The high-profile arrests embarrassed successful men and splashed adult business names on the news.
A well-known criminal defense attorney accused of exposing himself at the Playhouse Theatre. The general manager of a television station arrested at Fantasy Land Adult Video, accused of pleasuring himself in a circle of men.
The arrests seem simple enough, but there's something larger going on here, a battle that has broiled in Drew Park since the 1980s that shows a schism between those who live there and those who come to play.
"The majority of the people that we're arresting, they're not local," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "The question is, has Drew Park gained some sort of reputation. If it has, we're stopping it."
Drive around Drew Park, and it's easy to spot the adult novelty shops and theaters. It's easy, too, to see how close these neon sign-sporting stores are to churches and homes.
It's been this way since the late 1980s, when zoning changes opened the way for business in the area. Residents had hoped for an airport expansion. Instead, they got adult businesses with names like Miss Behavin, Xposed Playmates and Thee Love Shack.
The latest twist in the saga came last year with a move by the City Council.
Drew Park is one of nine community redevelopment areas where increases in property taxes are directed back to improve blighted neighborhoods.
Since the district's creation in 2004, local leaders discussed a crackdown on adult businesses as part of redevelopment.
"There are many people who do not want to invest or be near adult uses," said Mark Huey, the city's manager of economic development.
Last year for the first time, the City Council approved spending some of the district's $1.3-million budget on monitoring adult businesses, earmarking $132,714 to the Tampa Police Department toward this goal.
Police used the money to fund stings at adult businesses. In places such as the Playhouse Theatre, undercover officers go in, sit down and take stock of anything that violates the law, Davis said.
"The money is only for Drew Park," she said. "They want it to go to the lingerie shops, to those adult clubs. … The Tampa Police Department did not say let's go over and target those businesses. We would probably not be doing this if not for those residents."
Churches are nearby
David Velazquez ministers to the congregation at the Iglesia Cristiana Puertas Abiertas, a church just down the road from the Platinum Showgirls club.
He's tired of finding explicit fliers on church property and of congregants having to explain such businesses to their children. Once a month, he leads a prayer walk through the neighborhood.
"I think it brings down the morale of the community," the pastor said.
According to city officials, since the operation began in early May, more than 100 people have been arrested and nine businesses have either closed or indicated they will close.
Businesses that don't close after having multiple arrests in a short time could end up in front of the city's Public Nuisance Abatement Board, which in extreme cases can force a business to shut its doors.
For now, the city is hoping the arrests will do the trick.
The Playhouse Theatre on N Hubert Avenue — which bills itself as Tampa's No. 1 adult theater — has operated since the early 1980s out of a giant white building.
Raymond James Stadium and the Mons Venus are a couple of miles away. Homes and churches are much closer.
Inside, patrons pay $12 to watch up to 12 hours of porn in one of the pitch-black theaters. Pornographic pictures and video rentals frame the lobby.
During a lunch hour last week, business was slow. Only a handful of older men trickled in, far fewer than the dozens who used to stop by for hotdogs and steamy movies before the police stings began.
Owner Dick Smith is frustrated by the increased police presence. He considers the Playhouse a business like any other, a place that provides a service.
"They think that being an adult business is a bad image for someone who wants to invest in the community, when it's not," Smith said. "We've been here forever. They license us. If they didn't want us there, why did they give us a license?"
Arrests are message
Those arrested typically faced misdemeanor charges of exposure of a sexual organ and lewd and lascivious behavior. Because the majority are first-time offenders, many resolve their cases by entering a misdemeanor intervention program.
If they complete a probationary period and pay fines, their charges will be dropped.
But law enforcement and prosecutors believe the arrests will have sent a strong message.
"They've been humiliated," Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said. "The purpose is to keep them from re-offending."
Davis said the arrests may scare the offenders from escalating their behavior.
Defense attorneys for several of the men contest the police version of events, but they say the humiliation factor gives law enforcement the upper hand.
Take arrestees with prominent positions like Victor D. Martinez, a criminal defense attorney whose wife famously left him for a serial killer and who was accused of exposing himself May 21 at the Playhouse Theatre, or Robert W. Linger, the now-former general manager of WTVT-Ch. 13.
"Very rarely do we know if the arrests are valid because the defendants just want it to go away," said Martinez's attorney, Joseph Bodiford. Martinez entered the intervention program.
The defense attorneys question police tactics. Attorney Michael Maddux said undercover officers who conducted the May 16 sting at the Fantasy Land Adult Video Store on N Lois Avenue simulated sexual acts with their clothes on.
"It seems like a pretty gross form of entrapment," said Maddux, who represents a Lakeland man arrested during the sting.
Police say the arrests are not entrapment, Davis said. The officers simply go into the businesses and observe what's already going on, she said.
The attorneys also doubt that the efforts act as a deterrent. People who want porn will just go somewhere else, or return to Drew Park once the heat is off.
"How many officers were taken off the street to spend time role playing in a theater?" asked attorney Stephen Romine, who represented Linger, who also entered the intervention program. "How many robberies, shootings and auto thefts took place because the police were in adult theaters instead of being in the neighborhood?"
Velazquez believes the police effort will inspire hope in Drew Park.
"We want these businesses to move, to find another area," he said. "If they find another place, that's fine, that's free, that's America."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3373.