received a 300-year sentence, but the judge gave him a lenient seven years.

Although the daily papers described Bennett as the”mastermind” behind a multi-million dollar “sex ring,” the story was not hyped on the front pages. And one piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Ellis Conklin painted a somewhat sympathetic portrait of Bennett: “He has a baby face and long, stringy brown hair that flows down the back of his red jailhouse jersey. He speaks just above a whisper in a reedy, boyish voice, not the presence one might associate with the red-light underworld of sexual brokering.”

He’s no Al Capone. More like mastermind Donald Trump. He brought sound business practices to a sleazy enterprise. He was not a pimp forcing his girls to turn over all their money to him. He did not seduce minors into the sex industry. Several of his escorts who did not want to be identified said he always treated them with respect. “One time he telegrammed me money to fly back to Seattle when I was in a jam,” said one of them. Another, a graduate student at the University of Washington who wrote a statement for the Feds implicating Bennett, also pointed out he was a good employer.

Bennett liked living in the fast lane. Before starting the escort service, he promoted punk rock bands. One of his first concerts in Seattle featured Blondie, the Ramones, Billy Idol, and the Cowboys, a popular northwest band in the late 70’s. “Sometimes I made $5,000 doing a concert,” he said. “But a lot of the time I ended up with nothing. That didn’t matter. It was lots of fun.”

One of his ventures keenly anticipated a need in the northwest rock industry. Twisted, a monthly punk rock magazine, premiered in 1977, two years before The Rocket launched on the scene. The first few issues featured stories on the Screamers, the Knobs, the Jam, the Skull’s leader Joey Shithead and an analysis of the Mentors lyrics (“Here comes my secretary hump/ Gonna stick my dick up her rump/ Then I’m gonna spread her mouth real wide/ Then I’m gonna stick my infected dick inside.”)

More of a punk promotional kit for Bennett’s concert business than an adventure into alternative publishing, Twisted survived less than a year. An advertisement in the first issue foreshadowed the next step on Bennett’s resume: “If you are going blind and growing hair on the palms of your hands then it is very likely you are a candidate for our subscription list...”

The escort business began to eclipse the rock promotions in the early 80's. Sex, drugs and rock -n-roll all came together for Bennett. “A lot of rock stars used the service,” he acknowledged, but didn’t reveal any names.

During the first few years of the operation he had no encounters with the authorities. In 1985 the police raided his house, took some of his files and charged him with promoting prostitution. The charges were dropped, but his fate was sealed. Bennett said one vice officer called him and said he would eventually nail him. “I told him, `Go ahead, you don’t have anything on me.’”

At some point along the line the case was turned over to the Feds, who stepped up the pressure with phone taps, finally busting him in 1992. Of all the Yellow Page listings, Elite Escorts and Personality Services probably came under fire because they were pulling in so much money. Alerted by a banker and an officer of a mortgage company a year before the bust that the IRS was pursuing a paper trail, Bennett continued to dispatch ladies of the evening to hotels, homes and hot tub parlors.

Was he pushing his luck? “Yes,” said Lisa Duffey, a friend who worked with him promoting rock bands. “He flipped off the Feds, said fuck you. Then they said no, no, fuck you. And they did.”

However, Duffey thinks his sentence is way too harsh. “RICO was meant for guys like Jimmy Hoffa, not Robert. He’s no mobster, there was no violence with his thing. The Feds thought he was some sort of big time gangster running all the escort services in town. They thought he had millions in off-shore bank accounts in the Bahamas. They figured he was some big crime boss in Seattle hooked up with the Mafia. Then they find out there’s nothing to that, but they’ve spent all this time and money investigating him and they have to justify it. So they just keep going after him.”

Given the amount of money and real estate he had amassed, why didn’t he quit when the law came around? “Money is addictive as any drug,” instructed Bennett, “it’s impossible to walk away from it.”

In addition to his drive for money and his in-your-face attitude with the police, Bennett made it worse by not copping a plea. Had he pled guilty, he likely could have plea-bargained down to a few years. Instead he pled not guilty, failed to appear in court in November and did the White Bronco – fled to California. Secret Service agents found him four months later and shipped him back to Seattle in cuffs. From rock-n-roll to the rock pile, it was the end of the line for Bennett

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