(ran State / Suncoast edition of METRO & STATE)
Ruth Carlson remained stoic on the witness stand Wednesday as she told of signing contract after contract for dance lessons at Dance Place, costing her a total of $26,000 over several months.
But her composure began to crumble when she was asked how it affected her personal life.
"I didn't have money to do anything with," she said, tearing up. "At times, I didn't have money to buy groceries."
Carlson, 80, was one of three students who testified Wednesday on the second day of a racketeering trial against Dance Place owner Michael A. Pasquarelli.
Prosectors say Pasquarelli and associate David B. "Vic" Andrews ran afoul of state dance laws by using high-pressure sales tactics designed to coerce their mostly elderly students to sign expensive contracts, often spending tens of thousands of dollars at a time.
Carlson said she came to Dance Place out of loneliness. She was widowed and bored.
On the stand she went through a litany of contracts signed, despite previous ones having never expired. And continuing even as her money dwindled.
"Stupid," she said.
Carlson said Pasquarelli, Andrews and others at Dance Place exerted a great deal of pressure on her to sign contracts, many of which were never honored. She quit only when she had run out of money. It left her in such dire financial straits she had to borrow money from her children and moved in with her daughter in New York.
Another student, Jean Bredberg, 84, shuffled to the witness stand with the aid of a bailiff. She is now legally blind, though she wasn't when she went to Dance Place four years ago after her husband died. Although she enjoyed dancing there, she said, she felt constantly pressured to spend more and ended up out $29,000.
Constant sales pressure was part of the plan at Dance Place, said former instructor Armando Vega Perez. He said dance instructors were told to "present (students) with something new every five to seven hours" of instruction even if the student had dozens more lessons left on their contract.
Christina Greene, 24, another former instructor at Dance Place, testified Wednesday about manipulative scripts instructors were told to follow to pressure students into signing contracts.
Instructors were told by Pasquarelli and Andrews to talk to their students about their personal lives to find out about bad past experiences, perhaps a divorce or deceased spouse, that could be used to manipulate them in meetings with closers.
Instructors were told to maintain physical contact with their students as they brought them in for meetings with Pasquarelli or Andrews. The price of dance packages would begin high. When a customer balked, she said, the instructor would then intervene on behalf of the student and plead with them to see if they could lower the price. The instructor would say the person had real promise as a dancer or had suffered some tragedy like losing a spouse or were simply lonely and that the dance lessons could really improve their lives. The closer would then leave the room and "see what they could do."
It was all a fake script, she said.
Greene recalled one middle-aged student who had diminished mental capabilities. She said the man had a crush on her and wrote her lots of letters. She became concerned, and so she asked not to be his teacher anymore.
But later, when Pasquarelli was trying to sell the man a cruise package, he asked Greene to "do whatever it takes" to convince the man to purchase the cruise.
Although she was not going on the cruise, she said she made him believe she was and told the man she would really miss him if he didn't go. She even cried for effect. The man bought the cruise package.
And when Pasquarelli found out Greene cried "he commended me."
Greene, who was 19 when she was an instructor, said she left because she felt one of her students, a man in his early 90s, was being manipulated. The man walked with a cane and was so forgetful he could not remember dance steps taught to him just minutes before, she said.
The man could barely walk, let alone dance, she said.
"It was constant swaying back and forth for the entire time," she said.
Greene said she didn't feel so bad when the man only paid $5 for an introductory lesson and $90 for a few more, but she said she became concerned when Pasquarelli told her to sign him up for a long series of advanced lessons that would cost more than $5,000.
"This is the one," she said Pasquarelli told her. "This is your golden ticket."
"He's not buying dance lessons, he's buying a friend," she said Pasquarelli told her. "Be that friend."
Greene said she quit. Then she called the man at home and warned him that he was being ripped off.
Defense attorneys Lee Atkinson and Bjorn E. Brunvand spent much of their cross-examination of witnesses asking students and dance instructors if the sales tactics weren't like those found at a garage sale or car dealership where one asks for a higher price while intending to settle for a lower one. They also noted that most of the students seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Pasquarelli, who lives in Palm Harbor, and Andrews, were charged with violating the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO.
Along with using coercive sales tactics, Pasquarelli and Andrews also are charged with illegally selling vacation packages and engaging "in a scheme constituting a systematic, ongoing course of conduct with intent to defraud" their clients, according to court records.
Last May, Andrews, 76, pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence that would not exceed 10 years in prison. He is expected to testify in the Pasquarelli case.