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."

But, according to the jury's verdict, the Wahls are a couple of ho's, though clearly they aren't the usual hookers caught in police headlights. Part of the reason for the full-court press on this case is that authorities know the Wahls had wanted to put on a live performance at a larger venue -- say, a VFW hall or a theater. With this conviction, those plans are on hold. Tom says he plans to put on educational seminars about sex, but for now he'll avoid nudity or live demonstrations of sexual technique.

Sentencing in the St. Louis County case is set for May 18. The Wahls face a similar case in St. Charles County, but in that case the videotape didn't turn out. Two St. Charles County prosecutors sat through last week's trial, perhaps to catch what they missed as a result of their equipment's malfunction.

Tom Wahl is all hepped up about the appeals process, citing a First Amendment freedom-of-speech defense or contending that his Systematic beliefs form the basis for a religion. But the odds appear to be against him.

Jules Gerard, professor emeritus of law at Washington University, says that if the appellate court goes by a 1973 Supreme Court obscenity ruling, the Wahls "don't have a prayer" using a free-speech defense. Gerard taught First Amendment law for 30 years and is the author of the law book Local Regulation of Adult Businesses.

"If you take the Supreme Court obscenity decision literally, what they did is not going to be protected," Gerard says. "However, in recent years lower courts have tended to ignore that language of the Supreme Court and have granted protection to portrayals of sexual intercourse, at least when they've been in films. The courts always have distinguished between different media of expression and have said you can prohibit things when they take the form of an actual live performance that maybe would be protected if they were in a book or a magazine or on film."

When pressed, Wahl is serious about calling himself a Systematic because he believes in his system: "I advertise; I have a toll-free number; I maintain a Web site on this. That's the way you would start a new religion today. If Jesus were alive today, what would Jesus do today to start his new religion? He'd criticize government hypocrisy on issues, set up a Web site and shortly thereafter find himself arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate."

No, no, Tom doesn't have any messianic delusions, just bad analogies.

"I'm not Jesus. The analogy serves only in the sense that we challenged the religious thinking of the day and found ourselves hauled into court," Tom says, then launches into something sure to offend most Christians: "They say Jesus came to earth to experience what it's like to be a human being, to experience the temptations and know what we're dealing with down here. It seems to me you would not disregard the sexuality portion of the experience. Did Jesus ever take a leak? Did Jesus ever take a dump? Well, I would hope so if he was supposed to be understanding what goes on in the human body. Did Jesus ever get a hard-on? Did Jesus ever masturbate? Did Jesus ever have sex? Well, I hope so, because that's part of the experience you're supposed to get when you're here."

Does that mean if J.C. comes back, you can find him in the RFTclassifieds?

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