Pubdate: Wed, 28 Nov 2001
Source: News Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2001 The News Herald
Author: David Angier


TALLAHASSEE - The party will go on.

After just 75 minutes of deliberation, jurors in the Club La Vela federal 
drug trial came back with not guilty verdicts on all charges Tuesday.

"We're very pleased with the verdict," defense attorney Todd Foster said 
outside the courthouse. Foster's words downplayed the release of emotion 
that Patrick, Thorsten and Gerlende Pfeffer displayed after the verdict was 

Patrick and Thorsten Pfeffer had been charged, along with the club's 
corporate owner Sea Watch of Panama City Beach Inc., with conspiring to use 
the club, or allow it to be used, for the consumption and distribution of 
drugs. Gerlende Pfeffer, Patrick and Thorsten's mother, is the sole 
shareholder of the corporation.

When U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle declared all parties 
acquitted, in accordance with the jury's verdict, the Pfeffers embraced 
each other and their lawyers.

Foster said he was bolstered when the jury came back quickly.

"I thought a quick decision would favor the defense," he said.

The Pfeffers and corporation were charged with two crimes each. First, 
making the club available for the use or distribution of drugs and second, 
conspiring to make the club available for these purposes.

On the first count of the indictment, jurors needed to agree that the 
Pfeffers had made the building available just once for someone to use 
drugs; or they needed to agree that the Pfeffers had allowed someone to 
distribute drugs on the property just once.

To convict on the second count, the conspiracy charge, jurors would have 
had to find that some plan had been formulated, even an unspoken agreement, 
around 1995 to open the club up for drug use or distribution.

The prosecution put on more than 60 witnesses, some saying they had used 
drugs with Patrick or Thorsten Pfeffer in the club, others saying they had 
distributed thousands of doses of drugs.

But Foster said the prosecution's case was built on lies.

"It's not surprising to see people come up and lie to avoid jail time," he 

That was a common theme in the three defense attorneys' closing arguments 
Monday and Tuesday. They maintained that drug dealers, former club 
employees accused of dealing drugs, and drug users had lied on the stand to 
avoid prosecution or lengthy jail terms.

Thorsten Pfeffer's attorney, Robert Harper, didn't mince words in his 
description of a key witness against his client.

"William Brown is a self-serving liar and a thug," Harper told jurors in 
his closing statement. "You should reject his testimony, as it is a lie."

Harper said a small clique of people were using and distributing drugs in 
the club without management's knowledge. He said this wasn't a case of 
negligence, so jurors couldn't convict if they believed only that the 
Pfeffers hadn't done enough to stop the problem.

Harper said the dealers and the employees who dealt drugs did so in secret 
and had kept their activities from law enforcement officers investigating 
the club.

"People are gonna have to be responsible for their own acts," Harper said. 
"You can't hold Thorsten Pfeffer to a higher standard."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Miller ended the closing statements by saying 
the drug problem at La Vela was broader than just a small clique.

"More than 30 percent of the heart and guts of this staff was dealing in 
drug activities," Miller said.

He said the Pfeffers' reason for allowing drug dealing in the club was to 
bring more people in and make it the largest nightclub in the nation - 
which La Vela bills itself as. Miller said to do that, the brothers needed 
to reach out to an emerging "rave" culture that uses designer drugs like 

Foster had argued that the club made no money from drug use - that it only 
cut into profits from the legitimate, multi-million-dollar business of 
selling alcohol.

Miller said the real money-maker at the club was the front door. He said 
more than 50 percent of the club's profits came from the cover charge.

"The heart and soul of this business is getting bodies into this business," 
Miller said. Once inside, he said, even drug-using patrons would buy some 
amounts of alcohol.

The not-guilty verdict ends the criminal case against the Pfeffers, but 
there is a federal lawsuit that must be decided. The Pfeffers sued the Bay 
County Sheriff's Office and Panama City Beach Police Department over their 
investigation of the club.

That suit was put on hold until the criminal proceeding was completed.

Foster concluded his statements to the press by saying that the club would 
be hiring the best security people available and doing the best it could to 
eliminate the drug problem.

During testimony last week, new chief of security Paul Winterman, a former 
Panama City police investigator, told of efforts he's already made to 
improve the situation at the club.

Foster said the Pfeffers are looking forward to working with the people of 
Panama City Beach to be "good neighbors."
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