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Branded by scarlet letter, she struggles to recoup her reputation

Melanie Mendez, 29, poses with a cross she normally wears around her neck. She asked that her face be photographed in shadow. Mendez was arrested for prostitution last August.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Melanie Mendez, 29, poses with a cross she normally wears around her neck. She asked that her face be photographed in shadow. Mendez was arrested for prostitution last August.

TAMPA — Melanie Mendez preferred to dance first shift. The business crowd knew how to behave. As soon as the first tipsy customers were coming in the front door, she was headed home out the back. But on Aug. 17 — nine days before the scheduled start of the Republican National Convention — the Ybor City club was packed.

"I had already made over $500 bucks," Mendez said. "Business was good all day that day. It was just dance after dance after dance."

So instead of heading home she ordered pizza and decided to stay a few extra hours.

All the girls knew there were probably cops in the room. A few clubs on Dale Mabry had been busted the night before. Everyone anticipated more raids. "Just take their money when they come because they are going to have money to spend just like everyone else," the club manager had told them.

"My job is to sell fantasy, get money, go home, be happy. Period," Mendez says. She is the spider, they are the fly. Never the other way around.

•••

The DJ called for "Showtime." Mendez left her pizza in the dressing room to join the other girls strutting on stage, their high heels clicking by the customers at eye level.

A man sitting close to the stage asked Mendez for "The Special," three dances for $50. She took him to a booth and placed a clean bandana on his lap.

He barely spoke during the first song. Halfway through the second song, he asked her about the Champagne Room. What went on in there?

She thought he asked too many questions. He got grabby too quickly. He seemed to want to get to the Champagne Room too quickly. She asked him if he was a cop. He said he wasn't.

After three songs the man paid his $50. No extra dances. No trip to the Champagne Room. No tip. That added to her suspicion. Cops never tip; it's taxpayer money.

Mendez went back to her pizza. As she picked at a second slice, black-clad police officers rushed into the club. They identified her by her tattoo, told her to get dressed, cuffed her and put her in the back of a squad car. She fumed. She cursed. She gave them attitude. One cop gave it back.

"$250, is that your going rate, sweetie?" he said.

"Wait, what are you charging me with," she asked.

Prostitution. On the arrest affidavit, an officer alleged that she had "offered to give oral sex for $250."

Prostitution?

"Right then and there I got an anxiety attack," she says. "I knew I was going to be in that jail mug shot paper. I thought 'My God, my mom is going to see this, my family is going to see this, the love of my life is going to see this.' "

She couldn't stop sobbing.

"When you hear the charge prostitution it sounds like they caught you in there full blown having sex or something. To me that's what prostitution is," she says. "I never did anything."

•••

The next day names and photos of the arrested women ran on television and in newspapers, including the Tampa Bay Times. Operation "Keep It Clean" had hit 14 clubs and made 16 arrests, all on prostitution charges. "Although these checks are done frequently throughout the year, detectives launched this recent inspection as a result of information that prostitutes may be coming into Tampa to work in adult establishments during the RNC," the press release said.

Mendez called her mother first and prayed she would believe she was innocent. Of course she believed her. She could always tell when her daughter was lying.

"But what about your grandparents," her mother asked. "What about your aunts and uncles?" They had no idea she even danced in clubs.

Two days after the arrest, a woman recognized her in a restaurant and asked if she was one of the people that had been arrested for prostitution. Mendez sobbed and looked for a place to disappear.

The friends who cared enough to ask what happened stood by her. The rest just gossiped.

At family gatherings where she used to wear a little sundress, she dressed now with her arms covered. She felt like people were looking at her out of the corner of their eyes. She had trouble sleeping. And when she did sleep, even for 20 minutes on the couch, she had nightmares.

"One dream I keep having is I'm in a club and everyone is standing around talking about me and pointing at me. I just want to know what they're talking about, and it's driving me crazy."

Finally, on June 19, 10 months after the arrest, Mendez got her day in court.

The officer testified he asked if he could perform oral sex on her.

Mendez testified he asked nothing of the sort. If he had, she said, she would have stood up, left the booth and told the club manager he was acting weird.

He testified she placed his hand on her genitals.

She testified he tried to touch near her genitals, she stood up and asked him to relax.

The officer was not wearing a wire. Police say the clubs are too noisy. It came down to his word against hers.

As the prosecutor started his cross examination, she felt like the fly, not the spider. Her voice quavered.

He asked her if, on the night of her arrest, she asked the undercover officer if he was a cop.

She did.

He asked her if she tried to get him to go to the Champagne Room.

She did.

"But why would you take a cop to the Champagne Room?" he asked.

Suddenly, she felt like the spider again. Her voice stiffened. This question she knew how to answer.

"Because I want to get his money," she said. "I'm going to go back there, I'm going to dance like normal, like I dance with normal men and I'm going to get his money."

"You're going to take a cop...," he began.

"I'm definitely going to take a cop," she interrupted. "I knew that he had money to spend, because he's a cop. And I want to get his money because that's my job. That's it. That's what entertainers do. They sell a fantasy. It doesn't mean that any of it is real."

The jury took 12 minutes to reach a verdict. Not guilty.

•••

But it is easier to be branded a prostitute than to remove the brand.

"If people look at me now I don't know if they're looking at me because I'm pretty or are they thinking 'Did I see her in the paper? Did I see her on TV? Is that the prostitute?' "

She suspects she still doesn't get modeling jobs because of the charge. Things are still difficult with her family. She is having trouble finding a place to live.

"People aren't wanting to rent to me. Why? They're definitely not going to want their husbands to rent to me with a prostitution charge on my record."

She is still angry at the police.

"I know they do things to get their job done. But don't ruin my life, an innocent person's life, just to get an arrest."

She is angry at the media.

"I feel like they should give me a chance to go on the news now, since they wanted to put me on the news when they didn't even know the story. Can I go on the news as an innocent person? Can everyone see that? Or are people just going to see me as a prostitute for the rest of time?"

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. John Pendygraft can be reached at jpendygraft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8247.

Branded by scarlet letter, she struggles to recoup her reputation 08/18/13 [Last modified: Sunday, August 18, 2013 9:35am]
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