Charges tossed against owners of escort Web site
Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 1:21 a.m.
TAMPA - A judge dismissed charges against the owners of a Web site that carries "escort service" advertising for thousands of prostitutes and their customers, a move that seriously damages the case.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke ruled Friday that state prosecutors failed to meet the deadline to try Charles S. Kelly and Steve Lipson on felony charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Prosecutors said they will appeal.
The judge also threw out racketeering charges against four female escorts linked to the Web site. Eight defendants still face charges ranging from racketeering to prostitution, but the owners were the main targets of the investigation.
Kelly and Lipson own the Web site, which bills itself as "The Net's No. 1 Escort Resource."
Women from around the Tampa Bay area paid to advertise their escort services on the Web site and customers paid to access solicitations, authorities said. The site has customers in all 50 states and some foreign countries.
Felony defendants have a right to trial within 175 days of arrest. The cases dismissed Friday involved defendants arrested in June.
The delays were largely the result of the state's efforts to keep confidential the identities of six witnesses, some married, well-known figures in Tampa Bay business and politics.
Behnke ruled in October that the six witnesses whose names had been concealed must be made public.
The cases were scheduled to go to trial in December, but Behnke postponed them on the grounds that prosecutors had not fully complied with her order.
One witness was Monte Belote, the former leader of Hillsborough County's Democratic Party who ended his bid for the Tampa City Council after his name was released in court documents as an informant in the case.
Belote, 43, admitted using prostitutes since 1998, according to court documents.
Defense attorney Luke Lirot blamed the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for the problems with the case.
"Law enforcement promised informants confidentiality that they didn't have the ability to carry out," Lirot said.
The sheriff's office declined comment.
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