WARNING: The video above includes footage of a sexual nature. Viewer discretion is advised.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A deadly shooting in 2017 at a nightclub called the Black Pearl turned life upside down for everyone involved. That shooting led to the closure of the business, but the owner said he was shut down unjustly.
It's been a saga to say the least.
Sheriff Leon Lott said the Broad River Road business was operating as an illegal strip club, but the owner said he ran his business within the county guidelines.
Before we get too far into things, here’s a quick timeline of events:
- 2016 - Black Pearl issued business license as “drinking and eating” place
- Jan. 2017 - Door-girl Denise Robinson cited for “Unlicensed Business Activity”
- March 2017 - Jason Sanders cited for “Operating a Sexually Oriented Business Without A License,” after RCSD and Zoning came to the business
- March 2017 - Stripper pole comes down inside the club
- April 2017 - Black Pearl business license renewal denied
- Dec. 20, 2017 - Two men killed in shooting in Black Pearl’s parking lot. The business never re-opens
- Dec. 2017 - Stop-Work Order placed
- Jan. 2018 - Temporary Injunction placed on property
- Feb. 6, 2018 - Denise Robinson gets "not guilty" verdict for her citation
- Feb. 19, 2019 - Permanent Injunction placed on property. It’s also found to be a “Public Nuisance”
- May 7, 2019 - Citation originally given to Jason Sanders gets "not guilty" verdict
- Dec. 2019- Black Pearl owner files $1.8 million lawsuit against the county
Now, the owner of the Black Pearl and his legal team said they're looking to get restitution for a business they believe was unlawfully shut down.
So -- what if it looks like a strip club and it sounds like a strip club, but the line of legality is as thin as a G-string?
“If you’re going to operate, operate the way it’s supposed to -- don’t do something illegal,” Sheriff Lott said about the Black Pearl’s owner. “Take some responsibility of what’s going on at your business.”
But Mark Whitlark, the attorney for the Black Pearl, said when it comes to attire at a sexually-oriented business, the rules are “not clearly delineated in these ordinances.”
The Black Pearl was shut down in 2017 for allegedly operating as an illegal sexually-oriented business.
“They were looking for nudity and sexually-oriented business stuff,” Whitlark said. “It wasn’t in there. It just wasn’t there.”
“It was a shootout, justifiable, people were shooting at each other,” Lott said. “There was an argument. Both of them had guns, illegally had guns, and they got into a shootout. But again, the club is what attracted them there. It’s what was going on inside the club that caused the shooting to happen afterward. So the club has to have some responsibility and that’s what a circuit court judge decided.”
The Black Pearl was zoned as a restaurant and had a full-service menu. But Lott said some of their other services aren’t what you’d expect to see over dinner.
“That’s not a restaurant. That’s a strip club. The ladies were dancing. They were nude,” the sheriff said. “It’s a strip club. You just have to admit it’s a strip club.”
The Black Pearl's owner, Scott McMillan, and business manager, Jason Sanders, argue there's nothing in the county ordinance that says women can't dance for tips in bikinis at a restaurant.
"There is nothing illegal about having a stripper pole. There was a stripper pole at the Super Bowl," McMillan said. "Is the Richland County Council going to call up the Super Bowl? You understand how ludicrous this is, right?"
Sanders argues that they pushed the boundaries, but didn’t cross any legal lines.
“If the speed limit is 65 and we’re doing 63, we’re not speeding,” Sanders said. "That’s something that has stuck with us. We did what the law allows us to do. I think Richland County is antiquated in its way that it looks at things. It’s closed-minded. If you have money on the floor and you have a girl dancing in a bikini, it’s deemed a strip club and that’s simply not true.”
Whitlark argues that there's ambiguity in the wording of the ordinance of what's allowed and what's not.
By county ordinances, a strip club is most distinctly identified in Richland County by the verbiage in this ordinance: “(j) Nude or a State of Nudity. The showing of the human male or female genitals, pubic area, vulva, anus, anal cleft or cleavage or the showing of bare female breasts. This definition shall not include the act of a female breast-feeding a child in a public place; nor to infants or toddlers in a public place, nor to exposure of the human female breasts above a horizontal line across the top of the areola exhibited by a dress, blouse, shirt or other similar wearing apparel; nor to exposure of cleavage of the human female breasts exhibited by a dress, blouse, shirt, or similar wearing apparel.”
The Black Pearl’s team argues that because their dancers wore bottoms -- albeit skimpy -- they’re still allowed.
"The place is akin to a Hooters or a Twin Peaks or something like that," Whitlark said. "The girls were wearing sexy outfits, but they weren’t allowed to strip and they certainly weren’t allowed to do the things we were accused of."
McMillan added: “Anyone can be subjective about how they read it and that was the whole point of the whole thing.”
But Sheriff Lott provided WIS a video of two nude women performing on stage at the club. He said it is clear evidence that the Black Pearl was operating illegally.
“They opened as a restaurant,” Lott said. “I think you saw those videos. There was no one eating steak and potatoes at that restaurant at that time or any other videos that we showed.”
Whitlark and McMillan said this video was taken after hours. They argue since money wasn’t being made, it doesn’t fall under the confines of a business zoning ordinance.
"There's nothing in the ordinance that says 'You can't do this while you're closed,'" he said. "It's got to be open to the public, in my opinion, in order for there to be some type of violation."
McMillan said the videos provided by the sheriff are dated by the pole on the stage.
He said, in March of 2017, the pole was removed from the stage to help adjust the optics of the business appearing to be a strip club. McMillan claims that anytime after that, he made sure the rules during and after-hours were stricter.
“Maybe I should have done a better job of taking control of the situation,” he said. “After we saw what was going on at nighttime, I would write on the employee message board, that I would look at the surveillance video and, if anyone was getting naked, I would fire everyone that was in the building -- including management.”
As we enter another stage of a battle that's been going on for more than two years, McMillan said the allegations against him and the closure of his business have spun his life into a whirlwind.
“I would think that does carry some kind of mental anguish along the way,” he said. “And then to have the sheriff of the county you live in accuse you of murder, death and mayhem, I don’t know. You tell me how I should feel.”
Lott said he’s not apologizing. He said he did his job and the rest is up to the courts.
“A circuit court shut them down,” he said. “The county presented evidence and a circuit court shut them down. They plagued that community. People died. They were operating illegally. I can’t apologize for enforcing the law and keeping the community safe.”
The folks from the Black Pearl liken what happened the night the video of the nude women was taken to owning a bar and closing at last call -- but offering a free drink after hours to your friends who are still hanging behind.
WIS spoke to a legal expert who said that’s a good point, but he doubted a jury would buy the idea that the Black Pearl was closed in the video, considering the sheriff had possession of the clip.
Folks from the Black Pearl also sent WIS pictures of an extremely well-known Richland County deputy at the club on multiple occasions, off-duty. The deputy is seen taking selfie-style and posed photos. Their argument is if the club is such a hot spot for violence and crime, why would a deputy hang out there?
RCSD responded, saying “employees of the department are prohibited from patronizing any sexually-oriented business within the geographical boundaries of Richland County. This does not apply if they are in there working i.e. undercover.”
This lawsuit is filed against the county’s Business Service Center and the Zoning Division.
WIS reached out to the county to see if they wanted to comment. Officials said "Richland County generally does not comment on pending litigation.” If an exception is made in this case, they said they’ll let WIS know.