Media Whores

Never at a loss for new tricks, the Wahls are now on a spiritual quest.

Tom and Suzi Wahl are shameless self-promoters -- anyone who has been ingesting local media for the last 15 years knows that they're the Mound City version of Larry and Althea Flynt, minus the wheelchair and the drug addiction. But when it comes to shamelessness, last week they were trumped big-time by the St. Louis County Police, the county prosecutor's office and the courts. That troika's tight sphincters produced a three-day trial on a prostitution rap that ended with a weary jury deliberating three hours to come up with a guilty verdict but recommending no jail time for the Wahls. The most the Lake Saint Louis couple will have to shell out is $500 apiece, which equals two hours' pay for Murry Marks, the lawyer who defended them.

When it comes to the true expense of this misguided effort, it would be hard to tally up the costs to the public for spanking the Wahls. And who knows? The adult-video veterans may have liked it. Tom didn't lose his customary smirk through most of the trial. Of course, the Wahls are appealing the conviction, with the legal work handled by Tom himself.

The costs of the inquisition include the police salaries and resources involved, the inconvenience and expense of the prosecution's request for a jury trial and three days of court costs -- and then there were all those hours of work lost by the suits and courthouse clerical staff who kept filing into the courtroom pews on the off chance they'd get to see the 18-minute video of Tom and Suzi going down on each other. Even two of the cops who were in on the bust stayed as spectators until the verdict was returned. Apparently they like to watch. The wheels of justice in this case did bump-and-grind slowly.

The trial was triggered by the August bust of the Wahls by undercover county police. Det. Adam Kavanaugh testified that he had found the Wahls' classified ad "in a section of the Riverfront Timeswe often use in our investigations into prostitution." Kavanaugh said the RFT, the Internet and the Yellow Pages are the three main sources of leads for these guardians of morality. The ad billed what the Wahls offered as "erotically entertaining" and an "educational live show." Kavanaugh and fellow gendarme Michelle Fourtney posed as a couple seeking tips on how to improve their sex life. Kavanaugh filmed the part of the demonstration, which started with Suzi getting naked and masturbating.

Throughout the filming with the Sony handheld camera, Kavanaugh proved adept at zooming in and out, on occasion producing shots so close-up they could have passed for gynecological slides. But his hand was a bit shaky -- was he nervous? excited? -- and that produced some viewer discomfort, as if the camera work from The Blair Witch Project had been mixed with the subject matter of Behind the Green Door.

Those in the Clayton courthouse who timed it right caught the show, late Tuesday morning. Once word spread, only single seats were available in the first few rows. There were shots of Suzi masturbating, Tom going down on his wife, Suzi stroking Tom and Suzi going down on Tom, and that was it. Kavanaugh and Fourtney blew the whistle before any conventional intercourse took place. Guess there are standards after all. The film ended just before the trial broke for lunch; it's doubtful that many jurors opted for the kielbasa or the tuna melt.

Only the Wahls and three county police officers testified in the trial. The police limited their testimony to what they saw, although Kavanaugh, at one point, admitted that Tom had "talked about some theology base that he preaches." Pamphlets handed out by the Wahls before their demonstration were admitted as evidence; all but one of them dealt with the Wahls' "Systematic" approach to life (www.understandthesystem.com) they promulgate. The Wahls' pitch is that their presentation promotes improved sexual techniques and is intended to prolong relationships. The county contended it was prostitution.

Not everyone agreed. One courthouse worker approached the Wahls before the trial resumed Wednesday, wishing them good luck and saying that after she saw the video, she told her boyfriend, "We need some help."

Also needing some help was Associate Circuit Judge Michael Jamison, who had his undies in a bunch when it came to instructing the jury after closing arguments. This was the first time he had presided over a jury trial, and it was a doozy, a trial that was much ado about a misdemeanor. Closing arguments could have started Tuesday afternoon, but Jamison adjourned court by 3 p.m., putting the conclusion off until Wednesday.

Jamison's instructions to the 11-woman, one-man jury revealed him to be a prosecutor in a robe. His instructions were stringent: He stated that if the jury thought that "deviant sexual intercourse" had occurred and it had been done "in return for money," then the defendants were guilty of prostitution. Prosecuting attorney Cleveland Tyson got downright biblical in his closing argument, citing the Ten Commandments and telling the jury that "law is legislated morality."

Marks countered by saying prostitution laws were intended to "prevent the Heidi Fleisses of the world" and describing the Wahls as "a middle-aged couple married for 17 years" who were "performers, not prostitutes." Marks said they were "not criminals, not prostitutes, not harlots."

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