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S2: Episode 5

Behind the Curtains

A mysterious device shows up at the Wild Orchid, and Kamy is paranoid the city is out to get him. Everyone wants to know what’s happening in the strip club’s VIP rooms—including the courts.

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Episode | Transcript

Behind the Curtains

Robin Amer: Hey everyone. I know you know this by now, but just want to emphasize again that because this season of The City is about strip clubs, it’s not suitable for everyone, especially kids. That is especially true of this episode, which has a lot of explicit conversations—like, very explicit conversations—about sex. OK, thanks a lot. 

Production team member: Previously on The City … 

Elon Musk: This is very much the land of opportunity here. Like, feels like freedom, right here. Feels like freedom. [Applause]

Chad Dehne: I know that they provide jobs for a lot of beautiful families here in the Reno area and beyond. But at the same time, there's a protocol that you've got to follow so that those people can go home safe and sound to their families or not suffer ill effects from things they may have been exposed to down the line.

Kamy Keshmiri: They want to make me look like their bad guy. Who's the bad guy? 

Mayor Hillary Schieve: I want them patrolled. I want them well-lit. I want them in places where they cannot hide.

Kamy Keshmiri: There's no records. There's no reports. There’s not police act—there's nothing. So what do you do? Lie.

Stephanie: That’s when the undercover cop said, “Oh, we need someone to sit on my buddy.” And like, I'm just thinking, like, “OK, well if I go sit on his lap, I'm for sure gonna get that dance.” 

Undercover cop: We got a deal. Heavy-set girl in a red top. Heavy-set girl in a red top. 

Robin Amer: It’s a busy day at the Reno Municipal Court. The judge in Courtroom B is plodding through a cattle call of cases: DUIs, domestic violence, car crashes.

Stephanie is waiting in the gallery. It’s been six months since she was cited in an undercover prostitution sting at the Spice House, one of Kamy Keshmiri’s clubs. This sting was bad news for Stephanie. But it’s also central to the city’s efforts to kick strip clubs out of downtown—clubs they see as an obstacle to Reno’s reinvention. 

Stephanie is actually feeling pretty optimistic. Kamy Keshmiri’s combative lawyer, Mark Thierman, is at her side. But more than that, she believes the evidence is on her side. She’s certain the secret recording of that night at the Spice House will exonerate her.

Stephanie: You know, it's all in the tape. Like, maybe's not yes. And so I was really confident.

Robin Amer: Remember, Stephanie landed in court because when an undercover cop asked her if he could lick her in the back room of the club, she answered, quote, “maybe.” 

Fast forward to the middle of the trial, and that word “maybe” is now the focal point, as the prosecutor argues that “maybe” actually means “yes,” and Mark Thierman pushes the undercover cop to concede the opposite.

Mark Thierman: When you asked if you could lick her down there, didn't she respond by saying “maybe”?

Undercover cop: At one point, yes.

Mark Thierman: She responded twice by saying maybe.

Undercover cop: I don't recall the number, but yes. 

Mark Thierman: Does “maybe” mean yes to you?

Undercover cop: No.

Robin Amer: Stephanie’s case hinges on this word “maybe,” but you could argue that the outcome of the larger battle between Old Reno and New Reno also rests on an uncertain promise.

Is Stephanie selling actual sex? Or is she selling a fantasy? In that same vein, how much of New Reno’s promise is real, and how much is just an illusion? And is the Reno City Council’s real problem with Old Reno the image of Kamy’s clubs or the reality of what’s happening inside?

In our last episode, we looked at what it’s really like to work in New Reno by taking you inside Tesla’s Gigafactory. Now, it’s time to pull back the curtain on work in Old Reno, by looking at the jobs inside Kamy’s clubs. 

And as it turns out, one dancer’s “maybe” isn’t the worst thing happening there.

I’m Robin Amer and from USA TODAY, this is The City. 

Act 1 

Robin Amer: When it comes to its campaign against the strip clubs, Reno didn’t just conduct police raids or prosecute dancers. After the mayor said she wanted the clubs to be, quote, “patrolled, well-lit, in places they cannot hide,” the city unleashed an arsenal of inspections on Kamy’s clubs. 

If the city couldn’t kick Kamy out of downtown, it sure could make his life miserable. 

Here’s our reporter, Anjeanette Damon.

Anjeanette Damon: It’s January 2019. I’m sitting in the office on kind of a slow afternoon, if such a thing exists in the news business, when I get a text from Jeremy Cronick, the manager of the Wild Orchid. It says simply: “Code enforcement is here again.”

The Wild Orchid is just five minutes from the newsroom, so I jump in my car and get there just in time to see a parade of city vehicles leaving the club.

Kamy’s whole crew is gathered around the table in that back office at the Ponderosa Hotel. Kamy’s in his usual spot at the head of the table. His brother Jamy’s at the other end. Lawyer Mark Thierman’s at Kamy’s side. The managers of his three strip clubs fill out the rest of the seats.

Calvin, the maintenance guy who takes care of the Ponderosa and Wild Orchid, is briefing the group on what the city inspectors found in their latest visit.

Calvin: All of this back area here is illegal. Every bit of it. The Secrets Lounge and all these rooms back here is illegal. If the wall was gone and the booths was on the other side so you could see it from the main floor, it'd be fine.

Mark Theirman: Oh, they're going back to the “in plain sight” thing? Screw that.

Anjeanette Damon: That was Mark. Yes, the Reno City Council is trying to ban private rooms, but it turns out that even under existing code, back rooms are already illegal. 

But Mark says the back rooms in all three of Kamy’s clubs have been there since before any of the laws took effect, so they must be allowed to remain. The city says otherwise.

There are other issues too.

Calvin: The curtain that separates the front from the back? The label says "Not fire retardant" right on it! He goes, “Well you can't keep these here!”

Anjeanette Damon:  Yeah... Curtains that could burst into flames? That’s a problem. 

Code enforcement also checked on the strip club’s restrooms to make sure they were accessible to people with disabilities. Lucky for Kamy, the club was OK there.

Calvin: If it wasn't that, they was gonna shut your doors down today. Literally, pfft, you're done.

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy and Mark are indignant about all of it. 

Mark Theirman: They want to impose impossible standards for you to make a living so that you will sell the building and they can turn it into a parking lot. But at least they wouldn't have to deal with it, because of what's inside it.

Anjeanette Damon: They’re also starting to feel the pressure of all this scrutiny. 

Since the fight with the city started, the Wild Orchid and the Ponderosa Hotel, where Kamy’s low-income tenants live, have been visited by Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors, city fire marshals, code enforcement, and the health department. 

Now, these visits were a legitimate use of government power, meant to keep workers and the public safe. And the inspectors found problems, which were detailed in extensive reports. OSHA, for example, found Ponderosa employees exposed to dirty needles, asbestos, and live wires. They fined the hotel nearly $13,000.

And while Kamy’s fighting those fines, he did spend money to correct the problems inspectors found.

Still, many of the problems found by inspectors had existed for years without the city seeming to pay them much mind. For example, cupboards in the Ponderosa that blocked fire sprinklers and those curtains in the Wild Orchid, they weren’t new.

But suddenly, at the same time an effort was underway to kick the clubs out of downtown, the city was taking notice of these things. Typically, when fire inspectors would visit the Ponderosa and Wild Orchid, they’d spend about an hour-and-a-half doing their annual inspection. But last year, the inspector spent five-and-a-half hours on site.

Kamy saw these visits as baseless attacks on his business. Attacks so aggressive, that he started to believe that there’s an outlandish plot against him—a belief fueled by one city visit in particular. 

Let me take you back to the summer of 2018. The private eye has secretly been through the clubs. The city council has voted against them—twice. And the police and code enforcement have received their marching orders.

So Kamy calls me up one afternoon with a wild story about the police poking around the Wild Orchid’s basement in the early morning hours, when no one is around. He’s got them on surveillance video, he says—“Come see for yourself.”

So I do.

I meet Kamy and Jeremy—he’s the manager of the Wild Orchid—in that Pondrosa backroom. Jeremy lays it out for me.

Jeremy Cronick: So, on like, 4:30 in the morning, whatever, a couple cops come over, say, “Hey, we want to see the basement.” The gal up front is like, “Mmm, yeah, sure, whatever.” So they come in and they end up in the Wild Orchid basement.

Anjeanette Damon: The cops don’t have a warrant, but the desk clerk lets them in anyway, and shows them how to get downstairs.

Jeremy shows me still images from the club’s video cameras. Sure enough, there are two officers in uniform, shining their flashlights into dark corners of the basement. They’re in there for about ten minutes.

Kamy is super suspicious. He finds the timing odd.

Kamy Keshmiri: So they purposely picked Sunday night, Monday morning, knowing the club was closed, to go down in the basement. For—we have that bug down there that we saw, right? Did you show her the bug?

Anjeanette Damon: Wait, what? A bug? 

For a split second, I think Kamy may be talking about a cockroach. But, no, he’s talking about a black box kinda bug. He’s not sure what it is. Some kind of spying or listening device? Kamy’s IT guy found it plugged into the building’s phone system after the cops left. 

I want to see exactly what he’s talking about.

Anjeanette Damon: Maybe, do you, can we go down there with you now that I have this picture?

Kamy Keshmiri: Sure.

Anjeanette Damon: It is that—OK.

Kamy Keshmiri: Yeah, of course.  

Kamy Keshmiri: I'll show you exactly how it was. I'll show you. I was there. So, it was bizarre… [Fades under]

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy is out of his seat in a flash, striding toward the basement stairs. I jump up and chase after him. He walks fast, talking the whole time about the IT guy—a guy who lives in the Ponderosa and takes care of the club’s technology in exchange for a break on his rent.

We walk fast down the stairs leading from the Ponderosa back office and land in a shadowy hallway underneath the Wild Orchid. It seems to stretch endlessly into the dark. At our feet is just a bunch of junk—rat poison, tools, old pipe.

I can’t help but wonder: What the hell am I doing down here? Where is this leading? But I gotta keep up with Kamy.

Off the main passageway are openings to cavernous side rooms that are full of artifacts from the building’s past—old furniture reminiscent of its days as a casino. That replica of the Greek statue Discobolus, from when it was a nightclub.

The building was originally a car dealership in the ‘50s.

Kamy Keshmiri: This is old. You know, at one time this used to be a Packard dealership, so they had Packards down here.

Anjeanette Damon : A Packard—?  

Kamy Keshmiri: Packard—you know the car? Those days, you bought a car, you bought the parts and they assembled them at the dealers, and did all kinds of stuff… [Fades under]

Anjeanette Damon: Wholesome mainstreet car dealership, glitzy casino, pulsating nightclub. It’s like running through a dim memory of Reno’s past reinventions. Maybe in five years this building will be a sushi burrito joint and hipster hotel, the stripper poles abandoned down here beside Discobolus. 

We make it to a small control room of sorts. An alarm sounds when Kamy walks through the door.

He points to a mess of wires and cables attached to the wall.

Kamy Keshmiri: It was sitting right here. 

Anjeanette Damon: I have no idea what I’m looking at, to tell you the truth. Cables come in through the wall and plug into various routers for the club’s phone and internet service. More wires run through a complex switchboard-looking thing that provides phone service to all the Ponderosa’s hotel rooms. It’s seriously old school. 

Kamy Keshmiri: This is, uh, this is, like, our switch panel, you know. It does the club, it does the hotel. It's all, you know, all our panels for credit cards, for our Internet. 

Anjeanette Damon: There’s an old line from the novel Catch-22—one that Mark likes to repeat when he’s talking about Kamy. It goes like this: Just because you’re paranoid doesn't mean they’re not after you. In this case, Kamy might be paranoid, but it doesn’t mean that the city’s not out to get him. I mean, the city did hire a private investigator to dig up dirt on him. It’s the main reason I went on this wild bug chase to begin with. 

If a device was indeed installed by the police, it’s in the perfect location.

But I’m still skeptical. 

Anjeanette Damon: I mean, you really think that they were here to bug your phones? Like the Wild Orchid phones or the Ponderosa phones or—?

Kamy Keshmiri: Well, this is what we do know. They came in. The guy that does all our work around here was down there a couple weeks ago. Said that was not there. That was transmitting a signal that none of us knew. … The police aren't our friends.

Anjeanette Damon: OK, so what was Reno PD up to that night?

I know the cops were in the basement. Kamy has video proof they were there, but no footage of them actually placing a device. So there should be a police report, right? Like the documentation of all the other city visits to the clubs. 

But the city has nothing in its files about this visit. The only thing it has is two seconds of tape from the dispatch center noting two officers’ location at the Ponderosa.

So I call the watch commander to ask what they might have been up to. This is Lt. Joe Robinson.


Joe Robinson: OK, let me it pull up. What do we have going on there?The officers were hailed. They talked to somebody on the street claiming to be an informant of some type. Said that they were cooking methamphetamine in the basement of the Ponderosa. [Laughs] The officers—

Anjeanette Damon: Really?

Joe Robinson: Yeah. 

Anjeanette Damon: So, here’s the story from the police: Two rookie cops—Robinson says they have a zeal to “do good police work”—were flagged down by a guy on the street who said he had information that someone was cooking meth in the basement of the Ponderosa. So the cops went to check it out. That’s it.

I ask him about Kamy’s conspiracy theory.

Anjeanette Damon: So, I don't know If you're the right person to respond to this being a patrol lieutenant, but Kamy Keshmiri is convinced that those officers planted a bug on the phone.

Joe Robinson: A bug? 

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah, his IT guy went down there after the officers left and found a router plugged into their phone system, um, and he's he's convinced that the officers are the ones that left that there.

Joe Robinson: You know, pretty sure that'd be a federal offense, planting any type of bug or anything like that without going through the proper court channels. So I will answer to that. 

Anjeanette Damon: Robinson repeats the story of the officers trying to hunt down a meth lab, stresses that the desk clerk let them in the building, and says nine minutes is a reasonable amount of time to be inside.

Joe Robinson: If Mr. Keshmiri or anyone else feels that the Reno Police Department unjustly planted a bug, I strongly recommend that he call the Reno Police Department Internal Affairs Division and have it investigated.

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy never did file an internal affairs complaint. He thinks, why bother. 

Robin Amer: With this new onslaught of enforcement, Kamy sees conspiracies where there may be none. The real question though—as it’s been from the beginning—is the city’s crackdown justified? Does it have good reason to go after Kamy? Or is it just trying to find a way to bulldoze the clubs to make way for New Reno? 

After the break, Anjeanette finally gets some answers. 

Jane: If you paid the bouncer like half, you can have sex in the back rooms. 

Anjeanette Damon: Did you do that?

Jane: Yeah, I—I unfortunately got really involved in the prostitution part.

Act 2

Robin Amer: The private investigators that the city sent into Kamy’s clubs documented touching, oral sex, and other activity that stretched beyond the boundaries of local law.

They also suggested that drug use and prostitution were happening inside. 

But their report also raised a lot of unanswered questions. For example, those private eyes never made it into the back rooms. 

So what’s really happening back there? 

Over the past year, Anjeanette has tried to find out. 

Anjeanette Damon: To hear Mark and Kamy tell it, the clubs are spic and span: no prostitution, no violence, no underage drinking, no drug dealing. It does not happen!

Kamy can get worked up—as Kamy often does—about this subject. Like during this conversation I had with him at the Wild Orchid one night.

Kamy Keshmiri: We've been here over 24 years. That's a lot of time, a lot of dancers, a lot of employees that have come and gone through here, that you could have gotten, that could have spoken one at a time about all the bad things that go on in these clubs, and they don't have one. Not a single one in 24 years! That's pretty damn amazing.

Anjeanette Damon: But I wonder: Is the reason no one has come forward really because there’s nothing to come forward about? What if people aren’t jumping up at council meetings or filing police reports or complaints because they’re intimidated?

Kamy doesn’t buy that theory.

Kamy Keshmiri: Why? What would they be afraid of? I'm not a criminal. I have no—I mean, what am I going to do? I'm not a crime figure. I mean, this isn't the Sopranos here.

Anjeanette Damon: If his critics are right, if the club is a hotbed of prostitution and drugs and illegal activity, he says everybody would know it.

Kamy Keshmiri: Do you think if they had a real life person they wouldn't parade that person all over town? They would. They don't have anybody, because there's nobody there, and there's nobody there because there's nothing going on!

Anjeanette Damon: But I did find people. People who tell a dramatically different story—a story that isn’t as black and white as the one Kamy likes to tell. 

Anjeanette Damon: So they, the managers and the Keshmiris say it doesn't happen, it absolutely—

Tawny: They are fucking liars. They're liars.

Anjeanette Damon: I’ve spent a lot of time in Kamy’s clubs over the past year. I’ve shadowed dancers, hung out in their locker rooms, chatted with managers. I wanted to understand what these jobs in my community are really like, whether in the new economy or the old. So as I did with Tesla, I went looking for the truth. 

So, the woman calling the Keshmiris liars is Tawny. 

Remember her? She’s the former A-list dancer who was at the club when the cops raided Safari Nights in 2007. Tawny worked at the Wild Orchid for about 10 years, until 2014, when she says Kamy kicked her out for being too loud and drunk too often.

Tawny says she never had sex with a client—that was a line she never wanted to cross. But what she did participate in—even made a business out of—were illegal “buyouts.”

Here’s how a buyout would work: A dancer would meet a customer who wanted to take her out of the club, say to go gambling, or dancing, or to have sex in a hotel room. But first, the customer would have to pay the club.

Tawny: You go up to a manager and he's like, “I'm not going to let you leave unless—I need girls—so that guy needs to pay a thousand dollars for you to leave.” And literally the guy would pay the club a thousand dollars. It's a buyout fee.

Anjeanette Damon: After he pays the club, the dancer is free to negotiate her own separate fee with the customer.

Tawny says it was a regular occurrence for her. She would go gambling with her customers or to fancy dinners, golf parties—even a military ball.

Tawny: Yeah and I just made it a business. That's how I did it. 

Anjeanette Damon: For safety reasons, Tawny took photos of her customers’ drivers licenses before she left the club with them. And she built a network of Reno’s casino pit bosses, VIP hosts, and limo drivers who she could tip to make sure she wasn’t in danger.

Tawny: And I get in the limo and I hand a hundred through the window to the guy. And I'm like, “You're on my ass all night.” He's like, “OK, what do you guys need?” And I'm like, “This guy just wants to go dancing and gambling. I'm staying on the floor.” I said, “Make sure you have your eyes on me.”

Anjeanette Damon: Tawny often had to protect herself inside the strip club as well. She says she wasn’t afraid to slap a guy or yell at him for groping her. It got her in trouble with the club managers, who wanted dancers to be polite to customers. But she says it also kept her safe.

Tawny: It protected me, because that kept me from being with a guy that could rape me or take advantage of me. So that kept that from happening. 

Anjeanette Damon: Tawny tells me that strippers couldn’t always rely on the bouncers to protect them. Sometimes a customer could tip a bouncer to look the other way. Other times a bouncer might look the other way because he wasn’t being tipped enough by the stripper.

Anjeanette Damon: They're supposed to be there taking care of you to make sure that doesn't happen.

Tawny: That’s what we always said! And you only had, like, one out of every four bouncers that was truthfully taking care of you. That was it.

Anjeanette Damon: Some of the dancers I talked to felt completely safe in the clubs. If a guy got out of line, they said all they had to do was get the attention of the manager or the bouncer and he’d be dealt with.

I saw this myself at the Wild Orchid. Jeremy would intervene between dancers and patrons when they had an issue. 

But Tawny isn’t the only dancer I talked to who described buyouts. Other strippers independently confirmed that a guy could pay the club money to take a woman out of the club. And with as much time as Kamy and Jamy spend in their clubs, Tawny doesn’t believe for a second that they were unaware it was happening.

Also, some dancers I talked to said the clubs could be a dangerous place, particularly those private back rooms. Dancers told me about being verbally abused, groped, fingered, fondled, even drugged there.

Anjeanette Damon: It’s chilly.

Fil Corbitt: Yeah.

Anjeanette Damon: Hi, how are you?

Anjeanette Damon: Fil and I are meeting up for coffee with two former strippers who’ve transitioned out of the sex industry. There’s like six inches of snow on the ground outside, but now we’re sitting in Melissa Holland’s warm living room. 

Melissa’s the anti-sex trafficking activist we met briefly in Episode 1. She’s working with PR maven Abbi Whitaker and Mike Kazmierski to get the strip clubs kicked out of downtown.

While Abbi and Mike want the clubs gone to clear the way for economic renewal, Melissa is fighting the clubs on moral grounds. She believes what happens in the strip clubs, even the legal stuff, is morally wrong.

She wants me to meet these two dancers she knows, Her organization, Awaken, helped them transition out of the sex industry.

Jane and April—not their real names—say they worked at the Wild Orchid. April for 10 years, until 2014, and Jane for six years, until 2016. Jane says she also worked at Kamy’s other two clubs from time to time. 

Jane started stripping when she was 16, homeless, and a new mom. She was too young to get the required work card from the city, so she never did. But she said the managers at Kamy’s clubs didn’t care. 

Both women describe scary situations inside Kamy’s clubs, where money reigned supreme.  Here’s Jane. 

Jane: If you pay enough money, and you can basically touch and do whatever. Especially in the back rooms. There's, like, so much happens in the back rooms, and I mean people would come out with black eyes all the time from those rooms. And they, “Here’s some alcohol. You’re going to be OK. Like, here’s some makeup.” The house mom, like always, like, “Here, I have some extra makeup to cover that up.”

Anjeanette Damon: April says her friend was choked in a private room and she herself was once drugged at the club.

April: I had one drink, and I'm just holding onto the walls trying to make it down to the dressing room. And the girls saw me just laying on the floor and they just assumed that I was wasted and nothing was done. 

Anjeanette Damon: April tells me pimps would often prowl the Wild Orchid.

Anjeanette Damon: Were you ever approached by guys that seemed to be, like, pimps, like?

April: Oh, all the time.

Anjeanette Damon: And how would they approach you?

April: Oh, they come over and they’re, like, “Hey girl, you're beautiful. You know, we can make some good money together.” And I was like, “Go fuck yourself, personally.” 

Anjeanette Damon: Jane wasn’t so lucky. She says she fell victim to a group of pimps when she went to a party at another dancer’s house. She says they beat her up and raped her. 

She never went to the police, because she says she was afraid the pimps would kill her. They told her they had an in with the police department and would know if she reported them.

To avoid beatings, she said they told her she had to earn them a certain amount of money each week.

To be clear, these pimps weren’t associated with the strip club, and Jane didn’t meet them there. I talked to several women who said they saw prostitution happening at the club, but Jane is the only stripper I talked to who said she was coherced by pimps. 

Jane said she would help fill her quota in Kamy’s clubs. She also worked in the brothels outside of town—including the Mustang Ranch, Lance Gilman’s brothel—and picked up clients from online escort services.

It’s all part of the ecosystem of sex work in Nevada, both legal and illegal—the ecosystem backers of the New Reno are trying to dismantle.

Even though he’s been adament he’s not aware of it, it seems pretty clear that solicitation for sex happens inside Kamy’s clubs. Jane, April, and other current and former dancers shared similar stories about customers offering money for sex. Some, not all, take them up on the offer.

Jane: If you paid the bouncer like half, you can have sex in the back rooms.

Anjeanette Damon: Did you do that?

Jane: Yeah, I—I unfortunately got really involved in the prostitution part.

Anjeanette Damon: Melissa Holland’s organization, Awaken, also hired a lawyer, Jason Guinasso, to take sworn statements from women who worked in Reno’s strip clubs as part of some early groundwork for a potential lawsuit against the clubs for poor working conditions. 

As of today, Jason hasn’t filed any lawsuits. So although the statements were taken under oath, they have not been filed in court or subjected to any kind of scrutiny by opposing lawyers. Mark Thierman told me he’s never seen them.

I joined Jason at his law office in south Reno to listen in on one of those statements. 

Court Reporter: Raise your right hand, please. 

Jane Doe #1: Alrighty.

Anjeanette Damon: He’s interviewing a former door girl from the Wild Orchid and Fantasy Girls over the phone.

Court Reporter: Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony you're about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Jane Doe #1: Yes.

Anjeanette Damon: The door girl says drugs were sold and prostitution happened at Kamy’s clubs. She says sometimes women were fined by the managers for engaging in prostitution. Sometimes they were fired.

That was up to the managers, the door girl says. But their primary concern was not about the dancers.

Jane Doe #1: Um, as long as they were making money there really wasn't a, they didn't really interfere in anything.

Jason Guinasso: So the main concern of management was whether the club was making money, not whether people were abiding by the rules or the laws. Is that right?

Jane Doe #1: That's very correct.

Anjeanette Damon: Jason also interviewed a former stripper. She didn’t want to be recorded but Jason shared the transcript with me.

She says she worked at the Wild Orchid, but left about a year after the Safari Nights raid. So more than 10 years ago now. 

She also described dangerous situations in the private rooms. And just a quick warning here, it’s going to be a little graphic. 

Dancers would be masturbated on. They’d have to fight off men who tried to quote “stick their hands inside of them.” Everybody just dealt with it, she said. 

The dancer also said that she was drugged and raped in a private room at the Wild Orchid. She never reported it to police. Jason asked her why.

According to the transcript, she answered:

“I think you don’t think anybody will believe you. I know for me afterwards, I thought it was my fault, and because you choose to work somewhere like that, who’s going to listen?”

It’s time to talk to Kamy about everything I’ve learned. So field producer Fil Corbitt and I return to the Ponderosa Hotel.

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started reporting this story. I’ve interviewed Kamy a dozen times or more. He’s always been open in a way that city attorney Karl Hall or the folks at the Gigafactory are not. 

But now I’m walking in with stories of women whose experiences inside Kamy’s clubs are vastly different than what Kamy and Mark describe. Multiple women told me detailed accounts of similar dangers they faced on the job. Those stories lined up with each other. But I don’t have any documents or anything like that to back up their stories. I’m nervous about how this interview is going to go.

I first ask him about the illegal buyouts, when customers allegedly pay the club to leave with a dancer.


Kamy Keshmiri: First of all, we don't do buyouts.
Anjeanette Damon: OK, so you're saying these women are lying about buyouts? They didn’t happen?
Kamy Keshmiri: I'll tell you our issue with these buyouts. First of all, our buyouts, we don’t do buyouts. Why would I allow that? I want everything to happen here. I can make my money here, right? Here. Why would I want them to leave to go anywhere? Why?
Anjeanette Damon: I mean, is it possible that you had managers or floor guys that let that happen? I mean, I just don't—you know, Tawny seemed really credible to me when I talked with her. Like, she was very detailed about her experiences, and, you know, this other deposition kind of backed that up, so...
Kamy Keshmiri: You know, you know. They can... anybody can say anything. 

Anjeanette Damon: But then he backtracks a bit on his denial about the buyouts. If they happen, he says he fires the dancer.

Kamy Keshmiri: The dancers meeting outside the club every once in a while, yeah, I've heard that. And that's why we, we, you know, it's at the point where we may even have [to] hire a private investigator to come into clubs and just act like a customer and try to get the girls to meet him outside the club.
Anjeanette Damon: You've done that?
Kamy Keshmiri: We've been talking about doing that, yeah. Because I want to make sure they don't meet customers outside the club. Because that's the part I can't control. 

Anjeanette Damon: It’s a little ironic that Kamy is thinking about hiring a private eye so soon after the city hired one to spy on him.

Prostitution, drugs, illegal activity—that all puts his strip club empire at risk, he says. He’ll do anything to protect his licenses. So he says he has checks and balances in place.

Like, dancers can call a hotline anonymously to complain about club employees. But dancers tell me they don’t really trust it.

Kamy says he relies on his managers to deal with employees who steal or allow prostitution, but acknowledges it’s hard to find managers he can trust. If he does find out about people doing anything illegal, he says he fires them on the spot. 

Several of the dancers I talked to backed this up. Remember, Stephanie was adamant she didn’t engage in prostitution. She said it would’ve been a quick way to lose her job.

But in this interview, Kamy seems pretty dismissive about the dancers’ safety concerns. Black eyes in the backroom? Impossible, he says. 

And here’s when things get a little weird.

He starts telling me that the dancer is always in the, quote, “power position” during a lap dance. He tries to demonstrate for me as he’s sitting in his office chair.

He pushes away from the table, and kinda slides down in his seat, spreading his legs open as if he were about to receive a lap dance. He motions as if he wants me to stand over him, like I’m the stripper. I decline. He keeps talking.

Kamy Keshmiri: The dancer’s the one that, it's her game. It's her rules. She's—I'm sitting here. I'm not up. I can't—What can I do sitting down?
Anjeanette Damon: Oh, I think I would be a little afraid [laughs] if I were—
Kamy Keshmiri: If you're standing above me, Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: You can hear me laughing nervously at this whole absurd exercise. Kamy may be sitting, but he’s still a huge man. There’s no way I could defend myself even if I’m the one standing. He sees the look on my face and seems to realize he’s larger than the average guy.

Anjeanette Damon: I don’t know—
Kamy Keshmiri: First of all, I'm not your average customer.
Anjeanette: I know, you’re right, but you’re the one sitting here, so I’m thinking about this scenario... 
Kamy Keshmiri: OK. I'm sorry, what was your name again?
Fil Corbitt: FIl.
Kamy Keshmiri: Fil is sitting down and you're standing up, OK? Who's in the power position? Not Fil. You are! You determine the rules of this game. Not, not Fil. You.

Anjeanette Damon: But who really has the power here? The dancer, who can be replaced by another one looking to make some cash? The bouncer, whose level of protection may be based on how much he’s been tipped? I am not at all convinced that a dancer would be safe from a guy who wants to do her harm simply because she’s standing over him.

Kamy insists that the bouncers would throw out any customer who is abusive toward a dancer, or at least tell the guy to knock it off. 

But then he switches gears and suggests that the bouncer’s job isn’t actually to protect the dancers. It’s to protect the club.

Kamy Keshmiri: It's not the customers we have the issue with. It's our dancers we're on to make sure everybody follows the rules. 

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy says the strippers who spoke with me are straight up lying. And he says that because police have no record of assaults on dancers, nothing's happened in his clubs.

Kamy Keshmiri: These are all lies. Go look at the police. Again, if this girl came out with a black eye, these girls were assaulted, you call the police department and you say, "I was assaulted." And they come down here. We can't stop her from calling.
Anjeanette Damon: They say they don't call the police, because they're worried the police won't believe them.
Kamy Keshmiri: Oh, come on. Show me a police record. Show me a report, and then I will justify it. But I'm not gonna sit here and waste my time—I got to go work out. My girlfriend's waiting for me right now—over what some dancer ten years ago said because she's pissed off because, who knows why she's mad.

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy’s right—it is difficult to find a police record. The strippers have already told me they don’t call the police.

And now, Kamy mocks me for listening to the strippers. It’s a move that seems to play right into that fear women have that they won’t be believed.

Kamy Keshmiri: Here you come with the great fictional, the great fictional stories. And you just wasted your time on a bunch of nonsense.

Anjeanette Damon: With that, he’s pretty much done with me. He’s ready to hit the weights.

Kamy Keshmiri:  We're done?
Anjeanette Damon: OK. Yeah.
Kamy Keshmiri: I can go work out? 

Anjeanette Damon: But we know from one guy that Kamy isn’t telling the whole truth about buyouts. That guy is Mark Thierman.

I talked to him briefly on the phone about three months after my interview with Kamy. I asked him whether the club had once done buyouts, but stopped doing them because the city was ramping up pressure on the club. Mark confirmed that’s what happened.

Anjeanette Damon:  And then the buyouts, like, it sounds to me like you guys, it was a regular practice. So maybe you clamped down on it after this whole city council thing started?
Mark Thierman: Yeah, no, it was. It was. I mean, the theory is that the girl comes to you, the manager, and says, “I want to go gambling with this guy. He's gonna buy me out.” Nobody says, “I'm gonna out to go to the hotel room with him.” If they do, that's silly. What are you supposed to do? Say no? When the house makes money on it, everybody's kind of happy and it goes on its merry way. I guess now it's coming home to roost that, well, they didn't go gambling. They just went out and had sex, or didn't have sex. 

Anjeanette Damon: Still, even when confronted with his own lawyer’s comments, Kamy refused to acknowledge buyouts happened. In a text message to me, he said Mark is not involved in club operations and had never personally witnessed a buyout.

Robin Amer: If dancers are being hurt in the private rooms, then the city has good reason to crack down on the clubs—especially after ignoring them for so long. But when the city finally takes action, it doesn’t go after the pimps, or guys abusing the dancers, or the bouncers looking the other way.

It goes after Stephanie.

After the break, we return to Stephanie’s trial. 

Act 3 

Robin Amer: OK, let’s go back to Anjeanette, who’s in the courtroom waiting for Stephanie’s trial to start. 

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie is sitting quietly at a table in the front of the room, her hands in her lap. Mark Thierman, wearing one of his many Darth Vader ties, is sitting next to her.

A little earlier, I saw Kamy here too, in his trademark athletic wear. But it took too long to get to Stephanie’s case and he left hours ago.

The city prosecutor is Angela Gianoli. She has a commanding presence.

She works for Reno City Attorney Karl Hall, the guy who secretly hired the private investigator to spy on the clubs. The guy whose office has built the case for ousting the strip clubs from downtown. They guy whose own building is for sale a block away from the Wild Orchid.

The judge in the case is Tammy Riggs. She jumps right into it.

Judge Tammy Riggs: Will the witnesses who are going to be testifying stand up and raise your right hand right now? And marshal, will you please swear in the witnesses? 

Marshal: Do you all swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Witnesses: Yes.

Judge Tammy Riggs: Thank you. Ms. Gianoli, who's your first witness?

Anjeanette Damon: Detective Wesley Leedy is called to the stand. He’s the undercover cop who got Stephanie that night at the club. He’s still got that big bushy beard that made Stephanie think he looked like Bradley Cooper in American Sniper.

What follows is nearly two hours of some really squirm-worthy testimony. 

Detective Leedy describes how Stephanie, wearing her red lingerie, sat in his lap. How Serenity, Stephanie’s loud partner at the club, told a lewd story about things that happen in the back, and how he asked Stephanie about what he might be able to get in the back.

Then, the court’s attention turns to the oral sex incident—or the simulated oral sex incident, depending on who you ask. You might remember from the undercover tape, this is the moment when Serenity dove her head between Stephanie’s thighs as the pair tried to talk the cop into a private lap dance in the back. 

The detective testifies he believed Serenity was actually performing oral sex on Stephanie. 

Detective Wesley Leedy: And based on her positioning and behavior, it appeared as though some form of oral sex was being performed.

Mark Thierman: Objection, relevance.

Angela Gianoli: Judge, this is 100 percent relevant.

Judge Tammy Riggs: Yeah, objection’s overruled.

Anjeanette Damon: Mark keeps objecting to this whole line of questioning.

But this interaction between Serenity and Stephanie is a key moment for the prosecution. Was it part of the sales pitch for sex, as the prosecutor argues? Or was Stephanie just selling the fantasy, as Mark maintains?

Both sides spend an inordinate amount of time asking for the most minute details about this incident. How were the dancers positioned? What angle was the cop viewing it from? How many pairs of underwear was Stephanie wearing? Did Serenity move them aside? Did anyone actually see any tongue?

Mark’s like, look, this is all theater. This is all designed to entice a guy to spend more money in the club. There is no real expectation that sex will actually happen. The dancer will get fired if it does! This whole display by Serenity and Stephanie is just part of the wind up to a lap dance. 

Mark even tries to shame the detective for falling for the schtick

Mark Thierman: These are actors. They act for a living. They act like they're having fun. You're telling me based on that acting you were fooled into believing it?

Angela Gianoli: I'm going to object. This is becoming argumentative. Is there a question here?

Judge Tammy Riggs:  He's getting to it. Overruled. Go ahead, Mr. Thierman.

Mark Thierman: Are you telling me you were fooled into believing they had oral sex? 

Angela Gianoli: I'm going to object to the characterization that he's “fooled” into believing. 

Judge Tammy Riggs: Overruled. Ask your question again, Mr. Thierman.

Anjeanette Damon: The detective doesn’t have time to answer that question before Mark moves on and asks him something else.

Ultimately this case hinges on the word “maybe.” Stephanie was doing her best to earn a living and play by the rules. But the rules here are ambiguous and constantly shifting. It’s almost as if Stephanie is the rope in this tug-of-war between the strip clubs and the city.

The detective seems to be getting more and more uncomfortable with all this sex talk. And at one point, the judge stops the entire proceeding and admonishes everyone for talking like embarrassed middle schoolers during a sex ed class. 

Judge Tammy Riggs: This is a court of law. We're all adults here. Let's just hear what was said. We don't need to be using euphemisms or anything. Let's just please put it out there—what was said, what was done. 

Anjeanette Damon: Finally, the prosecutor gets the cop to explain what happened in grown up terms.   

Detective Wesley Leedy: After she had already indicated that she would allow me to lick her in the vaginal genital area if I got her wet enough, I then confirmed with her if I could do this act in the back room with her for her originally listed cost of $150.

Angela Gianoli: And did she agree to allow you to go back to the back room and lick her vagina for $150?

Judge Tammy Riggs: Yes.

Anjeanette Damon: Mark says whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa hold on here. Stephanie didn’t say, sure, I’ll go in the backroom and let you go down on me.

Mark Thierman: When you asked if you could lick her, uh, down there, didn't she respond by saying “maybe”?

Detective Wesley Leedy: At one point, yes.

Mark Thierman: She responded twice by saying “maybe.”

Detective Wesley Leedy: I don't recall the number, but yes. 

Mark Thierman: Does “maybe” mean yes to you?

Detective Wesley Leedy: No.

Anjeanette Damon: But the prosecutor is ready with an argument that maybeactually does mean yes.

Angela Gianoli: Now, if you listen to the voice inflection by the defendant, this wasn't a tentative "maybe." She was not pensive about this. It was coyness. It was this cat-and-mouse game. The thrill of the hunt, so to speak. This was not a "maybe." This was a, "Yeah, maybe." This was flirtatious. This was a, "Yeah. If we go back there, you can lick me."

Anjeanette Damon: To me, this is where the city gets into some really backwards-thinking logic—logic that doesn’t seem to square with this whole shift in the national conversation about consent. “Maybe” means “yes”? I mean, what if this were a rape trial? If the suspect tried to argue that the victim said “maybe” just before he assaulted her?

Stephanie is sitting at the table fuming.

Anjeanette Damon: What were you thinking when she was—

Stephanie: I was so angry that they were trying to paint me as this person. Like, they kept trying to, like, be like, “Oh yeah, she was enjoying this. She was being flirty.” But yeah, OK, you have to do that at the job. And if I didn't act like this I'd be boring. 

Anjeanette Damon: The trial lasts for about four hours. 

By the time we get to closing arguments, it’s dark outside and stomachs are grumbling. 

When the lawyers are finished, the judge leaves to deliberate. She gets back more than a half hour later and launches into a meticulous explanation of her decision. 

Judge Tammy Riggs: We all know that this is a theater. And I think that what he’s saying as far as the name of the game is to step up to the line and not go over it, I think that's true. What I have concluded, and what you have probably gotten from my comments so far, is that that line has been stepped over. But I do want to let you know what my conclusion is based on, so I will proceed.

Anjeanette Damon: This is the moment Stephanie realizes she might be in trouble.

To the judge, the entire production that night at the Spice House is a sales pitch for sex. The dancers’ actions—the sexy stories and simulated oral sex—outweigh the word “maybe.”

Judge Tammy Riggs: That's sexual conduct, clearly. That, again, is not the charged conduct in this case. It's simply part of the sales job for whatever comes later. But it's clearly sexual conduct. 

Anjeanette Damon: But the judge seems to have some empathy for Stephanie. She says Stephanie likely had no idea that what she was doing was illegal. Mark even argues this is all part of the normal course of business in a strip club. It’s what the club expects of dancers. Sweet talk the guys, but don’t actually do anything in the back. The club even has dancers sign a document before every shift promising not to engage in prostitution.

Judge Tammy Riggs: It just seems like that is a document that is intended to protect the management. As we’re going to see, it didn't protect the defendant, in this case. And that's, that's really, it's too bad.

Anjeanette Damon: That’s when Stephanie knows she’s done.

Stephanie: Like, when she said that, I knew like she was going to say guilty. And so that just, like, broke me. 

Anjeanette Damon: All that innuendo. All that walking up to the line. To the judge, that was brokering a deal.

Judge Tammy Riggs: Whether she was going to change her mind, whether she was going to—whether, you know, she was going to disappear when he came back, it doesn't matter, because she's made an agreement. And I find that that agreement has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt and I do find you guilty of soliciting for prostitution. 

Anjeanette Damon: In the courtroom, Stephanie drops her face into her hands, and, for the first time that day, begins to cry.

Although the judge convicted Stephanie, she only fined her $8. Judge Riggs says the clubs, who are making money off of this, should be responsible for training their dancers on what actually constitutes solicitation.

But to Stephanie, the small fine was little consolation. Any solicitation conviction would make her ineligible for the city work card she needs to strip in Reno. 

Anjeanette Damon: Do you feel like the city was hard on you to try and make a point about the clubs?

Stephanie: Yeah. They're still just trying to push it because they want to get that win. Like, they don't care.

Anjeanette Damon: She’s appealing the case and hanging onto the hope that the next judge sees it differently.

Stephanie:  I'm just, like, praying that, you know, the next judge will be, you know, like, will actually see that, you know, I didn't do anything wrong, and... I don’t know. I just... I don’t know.

Anjeanette Damon: It's a scary position to be in. 

Robin Amer: Reno’s strip clubs can be dangerous places for women. And the way the clubs expect them to do their jobs can run them afoul of the law. But rather than protect them, as the city cracks down on Old Reno, it seems to be punishing the dancers most of all. 

Stephanie’s conviction could be used to bolster a case to move Kamy’s clubs, but it won’t be the main factor in his livelihood. Not the way it would be in hers. 

In next week’s episode, the Reno City Council decides the fate of Kamy’s strip clubs. 

Anjeanette Damon: What do you think’s going to happen in there today?

Kamy Keshmiri: You know, the way these meetings go, I couldn't tell you. Honestly, I have no idea. We come here, we fight, and we'll fight, and we'll fight. 

Anjeanette Damon: And we learn what that outcome means for everyone caught up in the battle over Reno’s future.

Velma Shoals: Even if it hurts, you still walk until you can't walk no more.

Robin Amer: That’s next time, on the season finale of The City. 

Credits

Robin Amer: The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery. 

You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now. If you like the show, please rate and review us, and be sure to tell your friends about us.

Our show was reported and produced by Anjeanette Damon, Fil Corbitt, Kameel Stanley, Taylor Maycan, and me, Robin Amer.

Our editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. 

Legal review by Tom Curley. Launch oversight by Shannon Green. 

Additional production by Emily Liu, Sam Greenspan, Wilson Sayre, and Jenny Casas. 

Brian Duggan is the Reno Gazette Journal’s executive editor. Chris Davis is the USA TODAY Network’s VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Our president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth. 

Special thanks to Liz Nelson, Kelly Scott, and Alicia Barber. 

I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @thecitypod. Or visit our website. That’s thecitypodcast.com.

S2: Episode 4

West World

We go east of the city, where wild horses roam and business is booming. City boosters say Tesla is driving New Reno, but the truth is darker and more complicated than it first appears.

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West World

Robin Amer: Hey everyone. Just a reminder that because this season of The City is about strip clubs, it won’t be suitable for everyone, especially kids. This episode contains explicit language, including explicit conversations about sex.

Production team member: Previously on The City

Mayor Hillary Schieve: We are truly rebranding this city, and companies like Tesla, Amazon, and Apple are all building and investing right here. 

John: I've seen the entire crew marching every morning out of Harrah’s and out of Circus, marching over getting on the shuttles to get bussed out to the Gigafactories. Tesla, Panasonic, so on. 

Bryan McArdle: As you drive through Midtown, you see all this vibrancy—these new restaurants, new small businesses popping up, and that specific strip, it just stands out. It’s, like, such a sore thumb. 

Robin Amer: If you drive east from Reno about 20 miles, you leave the city behind and you find yourself in this incredible landscape, where this river canyon flows between these sagebrush-covered mountains and eventually you’ll get to the spot where the desert floor opens up a bit and those beautiful mountains give way to massive warehouses and factories. 

From above, the buildings look like these big white tetris pieces just scattered among the rolling hills. Hills that have been carved up to make space for all this new construction. This is the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center and in this unlikely landscape New Reno is springing to life. 

It’s where Tesla CEO Elon Musk built a giant battery factory, the Gigafactory, which churns out millions of battery cells a day. The same battery cells that power his famous electric cars.

Now, the 2014 arrival of the Gigafactory was a game-changer for Reno’s economy, bringing with it 7,000 jobs. And last fall, the state hosted a summit to celebrate that accomplishment.

Outgoing Governor Brian Sandoval sits on stage, in front of an audience of boosters and fellow lawmakers and the press, and paints a bleak picture of his state’s economy before Tesla’s arrival.

Brian Sandoval: And it was October of 2010. The unemployment rate was 14.3 percent. Nevada led the nation in bankruptcies. We led the nation in foreclosures. In October, exactly eight years ago, there was a front-page story in the Reno Gazette Journal above the fold that said “Reno: Detroit of the West.”

Robin Amer: Now though, he’s beaming with pride. Companies like Apple and Amazon have opened in the state. But none represent the New Nevada better than Tesla. 

Elon Musk is on stage too, sitting next to Sandoval. Musk is wearing a charcoal suit coat, no tie, and slim-fit jeans—you know, the uniform of Silicon Valley CEOs. Sandoval launches into some friendly chit chat.

Brian Sandoval: So when you came over that hill over here and and you see this, this landscape, did you look at it and say, this is the place?

Elon Musk: Yeah. [Laughs] This is beautiful. You know, there's like ten thousand wild horses here? I mean, this really looks like something out of a, it's like the idyllic Wild West. It’s incredible. 

Robin Amer: But it wasn’t just the wild horses that drew Musk here. Something much more fundamental—something much more Old Reno—influenced his decision.

Elon Musk: You know, I think this is very much the land of opportunity here. Like, feels like freedom, right here. Feels like freedom, OK? That’s good.

Robin Amer: Freedom. The same freedom that fueled Old Reno’s vice-based economy of quick divorces and legal gambling, well, it’s attractive to corporate America, too. No income taxes. Lightning fast project approvals. 

But when a giant corporation can come to town and build a mega factory at a breakneck pace,  things can go wrong. And just as the dancers working in Old Reno’s strip clubs face difficult working conditions, so too do the workers in New Reno’s factories. 

Officer Fritz: Yes, this is Officer Fritz with the Tesla security department, 1 Electric Avenue. We are requesting EMS for a middle-aged male. He was electrocuted.

Caller: We need an ambulance. We have a female employee that her, she got her hand stuck between two modules and she's bleeding pretty bad. 

Robin Amer: Tesla’s Gigafactory helped jumpstart Reno’s economy, but it came at a cost. One that New Reno boosters working hard to kick strip clubs out of downtown don’t like talking about. One that leaders who scrambled to bring Tesla here didn’t really plan for or address. One that might make you wonder whether the New Reno is really all that different or even that much better than the Old Reno.

From USA TODAY, I’m Robin Amer and this is The City. 

ACT 1   

Robin Amer: When Elon Musk went looking for a place to build his battery factory, he was under tremendous pressure. He had promised the world the mass production of the Model 3, an all-electric sedan that was supposed to be somewhat more affordable than the luxury sports cars his company had been making.

He needed a factory fast. So he needed a place where he could build it with as little red tape as possible. And a guy named Lance Gilman had just the spot.

Here’s our reporter, Anjeanette Damon.

Anjeanette Damon: Lance Gilman is the kinda guy who is always wheeling and dealing. Like the afternoon I went to meet him at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center he was a few minutes late.

Lance Gilman:  I hope we didn't keep you waiting too long.

Anjeanette Damon: No, not at all.

Lance Gilman: We're sitting over in another meeting and it was spirited. So we ran close, so— 

Anjeanette Damon: Uh oh!

Lance Gilman: It's fine, it worked out really well. It had a lot of energy attached.

Anjeanette Damon: Lance looks right at home in this setting, wearing a cowboy hat and bolo tie. It’s a uniform he’s adopted since moving from Southern California to Reno in the 1980s, trading the expensive tailored suits from his days as a music promoter for western garb.

Lance and his partners bought this land in 1998—more than 100,000 acres worth. That’s about seven-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan.

Today, he’s here to take me on a quick driving tour of the park. 

When he and his partners bought this land, it was nothing but dirt roads and sagebrush. The corporation that owned it was actually thinking of turning it into a big game hunting park. 

Lance Gilman: We had to build 300 lane-miles of road. So we put in all of the sewer, all the water, all the gas, all the fiber. 

Anjeanette Damon: As we’re driving, we come across this road crew. They’ve stopped work while a guy with a bright orange sign shoos a tarantula the size of a man’s hand out of the worksite.

Lance Gillman: There's tarantulas out here. There's scorpions, there's tarantulas, there's rattlesnakes. This is Nevada desert! [Laughs] And it's all here.

Anjeanette Damon: Lance drives us up a steep dirt road to a flat knoll. From this vantage point, you can see the park’s sweeping landscape.

Lance Gillman: So we can step out here and we'll look out here.

Anjeanette Damon: He starts pointing out the park’s tenants.

Lance Gillman: So that's the Tesla building across over there to the right with the red stripe. That's a five thousand acres. The big building right below us, the largest one, is Zulily. 

Anjeanette Damon: Zulily is an online clothing retailer. Its building is about five times larger than your typical Costco.

Lance Gillman: And then the guys just below us is U.S. Ordnance. Fifty-caliber machine guns. They're sitting on about $50 million worth of machine gun orders to Saudi Arabia right now. It's amazing.

Anjeanette Damon: Diapers.com, Walmart, Ebay, Petsmart. They all have giant buildings out here.

And a steady stream of semi-trucks rolls through the park, pulling into the warehouse loading docks to drop off and pick up the online purchases of millions of Americans. You know that big screen TV you ordered from the comfort of your couch after drinking a little too much wine? Or the cute shoes you bought on impulse? Or the flowers you sent your mom? They may have come through one of these warehouses. 

As we’re talking, a band of wild horses wanders by, frolicking in the dirt, munching on the scrub brush.

Lance Gillman: We have about a thousand head of wild horses. The companies that are out here love them. Elon Musk has them on his Web site.

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah, Elon loves them, but many native Nevadans—ranchers especially—have more of a love-hate relationship with the wild horses. In real life, they aren’t just a living prop in a Wild West theme park. They can overgraze the land, muddy water sources.

But it’s not just the wild horses that really drew the CEOs here. The selling point is the lack of government bureaucracy—the same permissiveness that in the past encouraged the capitalization on vice. Now it’s the cornerstone of Silicon Valley’s expansion into Northern Nevada.

We head back to a small county office building in the middle of the industrial park. Inside is a tiny office. 

Lance Gilman: We've done a lot of major real estate deals right here.

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah? Who's sat in this room? Any names we would recognize? 

Lance Gilman: Oh sure. Tesla and Google and pretty much, Blockchains. Pretty much everybody. 

Anjeanette Damon: A conference table takes up most of the space. This is where Lance helped land the Gigafactory deal. 

Back in 2014, states across the country were trying to woo Tesla with huge tax incentives. It was all part of a familiar dance, states and cities launching elaborate campaigns to attract big tech companies with tax incentives and land deals. In other places, those enticements have sparked their own backlash, like when New Yorkers rose up to scuttle a $3 billion deal to bring in an Amazon headquarters. 

Anjeanette Damon: But five years ago in this little room, Lance wanted to know why Tesla hadn’t yet picked a place for its Gigafactory.

Lance Gilman: Texas was offering them billions of dollars to come to Texas. And New Mexico was in the hunt. And Arizona was in the hunt. And California was offering them billions of dollars to come to California.

Anjeanette Damon:  Two Tesla higher-ups scouting locations told Lance they couldn’t afford any delays in the building schedule—no pesky zoning fights, no labor-intensive environmental assessments, no lengthy permitting times. 

They asked him:

Lance Gilman: Well, how fast could we get a grading permit?

Anjeanette Damon: A grading permit. It’s kind of a boring piece of paper, but it will let them start clearing the land, getting it ready for construction. Tesla needed to move the equivalent of 42 Olympic swimming pools worth of dirt before building could start.

The county’s planning manager, Dean Haymore, was sitting next to Lance in this meeting.  

Lance Gilman: So Dean took a piece of paper out of his notebook and he said, “That's your grading permit. Fill in your name and you can leave here with it.”

Anjeanette Damon:  Handing Tesla execs a permit scrawled on a torn sheet of paper was a symbolic move. But here in Storey County, things move almost that quickly. On average, it takes less than seven days to get a grading permit, less than 30 days to get a building permit. In many cities, it can take months, even years, to get that first permit. 

Lance Gilman: Three and a half weeks later, the grading on probably one of the largest pads ever done in the United States—three and a half weeks!—I stood on a bank watching this anthill of activity going on with Yates Construction, their vice president, and he said, “Lance Gilman, this could have only happened maybe one other the place in the world today. That would've been China.”

Anjeanette Damon: Nevada: the China of the West, I guess. 

But how could they possibly move that fast? In short, Lance and his partners did all the bureaucratic work up front years ago, clearing the way of any zoning hurdles way ahead of time so companies don’t have to come to town and argue for months before a planning commission. 

Lance Gilman: What we did out here is not just zoning. We pre-approved every industrial project in the United States known at the time. It was all pre-approved. So if you were doing batteries, you were pre-approved. If you were doing flowers, you were pre-approved. If you were doing tires, you were pre-approved.

Anjeanette Damon: Want to build a giant battery factory? Get it up and running within a year? Pre-approved.

A few months after Tesla cleared the land for its factory, Nevada lawmakers took just two days to approve the tax abatements that sealed the deal with the company. It was the largest tax incentive package in state history. 

Lawmakers were easily swayed by Tesla’s promise: the company would build its Gigafactory in Nevada, create thousands of jobs, invest millions of dollars in construction, and, in return, it would pay virtually no taxes for 20 years. In their rush though, lawmakers didn’t do any traffic studies or environmental studies or make sure the region had enough housing for all those new workers. 

Even Musk pleaded for more housing at the governor’s tech summit. 

Elon Musk: My biggest constraint on growth here is housing and infrastructure. [00:38:30] I think we're gonna, we're looking at creating a sort of housing compound just on the site of the Gigafactory, using high quality kind of mobile homes, which I think would be great because then people could actually just walk here. 

Anjeanette Damon: Lance Gilman played a starring role in an ensemble cast of people who brought Tesla to Nevada. Another actor on that stage was Mike Kazmierski, the buttoned up former military commander who heads Reno’s economic development arm—the anti-strip club guy.

You might think these two gentlemen, Mike Kazmierski and Lance Gilman, would be allies joined by the common goal of remaking Reno’s economy.I asked Mike Kazmierski about it when I interviewed him last spring. 

Mike Kazmierski: Uh, Lance Gilman is two people. 

Anjeanette Damon: On the one hand, Mike says Lance is a gifted salesman—the pitch-perfect spokesman for the Wild West industrial park that nabbed the Gigafactory. On the other hand? 

Mike Kazmierski: Lance Gilman is a brothel owner, um, has been called a pimp.

Anjeanette Damon: Lance squirms, even gets down right mad, if you call him a pimp. A pimp, in his view, is a criminal. 

But Lance does own a legal brothel—the Mustang Ranch, one of the most famous in the country. And it’s right on the outskirts of his industrial park. 

Unlike Mike, Lance doesn’t see anything wrong with the two co-existing.

Lance Gilman: Mike Kazmirski, God love him, is not a Nevadan. [00:10:15] He's not into the Nevada culture. And so if you really drill down into where Mike lives, in his world, he doesn't like online gaming. He doesn't like strip clubs. He doesn't like brothels. Mike would completely change our Nevada culture if he could.

Anjeanette Damon:  In some ways, Lance Gilman has managed to straddle that divide between people like Mike Kazmierski and Reno strip club owner Kamy Keshmiri. He’s maintained Old Reno-style vice as a brothel owner, and he’s the guy who helped land Tesla, New Reno’s biggest win. 

It raises another question: If Lance Gilman can bridge both worlds, why can’t they? 

Contrary to popular belief, brothels aren’t legal in Reno, or even Las Vegas. But they are legal in many of the smaller counties on the outskirts of town.

Lance’s brothel is on the edge of the industrial park, but you’d never know it. It’s tucked into a quiet hillside, surrounded by big cottonwood trees. It’s just 15 miles from downtown Reno.

Unlike Mike Kazmierski, who’s repelled by Nevada’s smutty reputation, Lance Gilman relishes his role as a brothel owner. He holds business meetings at the brothel from his large round table in the corner of the lavish front room—the same room where women pair up with their customers before leading them into the back for another kind of business encounter.

This place is so integral to who Lance is and how he capitalizes on both the Old Reno and New Reno worlds, that I wanted to see it.

Lance Gilman: Good morning! Or afternoon I guess now.

Anjeanette Damon: When you first walk into the brothel, you’re actually entering the Wild Horse Saloon, a seemingly regular old restaurant and bar.

The lights are low, small tables dot the floor, and there’s a bar against the back wall. You can come here just for a beer and a burger if you want.

There’s a stripper pole in the corner. But unlike in Kamy Keshmiri’s strip clubs, it’s totally OK here to pay for sex in the back.  

Anjeanette Damon: I see. You have to go behind the green door. 

Lance Gilman: I'm going to take you through the green door.

Anjeanette Damon: OK. 

Anjeanette Damon: We walk into what looks like a British hunting lodge: big fire going, lots of taxidermy animal heads on the walls. Lance hands us off to our tour guide, a sex worker named Cherry. She’s petite, with long-flowing brown hair, wearing a silky robe and high heels.

She shows us into a tiny room where ladies and customers come to an agreement on services.

Cherry: We take credit, debit, cash. We're totally legal. 

Anjeanette Damon: Here, women are accepting credit cards for sex, when just 15 miles down the road, Reno City Council members are arguing over whether strippers should be able to perform lap dances.

Before they actually hook up, the ladies inspect their customers for any signs of disease. 

Cherry: That is full of baby wipes. This is full of gloves. 

Anjeanette Damon: And then it’s off to the fun. You can join a lady in her room—the one she basically lives in during her week-long shift—or spend time in one of the brothel’s more lavish theme rooms. There’s the orgy room, the jacuzzi room, the tropical Hawaii room—even a dungeon.

Cherry: You can really just let your mind run wild. There's no wrong way to enjoy a dungeon.

Anjeanette Damon: Or, you know, you can just come in for a quickie.

Cherry: I'm not kidding. Some people have, like, they're ringing our doorbell, like, ding ding ding ding ding ding ding. We’re like, “Go let that guy in. He's in a rush.” And he's like, “I have 30 minutes. I'm on my lunch break. It takes me 15 to get to Reno. Are you available?” And you're like, “OK. Yes. OK, yes.”

Anjeanette Damon: Back in the Reno strip club fight, there’s all this tension between old and new. LIke we can’t have New Reno if we don’t get rid of Old Reno entirely. But this brothel is the epitome of the sordid Old Reno ethos, and it’s alive, even thriving, on the edge of the gleaming industrial park that’s the epitome of New Reno.

In fact, this industrial park, it might never have come to be if hadn’t been for this brothel.

In the late ‘90s, when Lance and his partners were on the hunt for a good spot to develop, they were mainly looking for land. 

And Storey County, even though it’s the smallest county in the state, had a lot of it. It was also desperate.

Lance Gilman: They were church mice poor. They were, as a matter of fact, they were on the brink of bankruptcy.

Anjeanette Damon:  At the time, the county’s major source of tax revenue was its brothels. 

But the Mustang Ranch—the single largest taxpayer in the county—was closing. The previous owner had been indicted on money laundering charges and had fled to Brazil.

The feds shut it down, costing the county about 12 percent of its budget. 

The county needed someone to keep the brothel open. Commissioners turned to Lance.

Lance Gilman: I don't think there is a business in America that would generate cash flow instantly except the brothel business. 

Anjeanette Damon: Lance bought the Mustang Ranch from the federal government—on eBay of all places. The county was once again rolling in brothel cash. And so was Lance.

Lance says the brothel generates a million dollars a month in revenue—money he used to help keep the industrial park afloat during the recession. The taxes on that cash also helped Storey County’s government stay afloat.

Lance’s lawyer Kris Thompson puts it this way:

Kris Thompson: And had he not done that, that magic phone call to get that Tesla deal may not have ever come.

Anjeanette Damon: Lance says he prides himself on running a classy joint—the best of the best. 

In fact, he says Kamy Keshmiri could learn a thing or two from him. 

Lance Gilman: You run the business quietly, out of town. You're not by a school or a church or any of the public facilities, and you stay below the sagebrush.

Anjeanette Damon: It’s true, the government isn’t all up in Lance Gilman’s business the way the city of Reno is cracking down on Kamy Keshmiri. If the Wild Orchid did a better job of “staying below the sagebrush,” Lance argues, maybe the city wouldn’t be so up in arms.

But things are never that simple. Staying “classy” is not why local government leaves Lance alone. Remember, county commissioners were the ones who asked Lance to re-open the brothel in the first place.

Also, Lance isn’t always so classy himself. Neither are the publicity stunts he uses to promote the brothel. Things like the, quote, “Hunt a Ho” game he concocted, where men chased prostitutes through the hills with paintball guns. Or when he staged a motocross event to try and set a record for, quote, “jumping the most titties in one night.” 

Another big reason local government might be leaving him alone? 

Lance is now a county commissioner. He was elected to the three-person commission in 2012. Yep, Lance is the developer of more than half the land in the county, he owns the county’s only brothel, and he is one of three men leading Storey County government.

He’s also the guy saying Old Reno should be leveraged, not vanquished.

The sagebrush, the wild horses, the brothels, all that Nevada stuff—all that Old Reno stuff—it’s what visionary tech CEOs want, he says. The Old Reno ethos appeals to the guys who buck the norm and take big chances. Guys like Elon Musk.

Gilman’s lawyer Kris Thompson underscores the point.

Kris Thompson: I mean, these guys are rogues. They like this environment here. So leverage it. Don't feel shame for it. 

Anjeanette Damon:  On our drive through the industrial park with Lance and Kris, we took a spin through the Gigafactory parking lot so they could show us what their leveraging of Old Reno’s culture has accomplished.  

Kris Thompson: Look at all the cars. This is all payroll. It's all jobs. It's all service contracts. None of this is visitors. This is all payroll. It's like a college football game. I mean, you can feel the economic power of payroll just by looking at all the cars here. 

Anjeanette Damon:  It’s true, Tesla and its partner Panasonic have brought a lot of jobs to Reno. I see these factory workers’ vehicles all over town at grocery stores, gyms, even the Ponderosa Hotel parking lot. Their telltale black and white parking passes give them away.

Tesla execs from Silicon Valley fill the lobbies of Reno hotels. Japanese Panasonic workers take buses from downtown to the Gigafactory—a daily pilgrimage that John, the guy fighting to save his home at the Ponderosa, can see from his window.

Because of the state’s tax abatement deal, the city is losing out on tens of millions of tax dollars in exchange for those jobs. Yet it’s also bearing the brunt of the company’s impact: scarce housing and spiking costs. Tesla workers are living in RVs on the street and homeless tent villages are proliferating on the river. 

It all feels so tenuous, too. Like a silver mine that could go bust at any moment, leaving Reno in the dust. 

Since 2015, Tesla has posted just four profitable quarters. 

At dinner parties in Reno, Tesla executives joke that the company could be one tweet away from imploding—Elon Musk was fined $20 million by the SEC because of a tweet he sent last year.

Tesla’s CEO is impulsive. He makes grandiose promises that his employees are on the hook to fulfill. He’s running this grand experiment to save the world from an unsustainable path and he demands work at breakneck speed. The workers in Reno are living that experiment. 

All of this makes me want to see what’s going on behind those massive concrete walls at the Gigafactory.

Caller: Yes, we have a head injury here at the Tesla Gigafactory. We just got a call that he was struck in the head by an object that came off the roof. 

Robin Amer: That’s after the break 

ACT 2

Robin Amer: Much like Tesla’s shiny electric cars, its tech jobs are sought-after status symbols, not just in Reno, but for cities around the country. But when you look behind this sales pitch, the reality of those jobs is a bit more complicated.

Here’s Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: Getting inside the Gigafactory is not an easy proposition. 

Elon Musk is notoriously secretive, constantly guarding himself against what he describes as his enemies: The oil industry, the legacy car industry, Wall Street short sellers. He even bought up thousands of acres of land around the Gigafactory to prevent looky-loos from getting a glimpse of what might one day be the largest building in the world.

But after a couple months of talking with Tesla’s press people, I finally wore them down.

Field producer Fil Corbitt and I are standing in a cavernous concrete hallway that more resembles a freeway. Our Tesla handlers are hovering. During this tour, they’re never more than an arm’s length away.

Forklifts loaded with trays of hundreds of battery cells are screaming past us. Some have forklifts drivers, others are autonomous vehicles, using cameras and sensors to guide the hulking crafts. I find myself thinking maybe those are the real jobs of the future.

The Gigafactory is as tall as a seven-story apartment building, but it’s more than half a mile long and nearly a quarter mile wide at its widest point. Our tour guide, an executive named Chris Lister, says he walks 20,000 steps a day. That’s 10 miles for those of you not already obsessed with your pedometer. 

Fil Corbitt: Have you ever gotten lost in here?

Chris Lister: Lost? Oh yeah, definitely.

Anjeanette Damon: Before he can even finish his thought, it happens to us.

Chris Lister: ...and certainly in this environment … I think we just walked down the wrong... Speaking of getting lost...

Anjeanette Damon: The human workforce here is diverse and casually dressed—young, tattooed men and women in flannel and jeans along with older, burlier colleagues.

They work side by side with giant robots that swing heavy battery packs through the air and smaller robots that do things like pluck up battery cells and deposit them in testing trays.

This first Gigafactory is almost like a test kitchen for Tesla. 

Chris Lister: The thing about the Gigafactory 1 is, it was really an experiment in, how can we make things as efficient as possible? And you know, Gigafactory 10, let's say, is gonna be ten times better than Gigafactory 1 from all of the learnings that we capture as we go on.

Anjeanette Damon: Ten Gigafactories? That seems insane. Particularly when you realize that the goal for this one building is to essentially double the world’s current output of battery cells.

But this whole experimentation thing has contributed to the chaotic atmosphere at the Gigafactory. They’re building systems and manufacturing lines and designing processes at the same time they’re trying to meet these lofty production goals.

Some areas are about what you might expect from a futuristic factory: clean and orderly. In other areas, the floor is cluttered with cardboard and cables and other junk. The whole place feels overwhelming.

So, I’m not the only journalist looking into Tesla.  And I knew from other reporting—for instance, the work by the podcast Reveal—that Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, had a troubling safety record. And other media had reported on dangerous situations out here at the Gigafactory. 

So, I went on a public records hunt, gathering from as many different sources as I could: 911 calls, OSHA workplace safety reports, ambulance records. And I was able to piece together kind of a mosaic of safety problems at the factory.

It’s hard to get an accurate accounting of workplace injuries for reasons I’ll get into a little later. But what I did find proves this work can carry a human toll. Different perhaps from Old Reno jobs like stripping, but painful nonetheless. 

In the first three years the Gigafactory was open, state OSHA inspectors visited 92 times because of complaints or injuries. Other businesses in the industrial park were visited by inspectors an average of one and a half times in that same period. 

I also asked Storey County for a list of all of the 911 calls from the Gigafactory since construction began in 2015. They came back with an index of nearly 1,300 calls.

Some of them are pretty disturbing. Like this one from June 2018.

Caller: We need an ambulance. We have a female employee that her, she got a hand stuck between the two modules, and she's bleeding pretty bad. We have the EMT working on it right now. 

Anjeanette Damon: It’s not surprising that the Gigafactory generates more 911 calls than any other location in the county. It’s a small county and the factory is a huge employer. But remember, Tesla is paying very little in taxes to support that kind of service.

In 2018, someone called 911 from the Gigafactory more than once a day, on average for things like fights, suicide attempts, DUIs, theft, drug overdoses. 

A quarter of those 911 calls, excluding the hang ups, were for medical problems—heart problems, difficulty breathing, seizures, pregnancy issues—and workplace injuries. Like this one from January 2018.

Officer Fritz: This is Officer Fritz with the Tesla security department, 1 Electric Avenue. We are requesting EMS for a middle-aged male. He was electrocuted, um. 

Dispatch: OK, and he is no longer being electrocuted at this time, correct?

Officer Fritz: Correct. 

Anjeanette Damon: That guy who was electrocuted, he didn’t want to talk to me. But his union rep says he’s doing OK now.

This next call came in during a windstorm in February 2017.

Caller: We have a head injury here at the Tesla Gigafactory. We just got a call that he was struck in the head by an object that came off the roof. 

Anjeanette Damon: A minute later, while security is still on the phone with dispatch, another person is injured. This guy was knocked unconscious by a flying piece of plywood after he stepped out of the bathroom.

Caller: We're getting another call. We have a second injury.

Dispatch: Oh, do you? OK. A different person?

Caller: Yes.

Anjeanette Damon: Whoever had been working on the roof the day before hadn’t secured a bunch of construction material and it all came flying off when the 65-mile-per-hour wind hit. In total, three people were injured.

What really struck me listening to all of these 911 calls was the sheer confusion during emergencies.

Someone gets hurt deep inside the factory. Then, a worker will radio to a guard in a far away security shack. That security guard calls 911, but then can’t answer the questions posed by the dispatcher—questions that need answering in order to get the person help. Unreliable radio communications at the Gigafactory make that problem even worse.

You can hear it in this call from September 2017:

Caller: Yes, this is Officer Fritz with Tesla security. We are located at 1 Electric Avenue. We are requesting EMS. 

Dispatch: OK, what's the problem?

Caller: Um, we're still awaiting what the issue is. We were just told to call EMS. 

Dispatch: OK, well, I need some kind of a nature of the call, like a.... 

Caller: Alright, I'm gonna try to get him back on the radio. We're having really bad radio communications with them right now. 

Anjeanette Damon: When a big incident occurs, it can be downright chaos.

This is from a chemical spill in April 2017.

Dispatch: Storey County Communications, this is Rachel.

Caller: Hi, Rachel. Yeah, I'm just calling to report a chemical spill in our Module A, first floor. We have evacuated this floor, this area. Requesting the fire department to respond. Apparently it is an inhalation issue. 

Dispatch: OK, what was the chemical?

Caller: Um, I do not have it with me

Anjeanette Damon: This is unusual. 

Generally in manufacturing settings, the company knows what chemicals it’s working with and can relay that information to dispatch quickly. Federal law mandates that companies keep safety sheets that detail chemicals and their hazards. Tesla did have these sheets on site, but the guy calling 911 didn’t have immediate access to the information.

Turns out that someone had knocked over a 55-gallon drum full of carbonic acid—a flammable chemical that can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs.

The dispatcher tells the Tesla guy he needs to evacuate everyone.

Dispatch: OK, you need to get everyone out of the building.

Anjeanette Damon: Wait, the entire building? Remember, this is early 2017. Only about 800 people work at the Gigafactory at this point. But it’s still a huge building. The enormity of this task seems to dawn on the Tesla guy.

Caller: Out of the entire building or the floor?

Dispatch: I would, I would get everyone out of the entire building for now.

Caller: OK. Thank you. 

Anjeanette Damon: But Tesla doesn’t seem prepared for or willing to do this. According to the incident report, firefighters found complete disorder when they arrived and they got, quote, “resistance” from Tesla representatives. 

Firefighters set up a decontamination area, roping off the danger zones. Workers ignored them.  No one could provide a list of evacuated employees either. In all, 21 people needed treatment for burning eyes and skin, difficulty breathing, nausea and dizziness. Twelve went to the hospital.  After an investigation, OSHA concluded that no workplace safety rules were violated. 

I met up with a former Gigafactory manager who presided over a similar incident that happened more than a year later, in 2018. 

Chad Dehne, a former Marine, was hired by an agency to manage a crew of temporary workers inspecting battery canisters for defects. 

He devised his own check-in sheet to keep track of who was working on his team on any given day, because new hires were constantly appearing. 

Chad Dehne: It was a good thing my Marine Corps training came in again, because a lot of times, we didn't know exactly who was in the building.

Anjeanette Damon: That check-in sheet came in handy during one shift when Chad says some guys ran into the room yelling at everyone to evacuate the building and his crew scattered in four different directions. 

No one had trained them on how or where to evacuate, so Chad set about tracking down his own people.

Chad Dehne: Boom. Come to find out there was two people that were still inside the building. I went inside the building, they were in there working! And being exposed! These guys said, “Evacuate the building,” and just beat feet. And not one person was responsible for going in there to make sure that everybody was gone.

Anjeanette Damon: This is what troubles Chad the most. Things were happening so fast and production goals were so intense, that it didn't seem like Tesla was fully focused on keeping people safe. 

Lane Dillon knew work at the Gigafactory wouldn’t be easy.

Lane is a down-to-earth guy in his early 20s. I met with him out at his family’s home on the bank of the Carson River east of Reno last year.

Lane Dillon: Do you want anything to drink? Yeah, like water? Milk? Beer? 

Anjeanette Damon: Milk. I just love that he offered us milk. Lane was an Eagle Scout, vice president of his college Physics Club, and the day I met him he had just been accepted into grad school.

Lane: So I did a undergrad in physics and then today I just got news. I found out I got accepted to Georgia Tech to do aerospace engineering for a masters degree. [Laughs]

Anjeanette Damon: Congratulations! Oh, that’s so exciting! 

Anjeanette Damon: In July 2017, he was home from college and needed a summer job. The Gigafactory was ramping up hiring. So he decided to apply.

Anjeanette Damon: In your mind, what was Tesla like before you started working there?

Lane Dillon: The next best thing. It still is. 

Anjeanette Damon: Lane was hired through a temp agency that supplied workers to the Gigafactory.

His job was assembling and installing battery racks—these huge, heavy, metal racks that hold trays of battery cells and are anchored to the factory floor.

Lane wasn’t a stranger to manual labor. He ran his own firewood chopping business. But his first week on the job, he was already starting to feel nervous.

He said other temp workers had been getting hurt.

Lane Dillon: And I can specifically remember waking up that morning and thinking, “Man, I hope nothing happens to me.” [Laughs] 

Anjeanette Damon: That day, he was helping his crew install a battery rack. His job was to line up the rack with anchor bolts on the ground as a team of people held it up. He was still positioning the rack when the crew let go of it. He couldn’t get his hand out fast enough. 

He had gloves on, so he couldn’t see what damage was done at first. When he finally got a look at it, he saw the top inch of his right pointer finger had been smashed off.

Lane Dillon: As soon as I got to the trailer, I said, “I want some ice right now because I want to put my finger back on.” 

Anjeanette Damon: But his finger was too damaged to reattach. Lane spent the night in the hospital. Had surgery the next day. It took the rest of the summer to recuperate before he went back to college. 

Lane isn’t the only person to hurt a hand at the Gigafactory. In the 911 calls and OSHA documents I reviewed, I found seven reports of serious hand injuries. Like the guy who lost a finger in a wire cutter that didn’t have a proper safety guard. And the day that two workers had their hands crushed by the same piece of equipment in separate incidents just hours apart.

But none of the 911 calls we sifted through were for Lane’s injury. In fact, no one ever called 911 for Lane. His foreman just drove him to the urgent care clinic.

Lane’s actually an example of why it’s so difficult to get an accurate accounting of workplace injuries at Tesla. There’s no public record of his amputation. OSHA could find no record that his injury had ever been reported to them, even though by law it should have been. 

Tesla refused to let me interview anyone from the company about any of these safety issues—the high number of 911 calls, the injuries, the confusion during emergency response. Instead, they provided a statement accusing my news organization of being unfair for focusing on safety.

I’m quoting from it here: 

“USA TODAY’s reporting presents an inaccurate view of Tesla’s safety record by targeting a few isolated incidents that are not representative of our overall safety culture at Gigafactory 1. Tesla, our suppliers, and our contractors make up over 10,000 people on-site—the size of a small city. To report that both personal and work-related medical emergencies over the course of four years make Tesla an outlier is unfair and misleading.”

Tesla also claimed that the Nevada Gigafactory has a better safety record than the industry average, but it declined to provide any data to help us verify that claim.

Lane isn’t mad at Tesla, not exactly. He tells me he wishes it were a safer place to work, but still thinks what the company is trying to accomplish is worthwhile. When he sees a Tesla on the street, he says he kind of grinds his teeth. But he still wants to own one someday.

Lane Dillon: I understand what Tesla's doing is really hard. And there's gonna be bumps along the way.

Anjeanette Damon: Lane’s sentiment—that there will be bumps along the way, but they’re to be expected—is shared by a lot of people in Reno.

Despite the injuries, despite the overloaded emergency response system in Storey County, despite the housing crunch and the traffic jams, few people say landing Tesla was a bad move. 

And it’s true that Tesla has opened up opportunities to some who had few options in the Old Reno economy. 

Take Isabelle West, for instance. She’s an endearing 19-year-old with bright pink hair. She grew up in Las Vegas, struggled through high school and couldn’t get into college. 

But through a program for at-risk students at her school. She got an interview with Tesla.

Isabelle West: And it took two weeks, but that phone call, my mom was right there with me. And I was just like smiling and she was like smiling at me. And then once my smile came up a little bit bigger she was jumping up and down. Then, like my mom and me, we, like, called up my dad and were like, “She got the job!”

Anjeanette Damon: She works at the factory assembling battery packs. Her starting pay was $14.50 an hour—double Nevada’s current minimum wage. Isabelle says her job can be tedious and stressful at times.  But she says co-workers look out for each other. And she’s training at the local community college to become a technician—education that Tesla is paying for.

Isabelle West: Now that I'm actually, like, seeing it firsthand, I’m like, yeah, this is me. This is what I really like. And Tesla kind of helped me figure out myself. When boosters talk about New Reno as a bustling, tech-based, manufacturing economy, Isabelle’s journey is exactly what they’re envisioning. The safety issues, the injuries like Lane’s, to some extent they’re part of the deal, according to Mike Kamierski.

Mike Kazmierski: You know, people haven't figured out what's the safest way to do things, and I think because it is a technology company trying to change the world, it's reinventing that processes. There is room for error there. The risk is totally worth it, he says.

Mike Kazmierski: Well, I mean, I go back to where were we eight years ago? Without advanced manufacturing, we were a community dying. Now we're a community on the rise, because advanced manufacturing brings in quality jobs with risk and it brings in technology. Still, that logic suggests that in the rush to embrace change, some people have to lose for others to win. To Chad Dehne, the former Gigafactory supervisor, that is not the only option.  

Chad Dehne: I know that they provide jobs for a lot of beautiful families here in the Reno area and beyond. But at the same time, with that being said, there's a protocol that you've got to follow so that those people can go home safe and sound to their families or not or not suffer ill effects from things they may have been exposed to down the line. 

Robin Amer: Tesla brought a lot of jobs to Reno’s economy. Jobs with a career path and a livable wage. But high tech isn’t always the silver bullet that cities want it to be and reinventing the economy comes at a price, whether it’s injured workers, or people like Velma and John, pushed to the brink of homelessness. Or people like Stephanie, now at risk of losing her livelihood. In the race to land that big economic development win, it seems no one is really looking out for the little guy. But that doesn’t mean that the status quo is OK. For example: Kamy has always insisted that the claims about his strip clubs are bogus. But next time on The City, we pull back the curtain on Kamy’s strip club empire to reveal what’s really going on. 

Kamy Keshmiri: The reason why I have no citations is because I run these clubs ultra clean … There's a reason why we have a perfect record.

Tawny: They are fucking liars. They're liars.

Robin Amer: That’s next time on The City.

CREDITS

The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now. If you like the show, please rate and review us, and be sure to tell your friends about us. Our show was reported and produced by Anjeanette Damon, Fil Corbitt, Kameel Stanley, Taylor Maycan, and me, Robin Amer. Our editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. Legal review by Tom Curley. Launch oversight by Shannon Green. Additional production by Emily Liu, Sam Greenspan, Wilson Sayre, and Jenny Casas. Brian Duggan is the Reno Gazette Journal’s executive editor. Chris Davis is the USA Today Network’s VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Maribel Wadsworth is our president and publisher. Special thanks to Liz Nelson, Kelly Scott, Alicia Barber and Alan Deutschman.  I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ thecitypod. Or visit our website. That’s thecitypodcast.com

S2: Episode 3

The Pendulum

Big game hunters in town for a convention go to the Wild Orchid looking to let loose. But city police have other plans, marking Reno’s latest swing from permissiveness to restrictiveness.

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The Pendulum

Robin Amer: Hey everyone. I know that you know this by now, but just to remind you: because this season of The City is about strip clubs, it’s not gonna be suitable for everybody, especially kids. And this episode in particular has a lot of very explicit conversations about sex. 

OK, here’s the show. 

Production team member: Previously on The City...

Velma: “To all Ponderosa hotel tenants: Unfortunately I must relay some bad, very bad news to you.”

Kamy: It's sad that you're wasting city of Reno resources on this, on bringing private investigators in to look at boobs. That's all it is. Yeah, there's boobs.

Anjeanette Damon: I just discovered that Karl Hall owned an office building pretty much across the street from the Wild Orchid and he just sold it in March for like $1.1 million dollars.

Mark Thierman: Wow. That bastard. OK. 

Kamy Keshmiri: My dad's like, “Well, you learn to fight back.” 

Velma Shoals: This has been a home for my granddaughter since elementary school and we don't want that taken from us. Please don't take that from us. 

Thierman: Fuck 'em. They wanted to see what war is, we’ll show ‘em what war is.    

Robin Amer: To really understand Reno’s present day strip club battle—why Reno has suddenly put the squeeze on its clubs and why Kamy Keshmiri is fighting back so hard—we have to go back in time. 

Because this fight actually stretches back more than a decade. 

It’s a frigid Thursday night in Reno, back in January of 2007. But inside the Wild Orchid, dancers are warming up for a big night.

For years, Safari Club International has held its annual convention in Reno.These are big game hunters—hundreds of them. During the day, they talk about their latest trophy kills. And at night, they head downtown for some fun.

Tawny: Like, we couldn't wait for Safari Night. Every table is full, standing room only, all five stages going, and you have money and you can make it all night long.

Robin Amer: That’s Tawny. Back in 2007, she was one of the Wild Orchid’s top-earning dancers—an “A-list” girl who loved to party and knew how to hustle for money. 

Tawny was looking forward to work that night. But when she arrived at the club, the door girl had a warning.

Tawny: She looked at me and said, “You don't want to be here.” And I go, “What are you talking about? It's Safari Nights.” She goes, “The cops are here. Street enforcement’s here.” 

Robin Amer: But Tawny wasn’t going to let that stop her. 

Tawny: And I, I remember this to this day. This is my exact words to her. I go, “But I don't have anything to worry about.” I said, “I have my licensing and I have my I.D. and I don't do drugs.”

Robin Amer: But as it turns out, she did have something to worry about. 

The club’s lawyer, Mark Thierman, was also there that night. Here’s how he remembers it:

Mark Thierman: The SWAT team shows up at 9 o’clock in their black Kevlar outfits—I'm sitting there, I'm at the bar, I'm sitting there—and their sun visor helmets, and batons, and shotguns, in the middle of Safari Week! 

Robin Amer: Pretty much since it became a city, Reno has swung on this pendulum. At one end, Reno embraces vice and the economic bounty it can bring. Then it starts to recoil at its own seedy image, and the pendulum swings the other way.

Back in January 2007, the city was cracking down. Case in point: Police officers in full tactical gear raiding the Wild Orchid on one of the busiest nights of the year. 

Today, Reno is at a similar crossroads, trying to decide if it wants to continue embracing vice or let the new economy put it to rest for good. 

I’m Robin Amer and from USA TODAY, this is The City. 

Act 1

Robin Amer: So, before the break, we talked about this pendulum in Reno that swings between permissiveness on one hand and restrictiveness on the other. In some ways, those swings correspond with economic boom and bust cycles. 

When the economy is bad, vice tends to thrive, because when the city is desperate, it tends to be more lenient. And when the economy starts to turn around, the city faces a choice: lean toward respectability or double down on vice. 

To get into the strip club business in the first place, the Keshmiri family had to time these shifting winds just right. 

Here’s our reporter, Anjeanette Damon.

Anjeanette Damon: In 1992, Kamy Keshmiri was in a bad place. His soaring athletic career had come crashing down when he tested positive for steroids a month before he was set to compete in the Olympics.

But right away, he started looking for that next opportunity. He told me about it during one of our interviews in the back room of the Ponderosa Hotel.

Kamy Keshmiri: So I figured, if I can be the number one in the world in discus, what could I do in business? 

Anjeanette Damon: His younger brother, Jamy, was just getting out of college.

Jamy Keshmiri: And my father's like, “Look, OK, what are these guys gonna do?” You know, we didn't get degrees as doctors and lawyers, and we, I think, we generally wanted to be like him. We wanted to be businessmen, you know? 

Anjeanette Damon: At the time, their dad owned what was then the Ponderosa Hotel and Casino. But the casino was struggling.

Las Vegas had long since eclipsed Reno. And while the city’s bigger hotel casinos were doing just fine, smaller ones were closing left and right as casino gambling spread to other parts of the country. 

Kamy Keshmiri: These buildings are becoming dinosaurs. Everybody's abandoning, alright? The Pioneer. Remember the Pioneer, next door? Gone. Kings Inn, gone. All these properties just evaporating.

Anjeanette Damon: The Keshmiris figured, if they couldn’t make a go of the casino, why not use the space for something else entirely? 

Kamy Keshmiri: And so, I came to my dad and I said, “Look, nightclubs—we have all this parking. We’re right here.”

Anjeanette Damon: In 1994, they opened their new club and called it Discopolus—named after the classic Greek statue Discobolus. The statue depicts a muscular young discus thrower in the wind up position, ready to let loose his throw. The club was decorated with a replica of the statue.

That replica is still around, sitting deep in the basement of the strip club. It bears a strong resemblance to Kamy, actually. 

With the help of some publicity gimmicks, like wet T-shirt and bikini contests, Discopolus flourished, drawing people to an otherwise dark stretch of downtown. And for the most part, the city council let the Keshmiri family do its thing. But that wouldn’t last.

This is how Reno tends to operate: sanctioning debauchery one minute, then restricting it the next. 

It’s actually been happening since Reno was just a dusty Wild West outpost in a state people mostly traveled through on their way to get somewhere else. 

Reno sprung up in the 1860s as a rough and tumble supply town for nearby silver mines. Brothels, bars, and gambling halls peppered the streets. But then the silver mines went bust, and the town almost did too. 

Over the next couple of decades, Reno struggled with its identity. It found success in agriculture and broke ground for the state’s first university. But it held on to that rough-and-tumble character and was never quite willing to give up its brothels and gambling.

Then, in the early 20th century, it found a new vice to embrace: divorce.

Back then, getting divorced was not only scandalous, it was hard to do—except in Nevada. In no other state could you get a divorce as quickly. So people looking to end their marriages flocked to Reno from around the country, especially people with means. 

Reno became synonymous with quickie divorces, and Hollywood movies of the era would often cast Reno as a dusty backdrop for a character looking to end her marriage, like Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, or Pauline Moore in the 1938 film Charlie Chan in Reno. Here's Moore on screen chatting with a Reno cab driver.

Cab driver: This your first trip here?

Moore: Yes. 

Cab driver: I thought you looked strange. Some of ‘em come so often I was thinking of printing up commuter tickets! [Laughs, then sees she doesn’t think it’s funny.] Oh well. I guess divorce ain’t much more than a matter of traveling. You check out of the state of matrimony and land in the state of Nevada! I ain’t got no complaints though. Owe my living to divorces, same as most of the people in this town. And by gosh, it’s the one business that even the Depression don’t hit!

Anjeanette Damon: In the ‘30s and ‘40s, more brothels and casinos sprung up to entertain those wealthy soon-to-be divorcees.

 

Narrator: This is a city of glitter and glamour, a city of neon and bright lights, of spinning wheels and dancing feet. This is Reno, the biggest little city in the world! 

Anjeanette Damon: Over time, Reno found that making legal what other states made illegal was a really easy way to boost its economy.

Now, strip clubs aren’t typically illegal, even in other cities. But in the 1990s, they sure fit in well with the overall adult party scene that thrived in Reno.

In 1995, the Discopolus nightclub was prospering. But Kamy’s dad was getting nervous. Those wet T-shirt contests were getting a little wild sometimes, and tops would come off completely.

So the family sought a cabaret license from the Reno City Council. Even though the license would allow them to open a strip club, they assured the council they had no plans to go full-on topless. 

During that meeting, one councilwoman wanted to know if the Keshmiris would have any male strippers. So Kamy offered to perform for her in a G-string. It was a little too much for the councilwoman, who ran out of the chambers covering her face with a handkerchief.

Kamy got his topless cabaret license that day. It turned out to be just in time.

Topless bars were popping up all over the place and that made police nervous. They worried that the clubs would attract drugs and prostitution.

Within months of granting that cabaret license to the Keshmiris, the council issued a temporary ban on new strip clubs. 

But despite the family’s promise to the council, Kamy and Jamy did have their eye on the strip club business. 

Here’s Jamy:

Jamy Keshmiri: We knew the strip club revolution’s coming. We saw how well they were doing, and we had a license. We’re like, we need to take advantage of this now.

Anjeanette Damon: So they remodeled Discopolus and opened it as the Wild Orchid strip club, even though the city had a ban on new strip clubs in place. 

The city attorney told an indignant city council it could do nothing to stop it, because the Keshmiris already had that license. Once you grant a right, he said, you can’t take it away.

The Keshmiris had cemented their prime downtown location, and thanks to the moratorium, they had a competitive advantage—the city wasn’t going to let any other strip clubs open up downtown. 

For years, the Wild Orchid thrived as part of downtown Reno’s party scene. Dancers made buckets of cash—and so did the Keshmiris. 

The city checked in from time to time, making sure dancers had their licenses and work cards. But for the most part, the city stayed out of their way. Until 2007. 

An off-duty cop happened to be hanging out in the Wild Orchid one night. He later told his bosses that while he was there, a dancer propositioned him for sex. That’s when Reno PD began hatching a plan.

This brings us back to that frigid night in the winter of 2007 when the big game hunters were in town. 

Tawny, the A-team stripper, is on her way into work at the Wild Orchid. Lawyer Mark Thierman is sitting at the bar.

An undercover cop walks into the club. He pays his cover fee and sits at a table. A dancer approaches.He later reports she offers him oral sex in the back room for a thousand dollars.

Tawny wasn’t quite at work yet when this went down. But she knows that dancer.

Tawny: He basically led her into talking dirty to him at the table, just so she could get him into VIP.

Anjeanette Damon: Tawny says the young woman hadn’t been stripping for very long. She didn’t know how to play the game of staying just vague and sexy enough to get a guy into the VIP room without actually promising him sex. That’s the balancing act a stripper has to play to make decent money.

Tawny: But he led the conversation. She was on tape. So they constituted that as prostitution. She was handcuffed in front of everybody and dragged out, and she was one of our most classiest 19-year-olds studying to be a doctor. She didn't even fucking drink.

Anjeanette Damon: When the cop lands that alleged deal for oral sex, it triggers a full on raid. A dozen officers waiting outside stream into the club. 

Mark sees them rush in from his perch at the bar.

Mark Theirman: It was pretty scary, and they ran around. They had these big shotguns they carry, and they rounded up everybody and told all the dancers to go down into the locker room and wait.

Anjeanette Damon: What were the patrons doing? 

Mark Theirman: They were leaving. [Laughs] I mean, as soon as this happened, they got out of there. 

Anjeanette Damon: Downstairs, the cops start checking dancers’ IDs, making sure each one has a proper license and work card. It’s a task that’s usually carried out by a bureaucrat with a clipboard, not a cop with a shotgun.

Mark Thierman But they showed up with 13 SWAT officers in full riot gear, to, I guess check the licenses of half a dozen females who were wearing bathing suits and no visible signs of a weapon on them. I don't know. I mean, they had sharp nails.

Anjeanette Damon: This is about when Tawny shows up for work. She isn’t about to give up a lucrative night just because the police are here. She doesn’t know that they’d already scared most of the patrons.

On her way downstairs to the locker room, she passes several cops.

Tawny: I still thought it was weird that it was street enforcement. Like, why would the city of Reno waste all this money on their street enforcement police officers that could be out there taking care of gangs and drugs and all that kind of stuff and they’re in our strip club? [Laughs]

Anjeanette Damon: Tawny’s license is valid, so she’s not worried. Other dancers are a little more freaked out.

Tawny: It was funny because a few weeks later, we realized that a couple of the girls that had warrants that nobody knew had warrants had gotten in their lockers and had other girls lock them in their locker. And they stayed in their locker with it locked during the entire raid. 

Anjeanette Damon: Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! 

Tawny:Yes! And the cops never found ‘em. 

Anjeanette Damon: When she gets downstairs, Tawny finds the locker room full of male police officers, which is problematic. Men generally aren’t allowed in the locker room, even male staff members, so the dancers can get ready for work in peace. 

Tawny starts getting ready anyway. She takes off her street clothes and rummages through her locker for the lingerie she wants to wear for the night. 

Tawny: And the two male officers walked up to me and they go, “We need to get your I.D.” And I said, “You can get my I.D. after I put on my clothes.” And they said, “You can't touch your locker and you can't move.” And I go, “I am naked right now!”

Anjeanette Damon: Tawny says this was the most dehumanizing part of the raid. It’s one thing to perform topless for clients. It’s another to be stared at by cops while you’re trying to get dressed.

Tawny: They didn't have one female advocate for us, nor did they care to have it. They treated us like, “Oh you’re strippers, you take off your clothes for a living, so you're used to being naked, so you better be OK with this.”

Anjeanette Damon: The police department refused to talk to me about what happened that night. But I read all their affidavits about the raid. In the documents, they disputed some of the dancers’ versions of events. For instance, they said women were offered the opportunity to get dressed and were never gawked at. 

But there’s something else you should know.

The day before the police raided the Wild Orchid, Mark Thierman had filed his first lawsuit against the city. Mark liked to hang out at the club and he’d become friends with Kamy. 

Mark Thierman: He was complaining about how the police are basically hassling him, they’re shaking him down. They’re not asking for bribes, but they're, they're in there at weird hours asking for weird things, picking on him. And they are!

Anjeanette Damon: Basically, in the year before the raid, the police had been showing up at the Wild Orchid without a warrant, demanding access to all parts of the club to make sure it was following city code. Mark persuaded Kamy to fight back, filing a suit that claimed these warrantless searches were illegal. 

Mark is convinced the Safari Night raid was straight up retaliation for that lawsuit. 

Later, as that lawsuit wound its way through court, the police sergeant in charge of the operation said in an affidavit that the police department had no idea the lawsuit existed when they raided the club.

But the federal judge presiding over the case was not happy. 

He called an emergency hearing and slammed the city for how the police conducted themselves. He demanded to know why the cops had raided a club on one of the busiest nights of the year, demeaned the women working there, and disrupted business. The judge even said that the local law the city relied on to send the cops in the club in the first place was likely unconstitutional. 

In the end, the city agreed to rewrite that law and settled the lawsuit for $100,000 in taxpayer money. Five dancers caught up in the sting got $3,000 each, including Tawny. The rest of the money went to the Keshmiris. 

After being chewed out by a federal judge, the Reno PD pretty much disappeared from the Wild Orchid altogether. No more license checks. No more undercover operations. They left the club alone.

The pendulum had swung back to permissiveness.

Robin Amer: The judge’s order wasn’t the only thing that prompted that pendulum swing. The economy crashed. And Nevada was one of the states hardest hit. Reno had been riding particularly high on the housing boom and it suffered deeply in the crash.

The Great Recession laid to waste entire Reno neighborhoods. People abandoned their houses. Builders up and left projects in the middle of construction. And the recession ravaged city government. With its tax base gutted and bigger problems to worry about, over the next decade the city pretty much forgot about the strip clubs.

But some people found opportunity in that crisis. When we come back, Anjeanette tells the story of the rise of Midtown—a story that might sound familiar to some of you, and one that explains how gentrification came calling on the Wild Orchid.

That’s after the break. 

ACT 2

Robin Amer: After the 2007 financial collapse, the real estate market in Reno ground to a halt. The recession put big developers out of commission. 

But that opened opportunities for others.

In Midtown, cheap rents beckoned to young artists and would-be small business owners. They started opening bars and restaurants, coffee houses and boutiques. In other words, the recession opened the door for a wave of gentrification in Midtown—something that was happening in a lot of American cities around that same time.

Here’s Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: If you think you’ve got an idea of what Reno is—an idea reinforced by those late-night comics who love to call the town a dump—Midtown Reno might change your mind. Today, anyway. 

It didn’t used to be such a thriving neighborhood. In fact, it was a pretty rough place.

To get an idea of what the neighborhood used to be like, we caught up with Clint Neuerberg at the craft beer store he owns there.

Clint’s relationship with this neighborhood goes back to before anyone even called it Midtown. When he was a teenager in the ‘90s, he remembers dodging drug addicts on his way to punk shows at a music venue called Delmar Station.

Clint Neuerburg: More than once I was at a show there, and someone either got shot, stabbed, or run over outside. Like, it wasn't an uncommon thing to leave there and there be cops everywhere.

Anjeanette Damon: When he later moved into the neighborhood, it was still a sketchy place to live or operate a business. 

That began to change when a young artists’ co-op called the Holland Project opened up a small event space across from where Clint’s bottle shop now stands.

Clint Neuerburg: And I think that was a key part of it, was bringing young artists into this neighborhood.

Anjeanette Damon: This is the path gentrification seems to take in many American cities: When artists show up in a neighborhood, developers are never far behind.

Next door to the Holland Project, a guy named named Mark Trujillo opened a tiny coffee shop called the Hub in what used to be a brick two-car garage built in the ‘40s. 

Clint Neuerburg: I remember when Mark started building that place, I’m like, “He's building a coffee shop there? Like, what, does he hate money? [Laugs] Like, that'll never work,” sort of thing. Yeah, smash cut to now, it's like he's got this coffee empire that all started in that garage, basically.

Anjeanette Damon: Soon the neighborhood was a thriving urban center, full of bars and restaurants. The building that housed Delmar Station, the sketchy concert hall from the ‘90s, became home to a cheese shop and a juice bar.

Of course, Midtown hasn’t lost all its grit. 

Clint Neuerburg: There's still a lot of areas of Virginia Street where you have to walk around a porno theater to get to your Thai restaurant or funky hipster thrift store. 

Anjeanette Damon: But that porn theater may not be there for long. Another wave of gentrification is cresting.

It’s a warm summer Saturday morning in Midtown. The sun is just barely above the mountains to the east. Some of the more dedicated bar hoppers from last night stagger out of a nearby bar. A homeless man wanders by. I’m meeting up with Joe Morino, owner of Nameless Coffee.

It’s not long before the place gets busy.

This tiny coffee shop used to be the Hub, the one in the two-car garage. Joe used to be a barista there before he bought the place. 

Joe Marino: It was the only coffee shop of its quality. Yeah, so it's kind of like people didn't have a choice. But now it's different. Plenty of shops around the neighborhood, and they've got all kinds of different milk alternatives and sugar syrups and whipped creams, and I think they had coffee, too. [Laughs]

Anjeanette Damon: Over the years, it’s become a gathering place for the people who live and work in the neighborhood. There’s a violin maker, the owner of a pizzeria, scientists, writers, a second-hand jewelry shop owner, a guy who drives around town in an electric hearse—and me.

I always thought, if I write that novel, the characters would come from the people I met here while drinking coffee and playing chess with my son.

But today, Nameless is closing its doors. There are too many coffee shops around, not enough parking. Joe’s had enough.

So the regulars have gathered for a final early-morning toast, clinking their espresso cups in tribute to Joe.

Joe Marino: Cheers, everybody. Last, last go-around in the morning.
[Clinking espresso cups]

Customer: Hey, you've been a blessing to us. You get us up every morning. 

Joe Marino: Likewise. You’ve been a blessing to me, too.

Anjeanette Damon: The second wave of gentrification is here, driven not by locals, but by big-name developers with deep pockets.

They’re bringing high-end wine bars and sushi burrito joints. Consumers from the suburbs are replacing the hipsters that helped places like Nameless Coffee thrive.

But as this wave moves across Midtown, the Wild Orchid is standing in its way. 

This gentrifying neighborhood is New Reno’s crown jewel—a symbol of Reno’s transformation from tired casino town to vibrant modern city. A transformation fueled by a new high tech economy of Silicon Valley giants and start-ups alike.

Midtown is the first place Mike Kazmierski shows off to the tech bros coming to town looking for office space. 

Mike is the former military commander turned economic development guy that we met in Episode 1. The one who hates strip clubs.

I wanted to hear the New Reno sales pitch for myself. So last spring I asked Mike to drive me around town as if I were one of his clients—a prospective business owner interested in moving to Reno.

Mike Kazmierski: Well, we've just crossed the river, and really most communities would kill to have a river run through it like this.

Anjeanette Damon: He brings along one of his staffers, Bryan McArdle. He’s young, clean cut. Used to own a hookah lounge in downtown, actually. He’s the guy that schmoozes tech clients. 

Bryan McArdle: We're driving into Midtown, which is sort of the main street that leads into our downtown corridor. And over the last decade, it's sort of transitioned to be the foodie, cultural, artsy section of downtown. 

Anjeanette Damon: We approach the Wild Orchid and the six-story Ponderosa Hotel that rises behind it. 

Near the street sits is a cluster of residents smoking and chatting, The digital sign is flashing “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS.” There are weeds growing in the planters at the front door. It turns out Mike actually skips this part of the tour when it’s a real client in the car.

Mike Kazmierski: The Wild Orchid, I will specifically not drive a client past the Wild Orchid’s sign, because I think it's an embarrassment to our community.

Anjeanette Damon: Bryan agrees.

Bryan McArdle: As you drive through Midtown, you see all this vibrancy—these new restaurants, new small businesses popping up, and this, that specific strip, it just stands out. It’s, like, such a sore thumb in the midst of everything that is changing. 

Anjeanette Damon: The Reno that Mike and Bryan want people to see is full of bustling restaurants and breweries and tech start-ups and urban living. And we have all that. But not only that. 

We next drive past the city’s only homeless shelter. It’s an overcrowded complex in an up-and-coming brewery district in the eastern part of downtown.

Do you drive your clients past the homeless shelter? I ask. 

Bryan kind of dodges my question.

 

Bryan McArdle: Yeah, I don't say, I wouldn't say that we have a homelessness issue. I think it's more perception than reality.

Anjeanette Damon: Mike doesn’t correct him. But we are literally staring at a block filled with homeless people waiting to get into the shelter for a meal or a shower or a bed.

Perception versus reality. In many ways, that’s Mike’s whole fight. 

Robin Amer: As that tension between perception and reality continues to drive the fight over Reno’s strip clubs, the city council is once again asked to weigh in on the clubs and what they mean for the city’s image. 

This time, though, it looks as if things might go well for Kamy. But this meeting, and what happens after it, takes a surprising turn.

That’s after the break. 

Act 3

Robin Amer: In this drawn-out fight over Reno’s strip clubs, the city council is clearly struggling with how far to swing this pendulum between vice and respectability. And there are a few key meetings where this plays out.

The first we heard in Episode 1, when the council set the ball rolling on laws to kick the strip clubs out of downtown. And the second came seven months later, in April 2018.

Now, going into this meeting, Kamy Keshmiri is feeling pretty confident.

Here’s Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: Ok, I’m back at Reno City Hall for another council meeting.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: Alright, Madam Clerk, back at ya. 

Clerk: Madam Mayor, with that, we are on item J3—adult business regulations— 

Mayor Hillary Schieve: OK!

Clerk: —and I do have public comment on this item.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: OK, fantastic. 

Anjeanette Damon: The strip club issue is on the agenda for, like, a status check. But a lot has happened behind the scenes since that meeting seven months ago. 

Most notably, Mark Thierman has filed another lawsuit, this time accusing the city of discriminating against female strippers.

This lawsuit is key. 

It gave Kamy and Mark direct access to a pivotal Reno City councilwoman, Naomi Duerr. You see, parties to federal lawsuits are required to enter into settlement talks. And Naomi Duerr was appointed as one of the city’s mediators. 

Kamy and Mark could talk with Councilwoman Duerr under the guise of mediating the lawsuit, all the while lobbying her to oppose the real issue at play: kicking the clubs out of downtown. And it just so happened she was on the fence about that whole thing anyway. 

This meeting was an opportunity for the council to change its mind.

And headed into it, Kamy and Mark were hopeful that their lobbying efforts had paid off. 

Kamy was willing to clean up the outside, plant some trees, tone down the digital sign and agree to more video surveillance inside the club. They expected that would be enough to get the council to back off.

And in a show of good faith, Mark dropped his lawsuit. He told me about it over the phone.

Mark Thierman: I mean, I just, I got nothing in exchange for it but a promise to rethink, ‘cause they said, “Oh, we learned so much.” 

Anjeanette Damon: But when I caught up with him a few days later, he already had a bad feeling about things. 

Anjeanette Damon: How do you, how do you think Wednesday's meeting, that's gonna go down?

 

Mark Thierman: I think it's gonna be a shitshow. I think everyone in the room there is going to be confused about what the issue is. I think they're going to be shouting, screaming on all sides, and no one's going to walk out happy. I don't know if the city council even knows what they're doing or what they're voting on. I don't understand what they're voting on.

Anjeanette Damon: Mark called it. In that council meeting, confusion did reign for a minute. At least one councilman was like, “Why are we even listening to this? I thought we already decided this issue.”

 

But it quickly became obvious that this meeting wasn’t called so the council could start backing off of Kamy. This meeting was called so the council could turn the screws even tighter.

Remember that private investigator report I told you about last episode? The one that suggested there might be an issue with drugs and aggressive touching in the clubs? Well, it turned council members’ attention to what was happening inside the strip clubs.

And now they wanted a slew of new restrictions that could be catastrophic for the clubs, cutting at the very heart of the stripping business in Reno. Restrictions that would bring Reno’s clubs more in line with the way other cities regulate their strippers.

Here’s the deputy city attorney, Jonathan Shipman: 

 

Jonathan Shipman: What staff would looking at was limiting the performance areas to stage only, putting in place distance requirements between performers, implementing no tipping, touching from patrons…[fades under]

Anjeanette Damon: In short: No lap dances, no dancers younger than 21, no private rooms, more bright lighting, and more video surveillance.

These restrictions could put the strip clubs out of business no matter where the clubs were located, or at least make them much less profitable for the owners. And it could really undercut the dancers’ earnings, too.

But the mayor supports these proposals anyway:

Mayor Hillary Schieve: I want them patrolled. I want them well-lit. I want them in places where they cannot hide.

Anjeanette Damon: During the debate, Councilwoman Duerr—she’s the one who entered into those settlement talks with Kamy—she tries to focus the debate on enforcing laws already in place in the city and delaying any plans to make the clubs move.

But it didn’t work.

The council voted to stay on the path of kicking the clubs out of downtown and to start writing the proposed laws to crack down on the behavior inside the clubs.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: All those in favor say “aye.”
Council members: Aye.
Mayor Hillary Schieve: Any other discussion? Seeing that there's none, all those opposed? Motion carries unanimously. All right. Thank you very much.

Anjeanette Damon: I stopped Kamy and Mark in the city hall lobby when the meeting ended. They were beside themselves.

Mark Thierman: What a waste of time.

Kamy Keshmiri: It's going to go to court. I mean, we're just going to go guns-a-blazing into the court, federal court system. 

Anjeanette Damon: I mean, do you think they went back on any kind of deal that they gave you, or word that they gave you?

Mark Thierman: No one gave us a deal, OK? But they promised—they promised to listen to us. Look … [fades under] 

Anjeanette Damon: As we’re talking, Councilwoman Duerr approaches us and pulls Mark aside. Mark makes it clear this is not for my ears, but I’m standing right there.

Mark Thierman: [To Anjeanette] Just give me a second. [To Duerr] What happened?

Naomi Duerr: I tried…[fades under]

Anjeanette Damon: It’s a little hard to hear and it may have gone by fast, but Mark turns to Duerr and asks, “What happened?” And she says, “I tried…” 

Tried what? It seems to me the councilwoman was saying she tried to get the council to go along with whatever agreement had been broached in the settlement talks and it didn’t work.

Naomi Duerr catches me watching them and stops talking. Says she’ll catch up with Mark a little later.

Mark walks over to me, even more irritated.

Mark Thierman: What the fuck happened up there? They went crazy on us. They said, “Oh, we're gonna do this anyway.” Then why do we bother even talking to them? 

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy has just lost another round. 

This is where the fight moves out of city hall and back into the strip clubs.

Council members were disturbed by that private eye’s report. But they wanted real proof. So before long they would secretly send their police force back into the clubs. 

And this move by the police, it ends up targeting not just Kamy, but also the women who work in his clubs.

Three months after that council meeting, a trio of undercover cops hit the Spice House on a Friday night.

Door girl: Hey guys, can I see your ID, please?

Undercover cop: Sure.

Door girl: It's a $20 cover charge tonight.

Undercover cop: A’ight.

Anjeanette Damon: One of them has a big long beard and is wearing a baseball cap. The strippers say he kind of looks like Bradley Cooper in American Sniper.

The door girl has no idea they’re cops, of course. And in a delightful twist of irony—I just love this—she tries to get them to sign a petition to save the clubs.

Door girl: I don't know if you've seen us on the news. They want us to move to an industrial area of town. But if we get a certain amount of names and emails, we can stay in downtown. So if you guys do that for me, I'll definitely give you a free drink.

Undercover cop: Yeah, maybe in a little bit.

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie, the stripper we met in the first episode, is working her shift tonight. By this time, Stephanie has been working at the Spice House for a couple of months. 

Stephanie: So I knew the undercover cops came in there, but I just never thought that anything like that would happen to me, because I always … [fades under]

Anjeanette Damon: She didn’t want to do anything to put her job in jeopardy. Remember, she’s a single mom and needs the money to raise her two girls. So she’s careful.

It’s a pretty slow night when the undercover cops arrive and the dancers are excited to see guys walk in.

Stephanie and a dancer named Serenity approach the group, begin making small talk. 

You might remember from the first episode that the cops told the dancers they had just gotten off work. Their friend, the guy with a beard and a baseball cap, had just broken up with his girlfriend and needed some cheering up.

It’s a line I’ve heard the cops use on other undercover operations I’ve listened to this year. “I just broke up with my girlfriend,” or, “Yeah, my wife is out of town, so I’m here to have some fun. I’ve been married for soooo long.” It feels like some kind of strip club code. Like a signal that they want to do business, and not just the lap dance kinda business.

Strippers learn from each other how to play along, keep the guys interested. So Stephanie decides to sit in the bearded guy’s lap. 

Stephanie: That’s when the undercover cop said, “Oh, we need someone to sit on my buddy.” And like, I'm just thinking, like, OK, well if I go sit on his lap, I'm for sure gonna get that dance. 

Anjeanette Damon: One of the cops asks, “So what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in here?”

Serenity: So last week, I'm walking in the back, changing my outfit, right …[fades under] 

Anjeanette Damon: The loud cheerful voice you hear on the tape is Serenity. She does most of the talking tonight.

Serenity says she was walking through the back to freshen up her makeup when she hears a dancer giving an old guy oral sex in one of the private rooms.

Serenity: Yeah! Funny! 

Officer: So that girl hooked up old boy for 30 bucks with a BJ?

Serenity: Yeah! And the funniest thing …[fades under] 

Anjeanette Damon: The officer is intrigued. So you can get that kinda thing here? he asks.

But Serenity quickly puts that idea to rest. That dancer got fired, she said. This is not the place to sell sex. If you want to do that, just go to one of the brothels outside of town, she says.

Serenity: Go work in the brothels. Prostitution is legal in Nevada! You can legally do that here!

Anjeanette Damon: Now that the group is primed and having a good time, Stephanie goes to work trying to sell a lap dance in the back. Remember, this is how she makes her real money. It’s $20 for a lap dance on the floor, but private rooms in the back, they start at $150.

So Stephanie’s trying to pull out all her best moves. At one point, she grabs the cop’s hat. Tries to put it on her own head. It’s a seductive move she says usually drives guys crazy. But you can hear the cop freak out. 

Officers: I like my hat.

Stephanie:  You like your hat? Sorry, I was going to put it on. 

Officers: Sorry, it's my thing. It’s like my security blanket. 

Stephanie: Awww. Cute! 

Anjeanette Damon: Notice how suddenly you can hear both really clearly, like they’re talking right into the mic. You can kinda guess where he’s got that mic hidden.

The cop keeps pushing Stephanie for sex, even after hearing the cautionary tale about the stripper who was fired: Go to a hotel room with me? Do we need a condom? I want to get some action tonight. This is the stuff strippers deal with every night—and worse.

Stephanie keeps telling him no, reminding him that girls get fired for doing that kind of thing.

But she still wants him to buy a dance. 

At this point, Serenity steps in and tries to help Stephanie make the sale. Dancers often work together to essentially upsell patrons. Serenity tells this guy he should pay for both dancers to go in the back.

What can I get in the back? the cop asks.

To that, Serenity dives her head between Stephanie’s legs and pretends to give her oral sex.

Officers: See, that ain’t gonna be fair, you guys are getting down, and I'm just sitting down watching. I mean, how am I going to get involved? 

Anjeanette Damon: That doesn’t seem fair, the cop says. How am I going to get involved? 

Stephanie remains vague and the cop keeps pressing. He wants to participate. Can he lick her, he asks?

Officer: So if we go in back, and do, like, you know, two of you guys, would I be able to, like, get involved? Like, not like ... like, lick you or something? Like, would that be allowed?

Stephanie: Huh... 

Officer: Would that be included? 

Stephanie: Yeah.

Officer: What about licking you down there? 

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie pauses. She really wants this dance.

Stephanie: Uhhh…[long pause] maybe. 

Officer: Maybe?

Stephanie: Maybe if you get me wet enough. 

Officer: If I get you wet enough?

Stephanie: Yeah...

Anjeanette Damon: This is how we get to that infamous “maybe” that we heard in the first episode. The word sounds so innocuous. But in this fight, it’s all the cop decides he needs to make an arrest.

He moves quickly to close the deal.

Officer: You said 150 for that? 

Stephanie: Mmhm.

Anjeanette Damon: A hundred and fifty bucks for that? the cop asks. Mmhmm, Stephanie answers.

The cop gets up, says he’s going to get some money.

Office Leedy: I’ll, uh … I'm pretty good with that. I'm going to go out to my car and grab some money. I hope you're ready. 

Stephanie: Uh, are you ready for me? 

Officer Leedy: Oh yeah! 

Anjeanette Damon: Are you ready for me? Stephanie shoots back. This is another line that she’ll come to regret.

As soon as he’s out of the room, the cop radios his team in the parking lot.

Officer Leedy: We got a dealHeavy set girl in a red top. Heavy-set girl in a red top. 

Dispatch: She have a name?

Officer Leedy: She didn't give me her name. The other guys should have her. She's still sitting at the table, I think. Wire's coming off. 

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie, who isn’t actually heavy set, doesn’t realize what’s just happened until a pair of uniformed cops walk into the club and take her into custody.

Anjeanette Damon: And you're still, like, in your lingerie, and you're sitting in the same chair. Did they say, like, “Come with me please,” or—? 

Stephanie: No. Right after I said that, that's when they got rude and they said, "Oh, we can do this the hard way, the easy way or the hard way. And if you want to do this the hard way—not cooperate—we'll take you outside right now, and you won't get dressed.” Like, they said they're going to take me out in my clothes right there. Like what I was dressed in. Right then and there. 

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie has no criminal record, no pending warrants, so she’s not going to jail. The officers let her get dressed and then hand her a citation.

But she’ll have to go to court to face a misdemeanor criminal charge of solicitation of prostitution.

And just like that, Stephanie too is ensnared in the battle over the future of Reno.

The city has a woman it can sink its hooks into. An example of what it says is an actual dirty deed. Exhibit number 1 in its case against the strip clubs.

 

Stephanie has every intention of fighting the charge, but she won’t have her day in court for another six months. In the meantime, she’s going to keep dancing. She needs the money. 

But going back to work after getting caught in that sting was difficult. 

I went to the club to see how she was doing afterward. We hung out in the dressing room for a bit while she got ready for work. 

Stephanie: Can you help me, please? 

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah, here, hold this. 

Stephanie: I don't know if I—

Anjeanette Damon:I’ve been on a lot of assignments in the last 20 years, but this is the first time I’ve had to hand a stripper my microphone so I could help her hook her bra.

Anjeanette Damon: Do it on the farthest one, or—? 

Stephanie:  Yeah, please. Thank you. 

Anjeanette Damon: OK, I have freezing hands. 

Stephanie: Oh, no worries. 

Anjeanette Damon: As we talk, Stephanie applies layer after layer of makeup. She doesn’t want her customers to see the dark circles under her eyes. She’s not getting a lot of sleep.

She’s upset with the city. 

Stephanie: I don't understand what they think they're doing. Like, like getting people on false accusations or false charges. Like, it’d be one thing if they were actually trying to protect people. The way they’re doing it is not a good look if that’s what they think they’re trying to do.

Anjeanette Damon: In her mind, she was doing the job the way she learned how to do it. Be sexy and vague. Don’t promise anything that could get you in trouble.

Stephanie: Like, it's kind of like a game. Like, you have to figure out what you can say to get them to go in the back.

Anjeanette Damon: When she came back to work after her citation, she was afraid she would be branded a, quote, “dirty girl”—the term strippers at Kamy’s clubs often use to stigmatize women who are willing to sell sex. 

Stephanie: I was nervous. I was kind of embarrassed, because, you know, everyone's talking about it. Everyone was like, "Stephanie got busted for doing this." Like, there's so many rumors going around about me.

Anjeanette Damon: And, now, the fear that her next customer might also be a cop is always at the front of her mind.

Stephanie: I'm just always, like, careful. Sometimes I think certain people are undercover cops and I'm just like, it kind of affects you, because it kind of makes, like, affects my way and affects me, like, making money because I'm just scared. 

Anjeanette Damon: For the city, Stephanie’s solicitation citation is fodder in the campaign against the clubs. It could be used as evidence to help the council kick the clubs out of downtown and to back up claims that they’re fronts for prostitution. 

For Stephanie, this citation could end her job as a stripper in Reno. You have to have a work card to dance topless, and you can’t get one if you’re convicted of solicitation. That’s why she is going to fight this citation tooth and nail. 

As I’ve said before, strip clubs can be brutal places to work. It’s physically demanding. Patrons get handsy. Other dancers can be back-biting. 

And dancers are independent contractors. They actually have to pay the club to dance each night. If it’s slow or the patrons aren’t buying lap dances, dancers can work all night and actually lose money. 

Now add fear to that equation. With the city council intent on cracking down on the clubs, dancers like Stephanie have to be constantly wary that doing the job the way the clubs want them to do it could land them in jail.

Robin Amer: In a lot of ways, the promise of New Reno is to provide better opportunities for people like Stephanie. To provide jobs with a better paycheck and better working conditions. 

One of Stephanie’s friends, the stripper Serenity—she’s the one who pretended to go down on Stephanie in front of the cop—she actually made that jump. Serenity quit stripping soon after the raid to take a job at Tesla.

But as it turns out, there’s no magic bullet: Tesla’s Gigafactory can also be a brutal place to work.

Dispatch: [Phone ringing] 911, what's the address of your emergency? 

Caller: The Tesla Gigafactory at 1 Electric Avenue. 

Officer Fritz: We are requesting EMS for a middle-aged male. He was electrocuted.

Caller: We need an ambulance. We have a female employee, she got a hand stuck between two modules and she's bleeding pretty badly.

Dispatch: OK, you need to get everyone out of the building.

Caller: Yep. Out of the entire building or the floor?

Dispatch: I would get everyone out of the entire building for now.

Robin Amer: That’s next time on The City.

CREDITS

The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery. 

You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now. If you like the show, please rate and review us, and be sure to tell your friends about us.

Our show was reported and produced by Anjeanette Damon, Fil Corbitt, Kameel Stanley, Taylor Maycan, and me, Robin Amer.

Our editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. 

Legal review by Tom Curley. Launch oversight by Shannon Green. 

Additional production by Emily Liu, Sam Greenspan, Wilson Sayre, and Jenny Casas. 

Archival tape provided by Global ImageWorks. 

Brian Duggan is the Reno Gazette Journal’s executive editor. Chris Davis is the USA TODAY NETWORK’S VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Our president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth. 

Special thanks to Liz Nelson, Kelly Scott, and Alicia Barber. 

I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @thecitypod. Or visit our website: thecitypodcast.com

S2: Episode 2

If They Want War, We’ll Give ‘Em War

A secret report on the strip clubs is revealed, but it’s no smoking gun. As Midtown changes, residents of a weekly hotel make their fury known to a council that says they’re just pawns in Kamy’s game.

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Episode | Transcript

If They Want War, We’ll Give ‘Em War

Robin Amer:  Hey everyone. Just a reminder that because this season of The City is about strip clubs, it won’t be suitable for everyone, especially kids. This episode includes explicit language, including explicit conversations about sex.

Production team member: Previously on The City:

Mark Thierman: The destination is downtown Reno. They want a little bit naughty. They want some nice.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: We are truly rebranding this city, and companies like Tesla, Amazon, and Apple are all building and investing right here.

Kamy Keshmiri: I think there's just certain people that just do not like what we do.

Mike Kazmierski: Because I think it’s an embarrassment to our community. And it’s something that I believe we should have done something about a long time ago.

Par Tolles: They have a goldmine there. We've all tried to buy it.

Stephanie: I've had guys give me condoms before, and I tell them I can't do that. Like, I'm sorry.

Kamy Keshmiri: There's no records. There's no reports. There's nothing. So what do you do? Lie.

Jenny Brekhus: You had informed me that staff had commissioned a private investigator to go into all of the licensee holders and observe activities there.

Kamy Keshmiri: I'm being persecuted and the worst thing to do is get angry and do something stupid. I just wait. There'll be a time when I get my revenge.

Robin Amer: Velma Shoals has trouble sitting still. The 64-year-old grandmother spends her days darting up and down the hallways of the Ponderosa, the six-story hotel attached to the back of the Wild Orchid strip club.

The movement helps stave off depression, which is so bad Velma gets disability payments for it. But it’s not aimless wandering. She uses the time to check on her neighbors, who she looks out for with the watchful eye of a den mother.

Velma’s one of more than 100 people who pay week-to-week to live at the Ponderosa.

As for the strip club next door, Velma doesn’t mind it.

But living at the Ponderosa does come with its frustrations and indignities: the neighbor who disappeared without notice, leaving his room so dirty it became infested with roaches. Or the men Velma saw stealing AC units from the building.

And then there was the letter she found tacked to her door one day last winter.

Velma Shoals: OK. This is the letter we received on our doors that said, “To all Ponderosa hotel tenants: Unfortunately I must relay some bad, very bad news to you.”

Robin Amer: The letter was from Kamy Keshmiri. Remember, he and his family own both the strip club and the hotel. And the note warned Velma and her neighbors that their rent might be going up—by a lot.

Velma Shoals: “We are aware that many if not most of you living on fixed incomes are collecting Social Security, disability, unemployment, and/or veteran's benefits. With that in mind we have always strived to keep your rents low.”

Robin Amer: Kamy goes on to say that he’s been able to keep the rent low because he uses money from the strip club to subsidize the Ponderosa.

But things have changed. Now, Reno City Council members are openly talking about tougher regulations for the strip clubs—maybe even forcing them to move.

And Kamy’s letter to Velma and her neighbors makes clear that if that happens, he might have to nearly double their rent from around $750 to around $1,300 a month.

But Kamy has a suggestion for how his tenants might stave off this rent increase: Go talk to your rep in city council, he writes. He even includes a list of their phone numbers.

Velma Shoals: “Perhaps you can stop the city from gentrification [sic] of the Wild Orchid at the expense of your homes. You have my sincere apologies for this bad news. ”

Velma Shoals: Ain’t no way in the world. $1,300?! Who's got that kind of money? Nobody. That's a lot of money.

Robin Amer: Velma and her granddaughter have nowhere else to go. This is the only stable place they’ve had to live in almost a decade. And she’ll do anything to keep it.

So by sending that letter, Kamy has effectively conscripted some of the city’s most vulnerable residents as foot soldiers in his fight to save his strip clubs. Velma and her neighbors are now embroiled in this fight too—whether they like it or not.

From USA TODAY, I’m Robin Amer, and this is The City.

ACT 1

Robin Amer: So, at the end of our last episode, the Reno City Council had just drawn battlelines for its fight against the strip clubs—including Kamy’s. They voted to pursue new laws that would force the clubs to stop serving alcohol, take down any digital signs, and eventually move out of downtown altogether.

We also learned that Reno City Attorney Karl Hall had secretly hired a private eye to dig up dirt on the clubs—dirt the city could use to bolster its case.

Now, Karl Hall had refused to release the report to the public. But our reporter, Anjeanette Damon, wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Here’s Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: Karl Hall had refused to give me the report. So I wrote a story about it. And the Reno Gazette-Journal’s lawyer threatened legal action.

The next day, the city manager overruled Karl Hall and released the report.

Whether it was being called out by the paper or our lawyer threatening to sue that ultimately did it, I don’t know. Either way, I finally got my hands on the report.

To give you a sense of what was in it—of what Karl Hall found from his secret surveillance—I want to take you back to the three nights in early February 2017 when the private investigators first went into Reno’s strip clubs.

Just a head’s up, it gets kind of racy.

Picture this: a team of private investigators fans out through downtown Reno.

They post up outside two of Reno’s sex toy shops and five of its strip clubs, including all three of Kamy’s.

They count every person walking into the clubs and they note any bad behavior: rowdiness, swerving vehicles, that kind of thing.

At Fantasy Girls, one PI watches as a guy walks out of the club, gets in a car with another guy, and then goes back into the club a few minutes later.

Could it be a drug deal? They don’t say.

Then, they head inside the clubs and start logging what they see.

At the Wild Orchid, an investigator watches as dancers pull a man on stage. It’s his birthday, so they try to make a show of it. They take off his shirt and violently rip off his underwear. They whip his chest and back. He looks like he’s in pain. Then, a dancer blindfolds him and shoves a sex toy into his mouth.

Over at Fantasy Girls, things get even more lewd, according to this report.

The PIs see dancers so drunk or high they can’t keep their heads up. They watch three guys walk into a stall in the men’s room and snort what they presume to be cocaine.

At one point, a brawl breaks out between two groups of guys. Then the dancers jump into the fray too. No one calls the cops.

The PI says he saw dancers on stage grind their bodies together and even perform oral sex on one another. One dancer reportedly sits on a man’s face while he licks her. Another dancer asks the investigator if he wants to—and I quote!—“snort a line of blow off her ass.”

Over the course of the investigation, the dancers also try hard to get the PIs into a back room. Remember, the dancers make more money working in the back. But that's also where the really dirty stuff was supposedly taking place.

The PI writes that he heard dancers talking about having sex in the back room, but he didn't do the obvious: he didn’t try to buy a lap dance or get in the back himself, because he didn’t have approval to spend money on that.

A lot of the activity the private eyes reported seeing in the clubs is technically illegal. Patrons aren’t supposed to touch dancers, period. And dancers aren’t supposed to touch each other’s breasts or genitals. Oral sex on stage is definitely forbidden.

But here’s the thing. What the private eyes did not see was the really serious stuff: Prostitution. Drug trafficking. Sex trafficking.

What they saw was troubling. Even illegal. And it was definitely ammunition the city could put to use.

But if Karl Hall or the city council was looking for a smoking gun—something that might sway public sentiment against Kamy, something to justify kicking strip clubs out of downtown—this didn’t seem to be it.

Kamy felt vindicated by the report.

Kamy Keshmiri: So for me, I took it as a compliment. It's obvious that they don't have anything, so it's sad that you're wasting City of Reno resources on this, on bringing private investigators in to look at boobs. That's all it is. Yeah, there's boobs.

Anjeanette Damon: As for the illegal stuff, well, Kamy said the private eyes must have exaggerated.

The person I really wanted to talk to though was Neoma Jardon—the city council member who had first proposed a moratorium on new strip clubs, but then later voted against kicking strip clubs out of downtown. I wanted to know what she thought of the PI’s report, and whether the city was being too aggressive in its push to get rid of Kamy.

I went to see Jardon at her office at City Hall.

Reno City Hall looks like this giant Lego piece—a black, glass-and-steel tower flanked by defunct hotel-casinos. Jardon’s office is on the 15th floor.

It has a view over downtown, out to the mountains that frame the city’s western edge. You can see the storms roll in from here. But you can also see the stretch of downtown that gentrification has missed—the empty Woolworth’s building, sketchy liquor stores, and t-shirt shops.

Jardon tells me that, in her opinion, this whole movement to kick out the strip clubs has gone too far, and she points the finger at Karl Hall’s office.

Neoma Jardon: You know, um, our legal department brought forward this ordinance to say, um, you know, if you’re non-conforming, we do have a legal basis and background where we can move you into a conforming area. I did not support that. And I still, as I sit here today, don't support that strategy.

Anjeanette Damon: What do you think about the idea of the city hiring a private investigator to essentially spy on a private business?

Neoma Jardon: That to me, uh, makes me a little itchy. And it makes me wonder: What was the rationale behind it? 

Anjeanette Damon: I was wondering the same thing: What was Karl Hall’s rationale for hiring a private eye?

Like I said before, Karl Hall won’t explain any of this to me. But interviews aren’t the only way to get information. We all have a paper trail.

Karl Hall was a county prosecutor for nearly 26 years before he was elected Reno’s City Attorney in 2014. And elected officials like Karl Hall, they have to file financial disclosure forms—documents that list their assets and investments.

Not a lot of people take the time to actually look at them, but these forms are important. They’re supposed to provide transparency and prevent elected officials from making decisions that could benefit them financially.

They also come in handy for reporters.

I looked up Hall’s form, and it showed he and his wife owned half a dozen properties in Reno. But there was something significant about one of them. It was a 9,000-square-foot office building in Midtown just a block away from the Wild Orchid.

Karl Hall and Kamy Keshmiri were basically neighbors.

I dug further through property records and found that this building had been in Karl Hall’s wife’s family for decades. The couple inherited it in 2006. I also found that Karl Hall and his wife put this building on the market for $1.5 million in May 2017—just four months after he’d hired private eyes to snoop on the strip clubs. That meant that while Karl Hall’s staff was arguing to the city council that strip clubs could lower the value of neighboring properties, Karl Hall was trying to sell a neighboring property.

Karl Hall could potentially benefit from the same changes in Midtown now threatening not just Kamy, but also Velma Shoals and her neighbors.

Hall’s property sat on the market for almost two years. And just before the Reno City Council made its final decision on what to do with the clubs, the property sold for $1.25 million dollars—about 250 thousand dollars less than the original asking price.

Reno’s city council members frequently disclose potential conflicts of interest and will even recuse themselves if the conflict is too great. Even if that conflict is on their financial disclosure form, they still have to stand up in a city council meeting and tell the public about the conflict. State law requires it. And it’s actually Karl Hall’s job to make sure they do it.

That law applies to Karl Hall, too. Filling out a financial disclosure form isn’t enough. And government ethics experts I talked to said Karl Hall should have disclosed his potential conflict during the strip club debate.

But when the council debated the strip clubs, Karl Hall never stood up to say, Hey, just so you know, I own a building across the street from the Wild Orchid.

Kamy’s lawyer Mark Thierman was on his sailboat in Bermuda when I broke the news to him.

Anjeanette Damon: I just discovered that Karl Hall owned an office building pretty much across the street from the Wild Orchid and he just sold it in March for like $1.1 million dollars. Did you know about—?

Mark Thiermani: Really?

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah.

Mark Thiermani: So he had a self interest in this whole thing?

Anjeanette Damon: I mean, it kind of looks like that.

Mark Thiermani: Wow. That bastard. OK.

Anjeanette Damon: So you didn't know either?

Mark Thiermani: I didn't know. Kamy knew?

Anjeanette Damon: No, Kamy didn't know. Kamy didn’t know, I didn't know.

Mark Thiermani: So we have, we have a city attorney going after a strip club that happens to be a block away from his lovely property that he thinks lowers the value of the property? Great. And he doesn't disclose any of this?

Anjeanette Damon: Most council members didn’t know either. I reached Councilman Devon Reese by phone while he was waiting to catch a plane.

Anjeanette Damon: Did you know that he had property a block away from the Wild Orchid?

Councilman Devon Reese: Nope. That's the first I've heard of that.

Anjeanette Damon: That’s how most of my conversations with council members went. Only one, Jenny Brekhus, knew Karl Hall owned the office building, and she only knew because she’s super familiar with the neighborhood.

Council members I talked to said they would have liked to have known about it, and they didn’t understand why Karl Hall didn’t disclose it in a public meeting.

Here’s Devon Reese again:

Councilman Devon Reese: I just think it's important because, as elected officials and handling sensitive subjects, the public really deserves to know the information. Because otherwise what happens is, you know, it's, it gets out through other means, and people view it as something that should have been disclosed, and then it looks more nefarious than maybe it was, or looks like a motivating factor, when maybe it wasn't. And again, I can't comment on either one of those, because it wasn't disclosed to me.

Anjeanette Damon: I finally got Karl Hall on the phone this summer.

Karl Hall: This is Karl.

Anjeanette Damon: Hey, Karl. It's Anjeanette.

Karl Hall: Hey, Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: He was in his city hall office toward the end of the day. I asked him, again, if he’d do an interview with me.

Karl Hall: You know, I'm not really inclined to do that.

Anjeanette Damon: So I just launched into my questions about his property deal in Midtown.

Anjeanette Damon: I mean, we'd just like to, I guess, understand why it wasn't disclosed during the process, and if the whole of—

Karl Hall: Why what? The fact that I own an office building? Why that wasn't disclosed to who?

Anjeanette Damon: To the public.

Karl Hall: It’s public record, right? I mean, what’s the, what does that have to do with anything?

Anjeanette Damon: Well, it is public record, and it was on your financial disclosure form. But in my discussions with the experts on the state ethics law, elected officials are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest in a manner that is sufficient to inform the public. Similar to, you know, I think—

Karl Hall: Well, what's the conflict?

Anjeanette Damon: Um, I guess owning a piece of property that could be affected by a decision that's before the city council and that your office was working to develop the policy on.

Karl Hall: No. It didn't have anything to do with any work that I did on behalf of the city.

Anjeanette Damon: OK. And you don't think, you know, something that would affect the future of the strip club could affect the value one way or the other of your property?

Karl Hall: Nope.

Anjeanette Damon: Karl Hall is well-versed in the state’s ethics law. He’s the city attorney. He’s at these meetings when council members make these kinds of disclosures. It’s his job to tell them when to disclose. But when it comes to his property, he says he just doesn’t see the conflict.

Karl Hall: I'm not trying to influence them one way or the other. I'm trying to defend their policy decisions. So...

Anjeanette Damon: Mmhm. But that's, I mean, do you think—?

Karl Hall: I don't have a dog in the fight.

Anjeanette Damon: Well, I guess some people might think you do, if you own property real close to the club.

Karl Hall: Well, not anymore.

Anjeanette Damon: Right. You sold it for a lot of money!

Karl Hall: Yeah, I think you're trying to make something that's not there. So, I'm sorry.

Anjeanette Damon: We went back and forth like this for a bit before wrapping up. And then he let me know he didn’t appreciate my line of questioning.

Karl Hall: Frankly, I'm a little offended, frankly, and I'm offended by that. So, anyway...

Anjeanette Damon: When I later told Kamy about Karl Hall’s building, he told me that, suddenly, everything made sense. He could never quite figure out why it seemed the city was out to get him.  

Kamy Keshmiri: I mean, come on. I mean, this is such a cornball small town corrupt politics.

Anjeanette Damon: To Kamy, Karl Hall’s possible conflict of interest explained everything.

But me, I wasn’t so sure. Yeah, Karl Hall potentially stood to benefit if the clubs were kicked out of Midtown. But there were a lot of different people pushing for that to happen. He wasn’t the only person with power, and he wasn’t the only one who had stakes.

And although the private eye hadn’t found a smoking gun, the report didn’t exactly exonerate Kamy, either. The PI hadn’t even been in the back room!

So I still had a lot of questions about what really goes on in those strip clubs, and about the effort to get rid of them.

Even before he found out about Karl Hall’s land deal, Kamy felt besieged. The private investigators. The accusations about drug and sex trafficking. Government harassment at its worst, Kamy thought. And he wasn’t going to sit back and take it.

So in September 2017, the day after the council voted to oust his clubs, Kamy unleashed his lawyer.

On its face, the federal lawsuit Mark Theirman filed against the city had little to do with the new ordinances. The suit accused the city of discriminating against women by putting more restrictions on female dancers than male revue dancers.

But in reality, Mark said, the lawsuit was payback.

Mark Thierman: When they had this ordinance floating around, I didn't think it was going to get past, you know, that initial vote. I thought that was crazy. Then I said, fuck 'em. They want to see what war is, we’ll show ‘em what war is.

Robin Amer: Next up, Anjeanette takes a step back and goes looking for clues in Kamy’s past. Clues that could explain why he’s so combative.

And she learns that his roots in Old Reno explain a lot of his conflicts with New Reno.

That’s after the break.

ACT 2

Robin Amer: With the plan to oust the strip clubs still very much on the table, the way Kamy saw it, his hometown had turned on him.

He was a Hall of Fame athlete and a successful businessman. If anything, the city should be putting him on a pedestal.

But Kamy had been knocked off that pedestal before.

Anjeanette picks it back up from here.

Anjeanette Damon:  It’s a sunny day in April—the kind of day that makes you feel as if winter is over and spring has finally taken hold.

At Reno High School, classes have just let out for the day. More than 100 student athletes are milling about the track, waiting for practice to begin. Jumpers head to the north end of the track, sprinters line up in the middle. The distance runners set off for their circuit through the neighborhood.

Over to the side of the track is a dusty shot put ring. Some of the brawniest students, both boys and girls, are lining up to take their turns heaving a dense metal ball as far as they can.

One boy crouches into the starting position, the shot resting in his hand near his cheek. He winds up for the throw, hops forward twice, whips his torso around and thrusts the shot through the air.

Kamy Keshmiri: Drive! No. No. I like the height, but you opened up! But you got the ball up in the air.

Anjeanette Damon: If that voice sounds familiar to you, it should. It’s Kamy. Yes, in Reno, the strip club kingpin is also the assistant track coach at the local high school.

Kamy Keshmiri:  You guys, look, your bodies are dead. So we're just going to work on legwork. OK, drive right through it. Just go! Left, down, rip! One movement. OK, not bad. Attack!

Anjeanette Damon: Both Kamy and his brother Jamy have coached discus and shot put at their alma mater for years.

As we’re standing there, the head coach pulls up in his full-size pickup truck and sees me interviewing Kamy. He makes a beeline towards us. He wants me to know how much he likes Kamy.

Lewis Green: It's an absolute pleasure to have Coach Kamy Keshmiri here at Reno High School. The contribution he makes not only to the school, but giving back to the community, is a huge asset, and we're thankful to have him here.

Anjeanette Damon: This is the kind of adulation Kamy is used to. He’s a hometown sports hero—a local boy made good in a place where being a local boy matters.

Kamy runs the kids through their throwing drills. He lectures one kid who dropped his elbow on a throw—he’ll hurt himself if he keeps doing that, he says. He advises another kid to use more torque.

On the side, he complains to me about their lack of discipline in a grouchy “kids-these-days” kind of way.

Kamy Keshmiri: When I grew up, it was dedication, desire, and drive. The “three Ds” is what we grew up with. These kids, I'll take one of the three, you know? 

[To the kids] There you go. Much better! See how that works? Feels good, doesn’t it, when you get it right?

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy’s coach growing up was his dad, an Olympic athlete from Iran.

Kamy started discus when he was really young, like nine years old. By the age of 23, he was throwing farther than anyone in the world. In 1992, Kamy was just a step away from competing in the Olympics himself.

Back in his office at the Ponderosa, I asked Kamy to tell me more about his glory days. His office is actually more like a storage room, overflowing with file boxes and a ratty couch. There are no medals or trophies. No framed magazine covers.

Kamy tells me that growing up, he thought his dad was invincible. He was a mountain of a man with a thick mustache who hoped his son would follow in his athletic footsteps.

Kamy Keshmiri: Iran was kind of exotic. “Ooh, that's kind of a cool place! Far away!” People in Reno didn't understand much about Iran. So my dad would come to class, you know, because the Olympics. Everybody knew the Olympics. They don't know much about Iran. So it was, it was kind of like people were in awe of that, a little bit.

Anjeanette Damon: That changed in 1979. Kamy was 10 years old when a group of Iranian college students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in what became known as the Iran Hostage Crisis.

Kamy Keshmiri: You know, these kids are turning on me. “Your dad competes for a country that, you know, represents terrorists.” So you know, I had kids bully me, you know, in school. I mean, it was like, normal. Everyday I'd get into a fight with somebody else.

What I did was, my dad's like, “Well, you learn to fight back.” And I guess in a lot of ways, it motivated me. And I worked out a lot harder. And I ended up being the biggest kid and everybody left me alone. It was kind of nice being the biggest kid in school.

Anjeanette Damon: Hearing this helped me start to understand Kamy a little better. So did what he told me next—about his rise to superstar athlete, and his subsequent fall.

When his dad began training him for discus, absolute discipline was required.

Kamy Keshmiri: He grew up poor in Iran. He grew up poor in a third-world country. It's a lot different growing up poor in this country. So he felt that Americans were weak. So he wanted me to be tougher.

Anjeanette Damon: The discipline, the demanding coaching, it worked. In 1987, his senior year, Kamy broke the national high school discus record. The Nevada governor proclaimed June 22, 1987, Kamy Keshmiri Day. Gatorade named him Track and Field Athlete of the Year, which is a big deal in the world of high school sports. Emmitt Smith, who would go on to become a star NFL running back, won the same award that year.

When Kamy was in college at the University of Nevada, he won three NCAA discus titles.

By this point in his life, it was Kamy in the newspapers, not his dad.

I pulled an old story from the Reno Gazette-Journal and read Kamy the lead.

Anjeanette Damon: All right. He says, "The best young discus thrower of all time doesn't walk through Flex Fitness gym in South Reno. He floats. His hair is teased and moussed so it stands on end, hardened like fingers of black licorice. He wears coal-colored spandex tights streamlined to his rocky thighs like a corset." [Laughs]

Kamy Keshmiri: [Laughs] Very good writing there. That's good stuff.

Anjeanette Damon: Is that how you see yourself?

Kamy Keshmiri: I mean, I don't see myself that way. I mean, you know, you're young. When I was competing, I was 300 pounds. I was a big boy. I was strong. So, yeah, maybe I stood out in the gym.

Anjeanette Damon: But Kamy’s athletic glory was cut short.

In 1992 he won the U.S. Olympic Trials with a throw more than four feet longer than the guy who came in second. They hung a gold medal around his neck. He was headed to the Olympics in Barcelona. He would represent his country, just like his dad wanted.

But then his mom called.

Kamy Keshmiri: So I win the trials, right? And literally I get a call from my mom saying I've got a FedEx thing for the drug test that says I failed, or whatever.

Anjeanette Damon: His pre-competition drug test came back positive for steroids.

Kamy never competed in the Olympics. A guy from Lithuania won the gold that year with a throw almost 20 feet shorter than Kamy’s all-time best.

In Kamy’s eyes, he was the victim of a conspiracy, the details of which are too convoluted to get into here. He said he routinely did uppers during competition. Excessive amounts of caffeine, for instance. But he never did anything illegal.

Kamy fought the suspension for a while, but eventually gave up on his appeals. They banned him from the sport for life.

But talking to me today, Kamy waves that part off. He says he had already made the decision that 1992 would be his last year throwing.

Kamy Keshmiri: And I knew at that point I was done. For me it was over. So, you know, it was meant to be. Like I said, that, God didn't want me to do it. And thank God, because my dad would have paraded me around as his Olympic champion son, and I would've literally thrown until my arm fell off.

Anjeanette Damon: As Kamy tells me his life story, I can’t help but think that his life seems to run in these cycles of adulation and excoriation. He’s popular because his dad’s an Olympian. Then he’s bullied because he’s Iranian. He’s a hometown hero for his athletic prowess, then he’s branded a cheater. He’s a respected local businessman, then he’s the smut-peddling scourge of New Reno.

As he sees it, each time it’s the powers that be trying screw him out of what he worked so hard to achieve.

And each time, Kamy turns toward the fight. The bullies beat him up, he gets stronger. The city comes after his club, he readies for battle.

Kamy Keshmiri: My father had a sign over his office: “When life kicks you, it kicks you forward.” That was his motto. So they want to push this, I really feel that the city is on the wrong end of this, and they're going to end it, we're gonna end up getting more.

Robin Amer: Kamy presents himself as a victim standing up to bullies—as a righteous warrior fighting against the city.

But next up, Kamy shows he’s willing to use his own desperate tenants in service of that fight.

After the break, Kamy unleashes Velma and her neighbors.

ACT 3

Robin Amer: When Kamy stuck that letter on Velma’s door, he knew that the city council had been under pressure to do something about the lack of affordable housing in Reno.

So you could argue that it was a shrewd move to threaten his tenants with a rent increase while blaming it on the city. It was Kamy’s way of showing that if city officials came after his clubs, they wouldn’t just be hurting him.

Let’s go back to Anjeanette.

Neoma Jardon: 24th meeting of the Reno City Council. Our first order of business is the Pledge of Allegiance, and if we can get Tammy Holtstill to lead us in the pledge…

Anjeanette Damon: It’s January 2018, about four months after the city council approves the plan to start ousting the strip clubs, and I’m back at City Hall for a routine council meeting.

To be honest, I’m expecting a dull affair. Stripclubs aren’t on the agenda.

But just as the meeting is getting underway, about two-dozen people file into the room. Some are young and look to be blue-collar workers. A couple of others are in wheelchairs. There’s an elderly man in a frayed sports coat, his hair pomaded into place. Many have weathered faces.

This is the pack of Ponderosa residents that Velma Shoals has wrangled to city hall to fight for their homes.

Clerk: Velma Shoals followed by Warren Brown followed by Jay Williams.

Velma Shoals: Yes, my name is Velma Shoals. I’ve been at the Ponderosa for five years, six years, with my granddaughter.

Anjeanette Damon: At 4’8”, Velma’s barely taller than the lectern before her. Her graying auburn hair is pulled back in an elastic band, and her chin is set as she faces the council members.

Velma Shoals: This has been a home for my granddaughter since elementary school and we don't want that taken from us. Please don't take that from us.

Anjeanette Damon: Shortly before the council meeting, Velma had seen the letter on her door. And this confrontation is exactly what Kamy wanted. Remember, he’d encouraged his tenants to reach out to their elected officials. Even given them names and phone numbers.

Velma Shoals: We really need our, we need this hotel more than anything in the world right now. Not just me, but other families. I'm not the only family raising kids there.

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy’s gambit with the letter has scared the hell out of the people living in his hotel. Velma makes it clear that they are desperate to stay.

Velma Shoals: I mean, they was there when I had nobody, when I had no one and nowhere to turn. That hotel gave me a place to live, a bed to sleep in, and a way to cook for my granddaughter. When I was homeless, going from couch to couch, I mean, please don't take that from us. Just do the best you can to help us save that. I would appreciate that. Thank you very much. [Applause]

Anjeanette Damon: It’s clear that Velma and the other hotel residents don’t blame Kamy for any of this—they blame the Reno City Council.

But Councilwoman Neoma Jardon tries to turn their attention back to the guy threatening to double their rent.

Neoma Jardon: Thank you very much. I hope the owners see what this tactic has done in scaring you and making you cry at the podium and worry about the roof over your head. I hope they are watching today. 

Anjeanette Damon: She sees Kamy’s move with the letter as a political ploy.

Neoma Jardon: It's, it's a disgusting tactic and they're using you as their mechanism and pawn. I haven't seen the letter, but it concerns me greatly that you guys are here today out of your busy days, scared, and that, you know, it's an unfortunate tactic that I find offensive and frankly not effective. So I just wanted to let you know our side, from the city council. So Madam Clerk, next speaker…

Anjeanette Damon: OK, let me just step back here. Even without the strip club fight, the threat to the Ponderosa residents is real as Reno changes around them.

An influx of tech workers has helped push Reno’s housing prices to record heights.

When Ponderosa residents confronted city council members, Reno’s median house price was $370,000—that’s up from $135,000 in 2012.

Meanwhile, the average wage in Reno is just $46,000 a year.

Apartment vacancy rates are near zero. Investors are coming in and scooping up existing apartment buildings and jacking up the rent or even evicting tenants to make it easier to remodel.

Landlords once partnered with caseworkers to rent to people who needed help. Now they’re renting to Tesla workers.

The waitlist for housing assistance is so long officials have stopped taking new names entirely. People are living out of their cars or in tents along the Truckee River, which runs through downtown.

Reno’s only homeless shelter is so overcrowded that a man recently died from hypothermia after he was trapped on the roof. His body lay there for days before he was found.

And the weeklies—the motels where people like Velma pay to live—those are disappearing, too, even though they’re home to 4,000 people who have nowhere else to go.

In fact, Councilwoman Jardon has been a huge proponent of old motel demolitions. She even posed for a photo opp sitting astride a bulldozer sent to clear the land of one.

This is why Kamy’s note on his tenant’s doors was so damn frightening. When Velma says she has nowhere else to go if she loses her home at the Ponderosa, she’s right.

I wanted to better understand their situation. So I went to visit one day last July.

When I arrive, a group of people are lounging in front of the Ponderosa Hotel, trying to escape the heat in their rooms. Children are playing with a deflated soccer ball between the cars in the carport.

As I stroll up to the front door, a guy sees my mic and launches into an animated monologue about how he could use ammonia to rid the Ponderosa of all of its bed bugs.

Gaetano Cercone: I only been here a few days, I get totally chewed by bugs. We’re gonna eradicate without Raid. We’re gonna do it with ammonia. Keep people healthy.

I start chatting with another guy standing on two prosthetic legs, and he says he’s having trouble finding a new place. Apartment landlords won’t take him when they find out he’s living at the Ponderosa. They’re afraid he’ll bring bedbugs with him.

Inside, I discover that the Ponderosa’s poor reputation has been earned.

[Grinding noise]

That noise is the elevator. You can hear it grinding away from far down the hall. Residents I spoke with said it constantly breaks down, sometimes leaving people who are in wheelchairs stranded for hours in the lobby or upstairs in hallways.

I step out of the elevator and onto the fourth floor. Half the lightbulbs are missing and the ones that are still working, they’re flickering—almost like a strobe-light. There’s just enough light to see a cockroach scoot down the wall to my left.

 Velma’s place is at the far end of the hall.

She invites me into the room she’s been living in with her 16-year-old granddaughter, Tayla, for seven years. She’s done a great job of turning the hotel room into a comfortable living space.

Velma Shoals: Well, it's got a, you know, it's got a living area here. It's got two beds in it. I could have tables and chairs, if I wanted. I do have the table.

Anjeanette Damon: Living in her small room at the Ponderosa is far better than the two years she spent homeless and couch surfing in California.

Velma Shoals: I'm gonna have to move where? Where am I going? I don't have money to move. I've got Tayla. What I'm gonna do with her? The river? That's the next best thing—the river.

Anjeanette Damon: Beyond having her own place, Velma has carved out an important role for herself at the hotel.

She’s a de facto leader here. She marches up and down the halls gripping her oversized cell phone by the pop it glued to the back. She picks up any trash she sees along the way. She checks in on her neighbors, makes sure people have food.

Velma Shoals: We've got a little man that just moved in a couple of doors over. He's lived here before, but he was homeless, So I told him I fix him a little box of stuff and bring to him. Some of us, we just kind of look out for one another.

Anjeanette Damon: I ask if I can meet her neighbors, and she insists that I meet her buddy John down the hall.

Velma Shoals: [Sound of knocking] Knock knock! Just a minute, I got the news popping in.

Anjeanette Damon: She announces me as “the news,” and initially, John wants nothing to do with me.But he’s no match for Velma’s relentlessness, and he ultimately invites me inside.

John: We live here. This is this is my home. I'm proud of my home, you know? I mean look, I love my home. I keep, I live all by myself, but I keep a nice clean house and I'm a happy camper. I like it. I like it.

Anjeanette Damon: John’s health is fragile. For years, he worked at a plant nursery until heart attacks and seizures made working impossible.

His room isn’t any bigger than Velma’s. But he chose it because of the view from the fourth floor window.

John: I like it. I like it. I love this view. I sit here and I, I sit here in the morning. I have a coffee. I say my prayers. And you know, it’s excellent. It’s a great way to wake up every morning. I can see from the very far east to the very far west. And I sit 60, 70 feet above the city. And so my view is an entire open view of the entire south of Reno.

Anjeanette Damon: The city is spread out before John’s window—the lively restaurants and bars along Virginia Street, the valley full of trees and houses beyond Midtown, the ski runs carved into the mountain range in the distance. You can see why developers would want to build high-priced condos here.

John has watched Reno change from this window. The weekly motel across the parking lot is now market-rate condos. Yoga shops and fancy cocktail bars have opened around him.

He used to watch tourists stream out of downtown hotel casinos. Now he sees people leaving their hotel rooms to catch a ride out to their new jobs at Tesla.

John: I've seen the entire crew marching every morning out of Harrah’s and out of Circus and marching over getting on the shuttles to get bussed out to the Gigafactories. Tesla, Panasonic, so on.

Anjeanette Damon: If these changes force the Ponderosa to close, like Velma, John would have nowhere else to go.

Kamy’s letter sparked panic among his tenants. But it also brought into stark relief the real stakes in this fight over what the New Reno should be. Council members celebrate motel demolitions as progress, all the while taking on a fight that could make that housing crisis even worse for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

So while Kamy may be the one scaring his tenants with threats of rent hikes, he says he’s not the real villain.

Kamy Keshmiri: They want to make me look like their bad guy. Who's the bad guy? You're the one wants to kick—I didn't, I didn't start this war. The truth of the matter is, you're the one kicking these people out. You're the one creating this. Not me. So you can lie to everybody and spin it to “bad Keshmiri.” But the reality is, Mr. Keshmiri has been doing a service for this town a long time and helping these poor people out. That's the truth.

Robin Amer: Velma and John aren’t the only people caught up in a fight that threatens their stability.

While Kamy was busy orchestrating the dramatic confrontation between Ponderosa residents and the Reno City Council, the city was quietly deploying a weapon of its own.

The cops are about to show up on Kamy’s doorstep. But just like with Velma and John, he’s not the only one who’ll suffer the consequences.

Stephanie: I was just like, I knew I didn't do anything wrong, so I was just like I don't understand how I could be in this situation. Like, why me? Like… [Starts crying]

Anjeanette Damon: Oh gosh, I'm sorry.

Stephanie: It's OK. It's not, it's just, I don't know why that happened to me.

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah, no. it's—you got caught. Like, you got caught in something a lot bigger that has nothing to do with you.

Stephanie: Yeah, because I didn't do anything wrong. And I'm just like, it sucks that they had to use me as a pawn for whatever is going on between them and the city. Like that's not right. Like, you're ruining people's lives.

Robin Amer:  That’s next time on The City.

CREDITS

The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery.

You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you’re listening right now. If you like the show, please rate and review us. And be sure to tell your friends about us.

Our show was reported and produced by Anjeanette Damon, Fil Corbitt, Kameel Stanley, Taylor Maycan, and me, Robin Amer.

Our editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown.

Legal review by Tom Curley. Launch oversight by Shannon Green.

Additional production by Emily Liu, Sam Greenspan, Wilson Sayre, and Jenny Casas.

Brian Duggan is the Reno Gazette-Journal’s executive editor. Chris Davis is the USA TODAY Network’s vice president for investigations. Scott Stein is our vice president of product. Our president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Special thanks to Liz Nelson, Kelly Scott, and Alicia Barber.

You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @thecitypod. Or visit our website. That’s thecitypodcast.com.

S2: Episode 1

Battlelines

In a changing Reno, city boosters concoct a plan to force strip clubs out of downtown. But Reno’s strip club kingpin won’t go quietly. As the city tightens its grip, it’s dancers who feel the squeeze.

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Episode | Transcript

Battlelines

Robin Amer: Hey everyone. This season of The City is about strip clubs, so it won’t be suitable for everyone, especially kids. This episode contains explicit language, including explicit conversations about sex.

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Robin Amer: It’s a typical summer night in Reno, Nevada, a glittering casino town tucked into the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Three guys walk into a downtown strip club and take a seat near the front. The club is small and dark, but brightly colored lights splash across the stage. Almost beckoning the next dancer to come on up.

Dancer: What brings you guys out tonight?

Man: Oh, just looking to get out, you know? Just got off work, so we're just chilling.

Robin Amer: They’re a little hard to hear, but they tell the waitress that they just got off work at a sporting goods store across town. They want to blow off some steam.

In Reno, strip clubs are just one of many options for a night of debauchery. There are big resort casinos and nightclubs—even legal brothels just outside city limits.

Now, sex for money is not legal in this club—or any of Reno’s strip clubs. But the illusion of sex for money, well, that’s definitely for sale here.

Three strippers join the three men, sliding into their laps.

Man: What's fun to do in here?

Serenity: In the back it's like an orgy.

Stephanie: We have the most fun in the back.

Man: What do you do in the back?

Robin Amer: One of the guys tells them that he just broke up with his girlfriend. His pals say they’re trying to cheer him up.

Man: But the real reason we're here is because my boy just had a nasty break up with his girl.

Serenity: Oh, no!

Robin Amer: The dancer on his lap is a brunette dressed in red lingerie. On stage she goes by the name Stephanie. For 20 bucks, she’ll give him a lap dance. She’ll dance topless just for him, right there in the room.

For 150 bucks, she’ll give him a lap dance in one of the private rooms in the back of the club.

But he doesn’t seem interested in that. Instead, he says his goal is to “get some action.”

Man: Would that be included?

Robin Amer: “Would that be included?” In other words, would sex be included in that private room in the back. Even better, he wants to know, could we go to a hotel?

Stephanie, the dancer in his lap, keeps telling him no. But she’s trying to be polite about it—even seductive.

She’s not going to straight up tell the guy to get lost for asking her to get it on in the back. She makes way more money giving lap dances in the private room than she does at the tables up front.

Stephanie tries to sell him on a private lap dance without agreeing to something that would get her fired. But he keeps pressing.

Eventually, he asks if he can lick her, you know, down there.

Man: What about licking you down there?

Stephanie: Uhhh…

Robin Amer: And Stephanie says ... “maybe.”

Stephanie: Uhhh...maybe.

Man: Maybe?

Stephanie: Maybe if you get me wet enough.

Man: If I get you wet enough?

Stephanie: Yeah…

Robin Amer: But this guy does not work at a sporting goods store. And he didn’t just break up with his girlfriend. He’s an undercover cop.

A cop sent in to crack down on vice.

And even in Reno—a city famous for debaucher—if you’re a dancer on the lap of an undercover cop, and he asks you for sex, and you say “maybe,” well, even that could get you in hot water.

So how did we get here, exactly?

Well, there’s a battle underway in Reno, one where undercover raids like this one have suddenly become a lot more common.

The city’s power brokers are cracking down on the vice they once tolerated, all while vying for control of some of Reno’s most sought after real estate.

As powerful people fight to remake Reno in their image, the question is: How far are they willing to go? And who will have a place in that new city?

At stake here is Reno’s identity and with it, the very future of the city itself.

I’m Robin Amer and from USA TODAY, this is The City. Season 2: Reno.

ACT 1 

Robin Amer: You may think you know Reno. As the butt of a joke, right? As the degenerate city from Reno 911, perhaps.

Narrator: The new season of Reno 911 is locked—

Character 3: It’s go time.

Narrator: and loaded.

Character 4: Drop down your weapon! You, take your top off.

Late night comedians like Seth Meyers love to take swings at Reno.

Seth Meyers: According to a new list, the least happy city in America is St. Petersburg, Florida. But that's only because Reno, Nevada finally killed itself.

Robin Amer: The Muppets even ragged on Reno. It was kind of heartbreaking for people who live there. In The Muppets movie, Fozzie Bear tells Kermit the Frog that he’s afraid to go back to his job as a washed-up entertainer doing gigs at a dumpy casino.

Fozzie: I really don’t want to go back to Reno.

Robin Amer: Despite the jokes, over the years Reno has survived by embracing vice as a powerful economic engine.

Adults would come to Reno to do what they couldn’t do at home: get a quickie divorce, gamble, even pay for sex, back in the days when prostitution was legal inside city limits. You might say that Reno was Vegas before Vegas was Vegas.

But now, Reno is reinventing itself. And it’s starting to become what a lot of folks are calling the “New Reno.”

Mayor Hillary Schieve: We are truly experiencing a Reno revival. National media outlets are talking about us, like the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, CBS This Morning.

Robin Amer: That’s Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve during a campaign debate late last year.

And she’s right. A bunch of national media outlets have all run stories celebrating that revival, noting Reno’s scenic landscape, or its trendy new bars, or its thriving art scene, or its top-ranked research university.

But it’s not just the media that’s been paying attention. Reno has recently caught the eye of Silicon Valley.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: We are truly rebranding this city and companies like Tesla, Amazon, and Apple are all building and investing right here.

Robin Amer: And that’s propelling the city into a period of epic change.

City boosters in Reno are looking to cash in on this big-tech gold rush, and it’s sparked a battle here that may feel familiar to you—a battle that might be happening in your city.

But this battle has a twist that’s just so Reno. And it’s pitting this stubborn and once revered strip club owner against a new regime of well-connected developers, and political operatives, and city leaders who’ve decided that the strip clubs are standing in the way—not just of progress, but of their ability to cash in on that progress.

That’s the story we’re going to tell this season on The City. And our guide to that story is Anjeanette Damon, an investigative reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal.

She’s spent the last year and a half looking into the fight over Reno’s strip clubs. And this season, she’ll take us inside those strip clubs—and inside Tesla, a company driving the change at the root of this fight. Along the way we’ll meet the people at risk of losing their footing in the fight for Reno’s future.

Here’s Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: So I’m standing in the middle of Midtown. It’s this an eclectic little neighborhood that’s just south of the big, aging casinos downtown. You can kind of see the snow-capped mountains that surround the city of Reno. Down the street is my favorite bottle shop, Craft—it’s kind of the bar where everybody knows you name, so to speak. Across the street is Two Chicks. It’s a great breakfast joint that started out as a food truck.

I grew up in this city. I built a career as an investigative journalist. And to a certain extent, the geography of this city is marked by the stories that I’ve told over the years. So north of here is the county jail where I uncovered a string of deaths that the sheriff at the time was trying to keep quiet. And just up the road from that is a traffic signal that they installed after a series of stories I did documenting pedestrian after pedestrian who were killed in that intersection.

But in 20 years of reporting in this town, one place I had not been was inside a Reno strip club.

Reno has a bunch of strip clubs, but the biggest and most famous is the Wild Orchid. It sits in an old hotel-casino in between downtown and Midtown. The front part of the building, where the casino was, is now the strip club. It’s big and windowless with a white-stucco facade.

The hotel is still there, too—six-stories of varying shades of tan. It’s now mostly housing for low-income residents but still rents out nightly rooms when the rest of the city’s hotels fill up.

The whole thing is surrounded by a sea of cracked asphalt.

This place is gaudy, decaying, and sits on one of the most sought-after corners in the city. Gentrification has crept right up to the edge of this strip club. And so has the interest of developers.

Anjeanette Damon: Alright, are we rolling?

Fil Corbitt: We’re rolling.

Anjeanette Damon: It's the middle of the day, so it's not actually open...

Anjeanette Damon: I step from the afternoon sun into the dark club and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust.

The proprietor of the Wild Orchid is a guy named Kamy Keshmiri.

Kamy and his family own three of the four strip clubs in downtown Reno: The Wild Orchid, Fantasy Girls, and the Spice House—the club visited by the undercover cops at the top of the episode.

You could call Kamy Reno’s strip club kingpin.

Kamy isn’t here yet, but his lawyer, Mark Thierman, is.

Mark Thierman: Kamy should be here any minute.

Anjeanette Damon: OK, good.

Mark Thierman: Do you want half a sandwich? I only had half.

Anjeanette Damon: Oh, no thank you.

Anjeanette Damon: Mark is a constant presence at the Wild Orchid, and he’ll turn out to be a key player in Kamy’s dispute with the city. He’s a 60-something lawyer from New York, with a ruddy complexion, a bit of a potbelly and an affinity for profanity. He also loves to date strippers.

Anjeanette Damon: Hey, is that your Tesla out front?

Mark Thierman: Yeah.

Anjeanette Damon: Nice.

Anjeanette Damon: Tesla’s all-electric cars stand out in Reno these days. They’re a symbol of the fledgling New Reno economy. And Tesla is the company that is most actively changing the face of the city. Its giant battery factory on the outskirts of town employs thousands of people here.

As Mark continues eating his sandwich, I take a look around the room. The chairs are drab and stained. The carpet is spotted with smashed chewing gum. The Wild Orchid’s main stage dominates the middle of the room. It’s empty, save for the stripper pole that glistens with oily fingerprints from the night before.

I’d never actually met Kamy Keshmiri in person before. But I’ve known of him for years. When I was a teenager, Kamy was a superstar athlete, setting national records as a discus thrower. He was regularly on the front page of the local newspaper.

Now when people talk about him, they use words like “bully,” and “stubborn.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of him.

Mark Thierman: Hey Kamy.

Kamy Keshmiri: Sorry, I was—

Mark Thierman: That's OK.

Kamy Keshmiri: —I was thinking about the game yesterday.

Mark Thierman: You lost track of time.

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy is really into sports. And the man is almost always dressed in athletic clothes. I’ve seen him in jeans maybe once or twice, but other than that: track suits. He’s wearing them at city council hearings. Court appearances. Business meetings. Today, it’s a nylon shirt and shorts and a Nevada ball cap.

At age 50, he still sports a shock of black hair, which he usually keeps shaved into this manic mohawk of sorts. And he’s a giant of a man. He has biceps that look like they could heave a Buick onto its side.

But here, I’ll let him describe himself:

Kamy Keshmiri: I'm 6’3”, 245 pounds. I stay very active. I spend, you know, 12, 14 hours a week in the gym, so…

Anjeanette Damon: How big are your biceps?

Kamy Keshmiri: I’ve got some muscles. Twenty, 21, 21-inch arms. I used to have 36-inch thighs, 24-inch arms, 30-inch waist, 305 pounds.

Anjeanette Damon: Wow.

Kamy Keshmiri: Yeah, I used to bench almost 600 pounds.

Anjeanette Damon: But I’m not here about Kamy’s muscles. I’m here to see the club.

Anjeanette Damon: Can you show me around?

Kamy Keshmiri: Sure! I'd love to show you around!

Anjeanette Damon: Kamy, his brother Jamy, and their father opened the Wild Orchid in the late ‘90s and it’s still got that distinctly ‘90s feel—purple velour upholstery and glowing hot pink lights.

Kamy Keshmiri: And we thought, at the time, it was, you know, it's a little dated now,  but give the citizens of Reno a little Vegas. Just touch of Vegas.

Anjeanette Damon: Despite the drab condition of the place, Kamy’s proud of it. The Wild Orchid is the crown jewel in his strip club empire. Its prominent location gives him access to tourists tourists, as opposed to his other clubs that cater more to locals.

Mark jumps in:

Mark Thierman: We're a destination. The destination is downtown Reno. People are coming in to play downtown Reno. They want a little bit naughty. They want some nice. They wanna go skiing...

Anjeanette Damon: The club’s condition becomes really obvious when we wander to the back to these private booths—the place where guys pay extra for a private lap dance. Water drips from the ceiling.

Kamy Keshmiri: I know. I think we have a water issue or something here.

Anjeanette Damon: Is it dripping?

Kamy Keshmiri: Yeah, we get water sometimes. Sometimes we get a leak here and there. Um, so anyways, my guys will fix it. Old building.

Anjeanette Damon: This place is the epitome of old Reno—the kind of place Fozzie Bear dreaded being stuck in.

Anjeanette Damon: You never updated it?

Kamy Keshmiri: We wanted to update. We were planning on going through a major updating about two years ago. And then all of a sudden here, we got slapped with, the city wants to get rid of us, and that kind of derailed our plans for remodeling. But we were in the process of remodeling the whole club and then this came about, so we halted that.

Anjeanette Damon:  When Kamy says “this came about,” he’s talking about the city’s attack on his clubs.

When I first went to talk with Kamy at the Wild Orchid last spring, the undercover raid hadn’t happened yet. But Kamy was already under attack. He said he’d been deflecting low-ball offers from developers who wanted to buy the Wild Orchid property. One guy had offered a million dollars for the property, but Kamy says he won’t sell for less than 30 million.

He was also fending off rumors that his clubs are dens of sex trafficking and drugs. Undercover cops had been creeping into his clubs trying to find proof of illegal activity.

But perhaps the biggest threat to Kamy was that the once hands-off Reno City Council had suddenly raised the prospect of passing new laws that would make it very difficult for him to stay in business, including one that would force him to move his clubs out of downtown altogether.

We’ll get to those new laws a little later.

But Kamy insists the city has no reason to be after him. There’s no prostitution here. No drugs, he says. He runs a clean establishment, where guys can just come and have fun.

Kamy Keshmiri: The only thing that's being massaged is their egos. Nothing else.

Anjeanette Damon: So, in your view, Kamy, why do you think they're trying to kick you off this corner?

Kamy Keshmiri: I don’t know why. I mean, I think there's just certain people that just do not like what we do. And they felt, let's start lying to people with sex trafficking, because that's the hot word these days, which absolutely has nothing to do with our business. They're lying to people.

It doesn’t make any sense. I've never, I've been in this business 23 years. I've never had one incident, one case, one person, one issue of sex traffic, not one. I never even thought it was ever—I couldn't even fathom, even think it was an issue, other than the lies that I'm hearing that people, they're feeding people, because they have nothing to go on. There's no records. There's no reports. There's no police act... There's nothing. So what do you do? Lie. 

Anjeanette Damon: Yeah, he gets a little worked up about it. In fact, Kamy gets worked up a lot. Almost every time I’ve interviewed him, we’ve arrived at a moment like this, where his breath comes in quick gasps, sweat collects at the edge of his nose, and his eyes bug out a little bit.

This is really personal for Kamy. They’re going after his livelihood, but it’s more than that. It’s an affront to his status as one of Old Reno’s favorite sons. He believes he deserves better.

Kamy Keshmiri: Makes me angry. Yeah, because I'm born here. I mean, I'm a Hall of Fame athlete. I don't know how many people drive around with the Hall of Fame license plates. I went to school here. I'm three-time NCAA champion. I’m number one in the world in my sport. I've always been pro-Reno. I've grown up in this town. And for them to do this to me, it puts, makes me bitter.

Anjeanette Damon: It’s not just Kamy who has been affected by the effort to shut down the clubs. Nearly 175 women are licensed to dance topless in Reno.

Take Stephanie, the dancer who sat in the undercover cop’s lap at the top of the episode.

By that point, she had been working at the Spice House for a couple of months. The Spice House, which sits on the eastern edge of downtown up against the railroad tracks, has the lowest profile of Kamy’s three clubs.

I’ve spent a lot of time there with Stephanie, trying to get a sense of what life is like as a stripper in Reno.

DJ: Alright, put your hands together for Stephanie! That girl is lookin’ good up there. Show her some attention, fellas. Remember, $20 gets ya a lap dance.

Anjeanette Damon: At the moment, she’s swirling provocatively around a pole on the main stage at the Spice House, dressed in a black lacy teddy and shimmering seven-inch platform stilettos that she calls her “mermaid shoes.”

But when she arrived at work, she was in her real life clothes—stretchy yoga pants, a warm sweatshirt, and Uggs. It was a cold spring day and I met her in the parking lot.

Anjeanette Damon: Hi!

Stephanie: Hi!

Anjeanette Damon: Your poor little car's covered in ice.

Stephanie: Yeah.

Anjeanette Damon: How was the drive?

Stephanie: Um, long.

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie actually lives in a small town in California’s Central Valley, about 200 miles to the west of Reno. She drives three hours through the scenic Sierra Nevada mountain range to get to the Spice House.

Again, Stephanie isn’t her real name. She agreed to talk to me on the condition I only use her stage name. She doesn’t want people in her small hometown to know what she does for a living.

Stephanie's a single mom in her mid-20s who spends most of the week with her two young daughters. On Friday mornings, she hands them off to her ex and heads to Reno.

The long drive is worth it for her. The guys in the California clubs, they aren’t as nice. Don’t tip as well.

Stephanie’s worked a bunch of different minimum wage jobs, from repoing cars to food service.

Stephanie: But that job, I only made like $300 like a week, maybe. Maybe even less sometimes.

Anjeanette Damon: Wow. How much do you make in the clubs?

Stephanie: Right now it's a little slow because it's, like, wintertime. And so, like, right now, on a good night, I can make from, like, $500 to $700. But during the summer, like, I can make like, $1,000, like a night. Like, on a good night.

Anjeanette Damon: Stephanie is doing this because it’s important for her to make enough money to raise her girls. She wants to provide a more stable life for her daughters than she had growing up.

So she puts up with a lot at the club. Guys who treat dancers like trash because they strip for a living. Guys who get handsy in the back. Guys who want more than just that lap dance.

Anjeanette Damon: Do you often get customers asking you for sex in the back?

Stephanie: Um, yeah. There has been a few and I just always tell them no. And they still buy dances. So, and, you know, if anything were to happen, I can, I walk out. I've had guys give me condoms before, and I tell them, “I can't do that. Like, I'm sorry.” And you know, they beg you, but I'm... First of all, I just, I'm not going to do that, you know? Second of all, I'm not trying to lose my job. Like, that's my job. Like, there's nothing more important than my job, because it's what I, how I take care of my kids.

Anjeanette Damon: But Stephanie’s job, her very livelihood, is at risk. If the clubs shut down, her job goes with them.

One afternoon when I’m with her in the dancers locker room upstairs at the Spice House she expresses that indignation.

Stephanie: Just trying to shut us down for no reason. I think it's, like, ridiculous. Like, I just don't understand it.

Anjeanette Damon: I don’t understand it either. The city is clearly trying to shut down the clubs. But for what reason?

Is stripping suddenly too unseemingly for a city that made its name monetizing vice?

Is this just a matter of a big, gaudy strip club on a high profile corner reminding some people of the Reno they’d rather not be?

Is it about getting a stubborn landowner out of the picture so developers can swoop in?

That’s exactly what I’m trying to figure out.

Robin Amer: Up next, as Anjeanette looks for answers, she learns about what happened before the cops tried busting Kamy’s clubs. When local powerbrokers assembled behind the scenes to deal with the Wild Orchid.

That’s after the break.

ACT 2 

Robin Amer: OK, here’s Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: The movement against the strip clubs in Reno is not some kind of organized campaign with defined leaders. Things are rarely so organized here.

Instead, the people lining up against Kamy are more like a loosely networked coalition of interests.

You’ve got Mike Kazmierski, a West Point grad, former military commander from Colorado Springs. He runs the region’s primary economic development agency.

To him, the strip clubs are the epitome of that stubborn image of Reno as a degenerate city—an image that stands in the way of his mission, which is to attract new and expanding companies to the city.

He sees the Wild Orchid in particular as a boil on the face of an otherwise vibrant urban neighborhood. Mike Kazmierski will go out of his way to avoid letting his clients see the strip club. He explained it to me one afternoon while driving through Midtown.

Mike Kazmierski: I think it's an embarrassment to our community, and it's something that I believe we should have done something about a long time ago. They should not be defining us.

Anjeanette Damon: Then there’s Melissa Holland. She runs an anti-sex trafficking non-profit called Awaken. She sees the strip clubs as fertile territory for sex traffickers and a dangerous entry point for women to the sex industry.

She’s actually kind of a crusader for the sex trade, both legal and illegal. There’s no grey area for her.

Melissa Holland: They all look the same. It's all these violent acts against women. It's all power differentials. It's all exploitive. It's all privileged men getting to do whatever they want to women because they have money.

Anjeanette Damon: And then there’s developer Par Tolles.  Par isn’t anti-strip club per se. Not in the way Mike Kazmierski and Melissa Holland are. Though he is married to a Nevada assemblywoman who’s very active with Awaken.

Par has more of a dollars and cents interest in seeing the Wild Orchid ousted. He and his business partner have bought up a bundle of properties in Midtown. Two of their largest Midtown developments sit within a block of the club.

When Par looks at the Wild Orchid, he sees opportunity.

Par Tolles: They have a goldmine there. We've all tried to buy it. We've all made offers. And they could redevelop that into a really, really interesting boutique hotel-apartment. It doesn't have to be what it is. And I don't know the owners. I know, I know them by reputation, and they've kind of put a middle finger to the city and to the city council, and they're gonna fight it to the end.

Anjeanette Damon: When this loose coalition of folks—Par and Mike and Melissa—need something done, they all turn to one woman: Abbi Whitaker.

Abbi Whitaker: Hi!

Anjeanette Damon: I went to visit Abbi in her Midtown office on one of Reno’s perfect fall days.

With me on my trip to visit Abbi is field producer Fil Corbitt.

Abbi Whitaker: Have we met before?

Fil Corbitt: We may have.

Abbi Whitaker: You were at the Tesla event I believe.

Fill Corbitt: Yes! Yes, I was. Yeah. Yeah.

Anjeanette Damon: Abbi Whitaker is perhaps the greatest driving force behind Reno’s rebranding effort. She runs her own PR firm, and she’s made her name pushing the narrative of new Reno in the national press. She’s also close friends with the mayor. Oh, and Tesla has hired her, too.

She does like to rib us about the age old tiff between journalists and PR people.

Abbi Whitaker: Well, welcome to the other side—the dark side—where things are spun and stories are created and messaging is tweaked!

Anjeanette Damon: Despite her small stature, Abbi Whitaker is a big personality. She’s brash. She’s self-made. She loves to swear. She’s not afraid of a fight. And despite the fact that she’s taken up the anti-strip-club mantle, she’s not a prude, either.

Abbi Whitaker: I, for one day, until my mother found out, I worked on the phone sex line. And you were not allowed to say the real words. So we would use words like “chocolate pot” and “banana” and “melons.” I mean, I could give you...

Anjeanette Damon: One of Abbi’s most valuable PR clients is Mike Kazmierski, the former military commander turned economic development director.

Abbi and Mike, they have the same goal: They want to scrub the smut off the face of downtown Reno. But they differ a bit on how and why to do it. Abbi doesn’t think strip clubs necessarily stand in the way of economic development. But she does think the Wild Orchid is an eyesore and she’s frustrated Kamy doesn’t seem to be doing much about it.

Abbi Whitaker: For me, I don't know if the strip club is as pivotal to becoming the New Reno. People collaborating and working together and not digging their heels in on what they might have been able to get years ago and they want to keep it and it has to always be this way? That is not going to cut it anymore in Reno.

Anjeanette Damon: So back in 2015, before the Reno City Council got involved, Abbi thought maybe she could strike a compromise between the Wild Orchid and those New Reno boosters.

If she could just get in a room with Kamy Keshmiri maybe she could talk him into, at the very least, classing up the joint.

Abbi Whitaker: I would think I was one of the first people to go and say, “Hey guys, this could turn out—this could get cray cray, right? So, um, let's figure out a solution.” Like, everybody deserves a right to run their business. I get that. Like, I have no problem with your business. I have a problem with the fact that my kid sits at Truckee Bagel and has to look at that sign and then ask me....”

Anjeanette Damon: So about that sign. Back in 2011, Kamy put up a particularly salacious digital sign in front of the Wild Orchid. This sign, on one of Midtown’s key intersections, would flash video of gyrating strippers and ads for topless jello fights.

That really pissed off the neighbors.

Anyway, Abbi didn’t know Kamy, but she did know his brother, Jamy. The two run in some of the same social circles.

Abbi Whitaker: I was like an intermediary. I'm like, hey, you know, Jamy Keshmiri is a nice guy. I'm like, let me go talk to him. So he was like, “You could totally come in and talk to my brother.” He's like, “I don't know how far you're going to get, but totally, Abbi. Come in.” So he got me a meeting.

Anjeanette Damon: Abbi said she went to Kamy’s regular Thursday afternoon staff meeting, when he and Jamy and Mark and the managers of the three clubs assemble in a back office of the hotel to go over business.

She thought she could help them brainstorm some marketing ideas for the club. Maybe slip in some suggestions about fitting in better in Midtown while she was at it.

But Abbi and the strip club folks, they were not on the same page.

Abbi Whitaker: I listened to them talk about their different marketing ideas: throwing powdered donuts at Black girls on stage. Maybe like choking midgets in lingerie could be like some great ways.

Anjeanette Damon: Abbi was appalled. These ideas were offensive and demeaning—not the kind of thing she would sign on to.

When it was her turn to talk, Abbi brought up the sign. Hey guys, how about you know, dropping the gyrating stripper videos?

Abbi said it didn’t go well. A dancer who was in the room for the meeting laid into her.

Abbi Whitaker: This stripper started screaming at me and yelling at me, and she’s like, “We could put way worse things on that sign. You're just jealous because your husband drives by and looks at that sign and he doesn't look at you.” And then Kamy was like, “We could make it so much worse, duh duh duh.” And I'm like, alright. I'm like, “This isn't going to go anywhere.”

Anjeanette Damon: When I later ran this by Kamy, he said he had a vague memory of Abbi attending a meeting. But he flat out denied that anyone on his staff suggested throwing donuts at black dancers.

Kamy Keshmiri: First of all, that’s, I wouldn't, I couldn't even think of something like that. And if somebody brought that up in this meeting, I would fire them if they work for me or I would have thrown them out if they didn't. That's disrespectful. Why would I ever think of something like that? I don't even know how to respond to that. I mean, honestly that's so, to me, grotesque. 

Anjeanette Damon: In any case, Abbi’s prodding didn’t work.

The sign stayed up. And Kamy was as alienated from New Reno as he’d ever been.

But two months later, something unexpected happened.

Neoma Jardon: Thank you. Just an update...

Anjeanette Damon:  It was at the end of a Reno City Council meeting. Almost off handedly, a councilwoman named Neoma Jardon says, hey, I think we should consider a moratorium on new strip clubs.

Neoma Jardon: And the other one that was brought up earlier and brings about a bigger conversation is an L-item to bring back a moratorium on adult entertainment as we study things in our downtown core and become a university town. We, I think, should be looking at this.

Anjeanette Damon: That got my attention. Why ask for a moratorium on new strip clubs? It’s not like the city was suddenly fielding a rush of people who wanted to open up strip clubs in town.

People in the community had been irritated about the Wild Orchid’s sign, but no one was complaining to the council about strip clubs in general, at least not publicly.

But these imaginary new clubs weren’t the real target. The real targets were the clubs already in business downtown. Clubs like Kamy’s.

Robin Amer: After the break, Reno’s City Council makes a move.

ACT 3

Robin Amer: Let’s go back to Anjeanette.

Anjeanette Damon: Abbi’s message to Kamy had been simple.

Abbi Whitaker: If you're making money and you're doing well, like, follow the rules. Follow the law. Don't be an asshole. Don't be a bad neighbor and we can all live harmoniously together to some degree.

Anjeanette Damon: But Kamy appeared to have rejected that approach. And he was unapologetic. So Abbi's side changed tactics. If they couldn't get Kamy to clean up his act, and they couldn't buy him out, maybe Reno’s City Council could force Kamy and his clubs out of downtown.

Abbi Whitaker: Like, dude, like, they can move you! They can legally move you!

Anjeanette Damon: Reno City Councilwoman Neoma Jardon’s proposal to bar new strip clubs from opening up in the city gave the council time to consider more restrictive laws to regulate those new clubs.

Existing businesses like Kamy’s are usually protected from such changes, something called grandfathering. And so initially, Kamy and his family weren’t very worried.

But government moves so slowly at times. More than two years had passed between when Councilwoman Jardon brought up the moratorium in 2015 and when the council actually got around to reviewing those proposed regulations in 2017.

And during this time, the city itself had also embarked on a stealth campaign to rid downtown of the existing strip clubs. City staff had been hard at work researching ways to better restrict strip club operations and what came before the City Council in the fall of 2017 weren’t just proposals that would affect new clubs, but proposals that could strangle existing clubs as well.

Clerk: Madam Mayor, we're on item J2.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: Alright, thank you very much. At this time …

Anjeanette Damon: Here’s how it all happened:

It’s September 13, 2017—two years after the proposed the moratorium. The council chamber is packed. Standing room only. Anti-sex trafficking activists are wearing “Yes to Change” buttons. Strippers in street clothes are fuming. Kamy is pacing. Mark Thierman is bouncing on his heels waiting for his turn to speak.

The mayor and six council members sit on a curved dais in the front of the room.

Mayor Hillary Schieve opens the discussion with a warning for the crowd: be nice.

Mayor Hillary Schieve: Really important to respect one another. This is very important, so I don't want to hear any yelling, cheering, clapping. I want you to be respectful on both sides, ‘cause I know that this is going to be a topic that a lot of people are very passionate about.

Anjeanette Damon: Schieve knows tensions are high because the council is set to vote on three big changes that go so much further than just barring new clubs from opening in the city. If they pass, it could completely change the strip club business in Reno.

Here’s what they’re considering.

First, should existing strip clubs be forced to take down their digital signs? This was clearly aimed at Kamy’s Wild Orchid sign.

Second, should existing strip clubs be forced to stop serving alcohol? This could effectively kill the clubs—they make most of their money on booze.

Third, and this one’s a doozy, should downtown strip clubs be forced to close their doors and move to industrial areas of town?

That last one was the biggest surprise to me. In all of the meetings I had sat through, not one council member said: Hey, maybe we should get rid of the clubs we already have! In fact, at a prior meeting, the council rejected a suggestion to force the clubs to move.

And here’s the thing: It’s not easy for a government to shut down a private business. And strip clubs, they enjoy special protection by the First Amendment.

But the Reno City Attorney’s Office had found a legal loophole.

It’s called the secondary effects doctrine—a court ruling that says government can regulate businesses like strip clubs due to their impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

The courts, they’ve generally held that clubs are associated with prostitution, drug trafficking, lowered property values, blight.

In the meeting, Deputy City Attorney Chandeni Sendall explains the secondary effects doctrine to the council like this:

Chandeni Sendall: The Supreme Court has said that cities have the right, local governments have an undeniably important interest, in combating these negative secondary effects. And so they found, case law has found time and time again, over since, since about the late '70s, that done right, governments can restrict and regulate adult businesses.

Anjeanette Damon: But if Reno’s clubs are producing specific secondary effects—prostitution, drug trafficking, lower property values—city staff has very little to say. Despite two years to prepare for this meeting, they offer no police data, no property assessment data, no code enforcement data.

And that’s when Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus drops a bombshell.

Jenny Brekhus: Tell me this: When I did one of my briefings with you all, you had informed me that staff had commissioned a private investigator to go into all of the licensee holders and observe activities there.

Anjeanette Damon: Did you catch that? The city attorney had hired a private investigator to spy on the clubs. Even Reno City Council members didn’t know about it until just days before this meeting.

Jenny Brekhus: Is that in the 522-page attachment, that report? Because I didn't get a copy of it. I've just been informed about it.

Anjeanette Damon: The city attorney’s office was not expecting the council to talk about this report in public. They wanted the report to stay secret.

So deputy city attorney Chandeni Sendall gets really nervous when the councilwoman brings it up without warning.

Chandeni Sendall: That was, uh, commissioned under attorney-client privilege, um, basis based on, uh, investigative anticipation of litigation.

But Councilwoman Brekhus keeps pressing. She wants this report out in the open, and part of the public debate.

Jenny Brekhus: But that document, since I've acknowledged the existence of it, and I just, I'm not, I haven't read it, I'm just acknowledging the existence of it, that I've been informed about. Is that a land use report? Crime impact report? Expert reports? Or anecdotal data?

Anjeanette Damon: Chandeni Sendall again says she can’t talk about the report because it’s supposed to be confidential.

At this point, her boss, City Attorney Karl Hall, finally stands up to address the council.

Karl Hall is a soft spoken former prosecutor, who, even on a normal day, doesn’t always look comfortable addressing a room full of people.

He walks from his seat at the front of the room and takes the microphone.

Karl Hall: That is a privileged report. It's attorney work product, and so that is not part of the public record. And the presentation that was made tonight was based on secondary effects and council direction. So in preparation for litigation, we did some further investigation, and that’s where we’re leaving it.

Anjeanette Damon: Karl Hall is saying he hired the private investigator to prepare the city for a lawsuit. But there is no lawsuit. At least not yet.

So this meeting takes hours to get through.

Kamy and his posse of friends, they’re not even sitting in council chambers anymore. They weren’t even in the room when the private investigator bombshell is dropped.

They’ve taken up some tables in the lobby. And every once in a while they send in an emissary to argue a point before council. But they don’t think it’s going very well for them.

And in the end, it doesn’t go well for them. At all.

Hillary Schieve: OK, it is getting late. So all those in favor, say aye.

Council: Aye.

Hillary Schieve: All those opposed, no.

Council: No.

Hillary Schieve: Alright, the motion carries.

Anjeanette Damon: The council votes 5 to 2 to give city staff the go ahead to draft all three of the ordinances that were up for consideration: the one to get rid of the digital sign. The one to end alcohol in strip clubs. And in a final blow to Kamy, the one to force the clubs to move out of downtown and into industrial areas within five years.

As someone who has sat through a lot of city council meetings, believe me when I say this one was extraordinary. I haven’t seen anything like it in two decades of government reporting.

I don’t remember ever seeing the city council so blatantly going after a specific private business. And I certainly don’t remember ever seeing the council base a decision like this on a secret report by a private investigator.

In essence, what happened here is the Reno City Attorney went to the city council and asked them to make a momentous decision on whether businesses that had been in their locations for decades should be forced to shut their doors and move to a new neighborhood, all on the basis of a secret report. A secret report generated not by the city police department or a city analyst. A report compiled by a private investigator.

Reno City Attorney Karl Hall, he didn’t want the public to see this report. He didn’t even want the public to know he had hired a private investigator to begin with.

Before the city council meeting even ended, I knew what I had to do: I had to get my hands on that report.

And Kamy? Kamy had plans of his own.

Kamy Keshmiri: I handle things in a different way. You know, I don't, I just, I just be patient. There'll be a time when I get my revenge. I'll just wait.

Anjeanette Damon: What do you mean by that? Like, what kind of revenge?

Kamy Keshmiri: I don't know. I don’t know. I just, I mean, I'm bitter. I mean, I feel like this is wrong. I've done nothing wrong. I'm being persecuted, and the worst thing to do is get angry and do something stupid. I just wait.

Robin Amer: This season on The City...

Abbi Whitaker: I appreciate old Reno, but I also am going to fight tooth and nail for this town to move into the future.

Velma Shoals: This has been a home for my granddaughter since elementary school. We don't want that taken from us. Please don't take that from us.

Stephanie: I don't understand how I could be in this situation. Like, why me?

Kamy Keshmiri: They wanna make me look like the bad guy. Who’s the bad guy?

Tawny: They are fucking liars. They're liars.

Anjeanette Damon: I mean, you really think that they were here to bug your phones?

Mark Thierman: Fuck 'em. They want to see what war is, We’ll show 'em what war is.

Dispatch: [Phone ringing] 911, what's the address of your emergency?

Caller: The Tesla Gigafactory at 1 Electric Avenue.

CREDITS

Robin Amer: The City is a production of USA TODAY and is distributed in partnership with Wondery.

You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now. If you like the show, please rate and review us, and be sure to tell your friends about us.

Our show was reported and produced by Anjeanette Damon, Fil Corbitt, Kameel Stanley, Taylor Maycan, and me, Robin Amer.

Our editors are Amy Pyle and Matt Doig. Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown.

Additional production by Emily Liu, Sam Greenspan, Wilson Sayre, and Jenny Casas.

Legal review by Tom Curley. Launch oversight by Shannon Green.

The Reno Gazette Journal’s executive editor is Brian Duggan.

The USA TODAY Network’s vice president for investigations is Chris Davis. Scott Stein is our VP of product. Our president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.

Special thanks to Liz Nelson, Kelly Scott, and Alicia Barber, whose book on Reno is a must read this season. It’s called Reno's Big Gamble: Image and Reputation in the Biggest Little City.

We’d also like to learn more about you. So we have a short survey at wondery.com/survey. That’s wondery.com/survey.

We’d be really grateful if you took the time to fill this out because you’ll have the chance to tell us what you like about this show, and what you’d like to hear in the future.

I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @thecitypod. Or visit our website. That’s thecitypodcast.com.

Season 2

Trailer

There’s a battle over aging strip clubs in Reno, Nevada, as the city transforms into an offshoot of Silicon Valley. More than a fight over lap dances, this is a proxy battle for the city’s future. Season 2 premieres Oct. 29.

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Trailer

Robin Amer: You may think you know Reno. As the butt of a joke, right? 

It’s been mocked by late-night comedians. It’s been parodied by Reno 911. 

It even had a cringe-worthy cameo in The Muppets movie a few years back. You know it’s pretty bad when puppets start taking shots at you.

And yet, over the years, this casino town at the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains has survived—and even thrived—by embracing vice as a powerful economic engine.

But Las Vegas eventually cornered the market on adult fun. And Reno’s fortunes slowly faded.

That is, until now.

Reno has caught the attention of Silicon Valley. Tesla, Amazon, Apple—they’re all building factories or warehouses there. And now, some of the city’s most powerful people are looking to cash in.

But there’s something standing in their way, something you might not expect. Something that’s just so Reno.

DJ: Yeah, you gotta get that ass over here! All the girls, come and get your spanking! Don’t be shy!

Robin Amer: An aging strip club—one that happens to be sitting on some of Reno’s most sought-after real estate. See, the club is a symbol of Old Reno, and a lot of city boosters want to kick it out of downtown to make way for a new Reno.

Mike Kazmierski: Because I think it's an embarrassment to our community and it's something that I believe we should have done something about a long time ago. They should not be defining us. 

Robin Amer: But the strip clubs are fighting back.

Mark Thierman: Fuck 'em! They want to see what war is, we’ll show 'em what war is. 

Robin Amer: Battles like this one in Reno, to reshape the city's image and redevelop its downtown, are happening in cities around the country—any city where powerful people court big tech in the name of progress.

On Season 2 of The City, we tell the story of the battle for Reno’s future.

We’ll embed inside the strip clubs.

Tawny: Every table is full, standing room only, all five stages going, and you have money and you can make it all night long.

Robin Amer: And take you inside Tesla, a company driving the change that’s at the root of this fight.

Dispatcher: [Phone ringing] 911, what's the address of your emergency?

Caller: The Tesla Gigafactory at 1 Electric Avenue.

Robin Amer: We’ll meet the people ready for a “New Reno.”

Abbi Whitaker: I appreciate Old Reno, but I also am going to fight tooth and nail for this town to move into the future.

Robin Amer: The people fighting to protect the empire they’ve built out of Old Reno.

Kamy Keshmiri: They wanna make me look like the bad guy. Who’s the bad guy? I didn’t start this war.

Robin Amer: And the people caught in the middle.

Velma Shoals: This has been a home for my granddaughter since elementary school. We don't want that taken from us. Please don't take that from us.

Stephanie: I didn't do anything wrong. And I'm just like, it sucks that they had to use me, like, as a pawn. Like, that's not right. Like, you're ruining people's lives. 

Robin Amer: I’m Robin Amer, and from USA TODAY, this is The City, Season 2: Reno. Show drops October 29. Subscribe now for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. 

Press

  • The series provides an impressively sweeping but intimate look at an American city; I began it knowing little about Reno and emerged wanting to know everything.

    The New Yorker