It was late in the summer of 2004, and the small club at St. Clair and East 13th smelled alternately stale and sweet, depending on whether someone was straddling your lap. The music jumped from R&B to techno to driving rock, depending on the mood of the woman dancing to it.
Among the army of easy-smiling entrepreneurs stood a tiny young woman, all of 110 pounds. Her round face was punctuated by deep emerald eyes. Her hair was naturally dark and curly, but on this night, it was blown straight and saturated with blond highlights. Born 21 years before as Rachel Zimmerman, she now introduced herself as Raia.
She'd been stripping for a year, mostly at clubs near her little house in Akron. But the money was better at the Horse, where business travelers and downtown partyers were known to part with big bills.
But this night, as on many nights, Raia didn't exactly feel like stripping. Since her days at Aurora High -- before she dropped out to have her little girl -- Raia had been an incessant talker. To muster just a few minutes of silence was her greatest chore, especially at work. Especially when the alternative was grinding on some stranger's bulge, feigning arousal.
So when she encountered a scrawny tattooed guy sitting near the door and all he wanted to do was talk -- well, that was fine by her.
Though young and sheepish, the guy clearly knew the way to a stripper's heart: He tipped big and didn't ask for a single lap dance. Even better, he seemed normal, nice, sober -- attributes attractive to Raia, who'd run through her share of losers.
Raia, meet Blaine.
On the morning of March 3, 2000, the people of Sandusky awoke to a bizarre front-page story in their local paper, the Register. "Inmate bolts from Vermilion work detail," the headline read. A 19-year-old prisoner had "slipped away" from the guard watching his three-man work group. He told the guard he was going to piss. When he reached the woods, he bolted, shed his orange vest, and borrowed the phone of an unsuspecting neighbor to call for a ride.
That a prisoner might seize an opportunity to escape wasn't in itself unique. What made the Register's story odd was this: The escapee was in the middle of a lenient six-month sentence. He was only three months away from getting out.
The man had been arrested twice the year before. The first time, he was caught having sex with a 14-year-old girl in a bathroom stall at Cedar Point, where he worked. Months later, while he was still facing charges for corrupting a minor, another 14-year-old girl accused him of having sex with her. This time it was by force, after a get-together with other underage girls at the guy's apartment, the girl claimed. He was arrested again, this time on charges of sexual battery.
Prosecutors cut him a deal, letting him plead to attempted corruption and attempted sexual battery. A judge sentenced him to five years of probation. All he had to serve was six months in lockup.
Instead, with three months left behind bars, the guy bolted. It didn't take long for the cops to find him; he was arrested the same afternoon in Kent.
A judge sentenced him to two years in prison. Instead of getting out that spring, it would be two more years until Blaine Zahand emerged from prison, ready to start life over in Cleveland.
At first, the trouble was the baby-sitter.
Blaine wanted badly to take Raia out, to test their friendship in the daylight, outside the dark and expensive confines of the Gold Horse. In Raia's eyes, he'd earned it.
After they first met in 2004, Blaine kept showing up at the club. The deal was always the same: They talked, and he paid. If she told him she needed to dance for another customer, he pulled out cash and told her softly, "I just want your time." He waited patiently through stories of single motherhood, struggling to make rent, dreaming of doing anything but this.
He was charming and generous. Early on, Raia and the other strippers would call Blaine out of the blue and ask him to bring them food. They were just being "funny stripper bitches," Raia would later admit, seeing how many guys they "could use." But Blaine brought the food so fast, so willingly, it was actually kind of cute.
When it came to going out, though, Raia couldn't afford to get a baby-sitter. Nor did she want to. She spent enough time away from her daughter as it was. Blaine, always the gentleman, offered to pay for the sitter. But she refused.
Instead, she asked if he'd be willing to hang out in Akron, after her daughter had gone to bed. As the fall wore on, Blaine started driving at least twice a week from his apartment in Lakewood to Akron. They would snuggle on the couch, watch movies, talk. This time, Raia says, she was taking it slowly.
Blaine slowed his visits to the club, but he kept playing the role of reliable do-gooder. On Halloween, when one of the girls needed a tool belt for her construction-worker costume, Raia called Blaine. It wasn't long before the construction worker was working the floor in a brand-new tool belt.
It went on like this into November. One night, Raia was in the Horse dressing room, climbing into her skimpy uniform, when her cell phone rang.
"Is this Blaine's girlfriend?" the caller asked.
"Well," Raia said, considering the question. "Almost. But he hasn't called in a couple of days."
"That's why I'm calling. This is Blaine's sister. He got arrested."
Raia's stomach sank. Between an early pregnancy, youthful brushes with the law, and her career as a stripper, she felt as if she'd spent her life starring in bad cable dramas. She didn't need another role now.
"For what?" Raia asked.
"I don't know," the girl said. "I know it wasn't a big deal. I'm trying to bail him out. I'm not supposed to ask you. You're the last person he'd want me to ask, but . . ."
Raia's mind raced. Did Blaine say anything about a sister?
"What's your name?" she asked.
"How much are we talking about?"
Raia had cash on her from the lucrative night before. But $350?
"I'll come up there," Amber said. "I can meet you." She reminded her of Blaine's giving nature: "He'll pay you back," she said. "You know him."
The girl showed up soon after. Raia met her at the door, escorted her in. They went into the bathroom. Raia gave her the money.
"I'll make sure he calls you," Amber said.
"Good. Because I want to know what's going on. I don't date felons."
"He's going to love you."
Raia walked her to the door in her high, high heels.
"He's going to be so happy," Amber said.
Blaine texted the next day. He said his phone was broken, so he couldn't call. She texted him back: You need to call.
He never did.
First up, please welcome to the stage . . .
It was a few months later, around March of 2005, and Raia was in another dressing room crowded with women stepping into sexy alter egos.
She had left her job at the Gold Horse and moved to the larger Crazy Horse. As she fiddled with her makeup, another dancer walked into the room. Raia knew the woman's face. It was Blaine's sister. She was sure of it.
Raia ran out of the dressing room and into the parking lot, where she saw the white Volkswagen that Blaine had driven to her place in Akron. Back in the club, she sat down at the bar and lit a trembling Marlboro Light. Her racing mind struggled to formulate a way to confront Amber. She was still working this out when the deejay called her name --
She had to take the stage. As she swirled the cold metal pole, her gown crumpled at her feet, Raia fretted over how to confront her sandy-haired nemesis. But during Raia's two-song set, Amber climbed off her bar stool and walked off the floor.
Raia finished her set, pulled on her dress, and ran into the dressing room. Amber was gone.
"Where'd that girl go?" Raia asked the house mom, the woman overseeing the club's dancers.
"I don't know," the house mom said. Amber had quickly gotten dressed, said something about a sick kid, and walked out.
Raia needed more. She blazed through the Blaine saga, which had been haunting her for months, she says. Yes, Blaine dropped hundreds of dollars on her in the club -- definitely more than the $350 he took. But what he'd paid was her wage, compensation for her time. What he'd taken was her rent, her groceries, her Christmas money.
The house mom understood. She broke out a manila folder. Blaine's sister had just started working at the club. Her application was on file:
NAME: SEANA RUTHERFORD
EMERGENCY CONTACT: BLAINE ZAHAND, HUSBAND
Husband? Raia confirmed it when a friend helped track down the couple's marriage license online. Blaine and Seana had married in the summer of 2004 -- right before Blaine started coming into the Gold Horse, wallet and ears wide open.
Raia investigated further, finding the county's online real-estate records, which showed that Seana had purchased a home in Parma. From court records, she learned that Blaine hadn't been locked up when he supposedly needed bail. The even darker secret: He was a registered sex offender from Sandusky.
And so it was that Raia developed her new mantra: "Public records don't lie."
Oh yes, Blaine. At Cleveland's P.M., a workingman's strip club in a graveled Valley View parking lot, they remember him well. A waitress recalls strange, creepy advances. Tia, a seemingly angry stripper, with hair as black as a hearse, recalls a "shitty little guy . . . devoid of any type of charm." And, of course, skinny and tattooed -- no one who meets Blaine fails to register these defining characteristics.
Blaine wasn't exactly a P.M. regular. He might have come in only a handful of times. But last winter, after Raia left the Gold Horse, left the Crazy Horse, and did a short stint at Gigi Lounge, P.M. is where she landed. And it's where she developed her newfound drive, fueled by a simple, singular goal:
Fucking up Blaine's life.
Perhaps it was because getting Blaine was a task she felt she could accomplish on behalf of strippers everywhere. If other young dancers were like Raia when she met him -- flush with cash and self-doubt -- she knew they'd make easy targets for his indecipherable charm and amateur criminal prowess.
Or perhaps it was because she wanted some goddamn revenge: After all, she says, that money was supposed to buy her daughter's Christmas presents.
Either way, she was undeniably obsessed. And things only got worse when she started working at P.M., where she quickly learned she'd be sharing the floor with Blaine's wife.
It was the day Raia auditioned that she first noticed Seana. But Raia kept quiet. She was still building her case and wanted to confront Seana with evidence, not suspicion. Seana kept quiet too, Raia says. They worked with each other for weeks, passing each other in awkward silence.
But as time went on, it became clear that Raia wasn't the only one duped by Blaine. Perusing MySpace.com, she encountered Angie Sperling, a short and curvy dancer with obtrusive studs in her tongue, upper lip, and ears. Angie, it turned out, knew Seana and Blaine -- but never knew they were married.
Angie befriended Seana at Amber's, a strip club on West 130th Street, last summer. They shopped together at Parmatown and palled around at the club. But in November, Angie left Amber's and lost track of her new friend, whom she knew only by her stage name: Sunny.
A month later, when Angie wanted to get a tattoo, somebody suggested a guy in Parma: Blaine. She went to his basement on a snowy night. As he tattooed Tinkerbell on her lower back, he chatted her up, suggested they hang out. They started going out, cruising the mall, whatever. He bought her lunch and little gifts. "He was nice," she says, her voice sounding especially Midwest-nasal due to a lingering cold. "He was really, really, really nice."
He started calling more and more. Once, he even texted from jail, where he apparently still had his phone. He never asked for money, and eventually she tired of his calls, which came late at night and begging for attention. Her deep-voiced dad says he had to get Blaine on the phone and tell him to leave her alone. "He wanted me to move in with him," Angie says. "He was obsessed with me."
As Raia learned, the obsession wasn't exclusive to Angie.
Last year, Melissa Pickett, a 23-year-old stripper, was working the afternoon shift at Gigi Lounge, a little club on Brookpark Road. She was engaged at the time, but things were rocky. And while this was news she'd typically keep to herself -- not wanting to ruin a customer's fantasies -- she found herself pouring her secrets out to a new customer: Blaine.
He was quiet, kind, attentive. Most of all, he was loaded -- or at least it appeared that way. He dropped fifties and hundreds for nothing but an afternoon of sodas and talk, Melissa says.
They became close friends, chatting on the phone and even hanging out at his house. But one day, Blaine stopped calling, Melissa says. Then she got a text message from someone claiming to be Blaine's sister. "Blaine's in jail," the message said. He needed money for bail. They arranged to meet at the Executive Den, a strip club just off the East Shoreway.
"He'll give you the money back," Seana said when she picked up the cash. "Plus double."
Armed with Melissa's story, Raia knew she had to confront Blaine's wife. In March, as the club's dancers prepared for the night ahead, Raia walked into the dressing room, clutching a picture of Blaine.
"Is this or is this not your husband?" Raia recalls asking. Seana insisted she had a brother named Blaine, but the picture seemed to throw her, recalls one dancer who was there. Raia lost it. She flung a bottle of water toward Seana, hoping to get her hair wet -- at least mess up her bangs or something.
The water missed, spraying innocent strippers instead. Raia walked out, grabbed her bag, and headed for the parking lot. Management didn't need the headaches of feuding strippers. They fired her right there in the dusty parking lot.
It's been 18 months since the $350 disappeared from Raia's life. She's changed jobs three times, moved in with a new boyfriend, moved out, and moved back in. Her bank account has emptied, ballooned, and emptied again several times over. For anyone else, the lost money would be a distant, annoying memory, painful digits on an ancient bank statement.
But at the kitchen table of her boyfriend's small Independence home, it's clear that for Raia, there is nothing distant about any of this.
"I can't sleep," she says.
Her boyfriend, Ken, nods along: Dude, she seriously can't sleep. Some nights, neither can he. Thirty years old, with a closely shaved head and sleeves of intricate tattoos, Ken wooed Raia with a patient ear similar to the one offered by Blaine. But more than that, Ken wooed Raia with what he didn't do. Most boyfriends would have forced their girlfriend to forget about the money and move on. Not Ken.
"He didn't call me stupid about it," Raia says.
In fact, Ken has become equally obsessed with the hunt, in part because of his profound respect for body art. Both Blaine and Ken ink tattoos out of their homes. Blaine's tattoos, in Ken's not-so-humble opinion, suck. He even had to touch up Angie's sloppy Tinkerbell. Somehow, he will avenge Blaine's inky assaults on their trade.
And so his kitchen table is a mess of index cards and photocopies. The couple keeps an inch-thick stack of note cards with names and phone numbers. They have computer files, an audio-recorded phone conversation with an alleged victim, photographs, web links, and, yes, public records.
The fruits of their efforts exist mostly in Ken's humming laptop. Since she discovered MySpace.com in January, Raia spends much of her downtime posting and managing fake MySpace pages with Blaine's name and pictures. They usually read something like this:
About me: Sex offender who scams innocent girls.
Who I'd like to meet: Anyone who I've ripped off.
Not long after she posts them, MySpace takes them down. Then she posts another. She's put up at least seven, with various names and photos of Blaine. When people go searching for him, they find the page and send a message, or ask to be Blaine's online friend. Then Raia tells them how Blaine is a scam artist, sex offender, and punk. She also throws in something about how he might have STDs -- a sort-of cherry on top of her shit-talk sundae.
This catches some of Blaine's admirers off guard.
"You all need to back off of him," one MySpacer responded after receiving a typical Raia diatribe. "Give him a break . . . You all don't know what he's been through!!!"
But MySpace is how Raia learned that it wasn't just strippers Blaine was deceiving.
Last year, Lauren Lopresti stumbled onto Blaine's photo on MySpace. She has a thing for tattoos. She sent him a friend request, she says, and he accepted.
They messaged idly back and forth. She told him about her: 26, lived in Aurora, worked at the Northfield track. He told her about him: He was "straight-edge" -- didn't touch booze or drugs. He worked at Playhouse Square and had just moved to Parma. Eventually she gave Blaine her number, she says. They talked. He flirted.
Then someone messaged from Blaine's account. "This is his friend Kyle," the message read. "Blaine got arrested." A couple nights later, Lauren was at a Parma BP station, handing Blaine's "sister" the hundred bucks she'd saved up for a weekend trip to Columbus. That was the last she heard of Blaine.
Raia also found Melissa Canitia online. Melissa befriended Blaine in 2004, after meeting him on MySpace. Then she got the call: Blaine was in jail. Needed bail money. She met his "sister" at a friend's house, she says, and dropped off a couple hundred dollars.
But this time, Blaine didn't disappear. She would see him occasionally for lunch, but he was always in some kind of trouble. And she was always willing to help. Though they weren't exactly dating, he said he loved her, that he wanted her to move in with him, she says. So every time someone called or messaged, she gave up cash. A few hundred for bail. More for the lawyer. She even cashed her $1,000 tax refund check, she says, and handed it over to one of Blaine's friends. She also gave money directly to Blaine, which he said he could somehow turn into more money. All told, she's pretty sure she turned over $2,000 -- and never got a dime of it back.
She'd prefer to forget all that. But Raia won't let her -- or anyone else.
"He screwed all these girls over including myself," Raia wrote to one stranger in a MySpace lecture. "And we are not gonna let him get away with it. I thought Blaine was a sweetheart, but he let his true colors shine through."
Sex-crazed pastors, web-surfing pervs, pedophile parents: Tom Connor has encountered a rainbow of dysfunctional criminals in his seven years as a Parma sex-crimes detective. But he's never seen anything like this. "And I hope I never do again," he says.
Wearing the closely sheared hair and patterned tie of TV detectives everywhere, Connor sits in his cubicle, thumbing through Blaine Zahand's case file. He usually spends his time surfing the web for pedophiles or breaking down perverts. A picture of a weeping 22-year-old, arrested for pursuing a 14-year-old, hangs proudly on his cubicle wall.
But in March, Connor got a call from a TV reporter, who asked him to look into something. A woman named Raia had called the TV station, trying to drum up interest in her story. The reporter asked Connor to hear her out. He did. And he instantly believed he had a case.
Connor started working the sources Raia had collected in the clubs and online. So far, he's interviewed five strippers with similar tales of how they were ripped off by Blaine and his wife.
The detective is admittedly befuddled. Blaine has spent thousands of dollars wooing the girls he's allegedly scammed, as if he's scheming for their attention as much as he is their cash. Connor wonders if there's more to it; he asked the girls to pull their credit reports, to rule out identity theft.
But even if Blaine's lost money on his sloppy operation, Connor still thinks he's on his way to a solid theft-by-deception case.
"Can a stripper not be a victim?" he asks. "Of course they can."
On a bright weekday afternoon, two men clutch tools as they work on a small, white house on a quiet Parma street. One, beefy and wielding a drill, looks as if he belongs. But the other -- in loosely tied skate shoes, saggy shorts, and a side-cocked baseball hat -- looks as if he should be fiddling with the side of a half-pipe.
"Come in," Blaine says quickly and walks into his quaint, cluttered kitchen.
By the looks of it, his wife isn't around. If she were, she would tell Blaine to shut the hell up. Reached days before on her cell phone, Seana was asked about the allegations that she and her husband have been ripping women off.
"Obviously it's fabricated," she said. "I mean, this is just like vindictive. If something had ever happened, then legal action would have been taken." When told that a Parma detective was investigating and believed he had a strong case, she remained tight-lipped. "I talked to my lawyer," she said. "He said if you print anything about me, that's defamation of character." Asked who her lawyer was, she quickly hung up.
But Blaine has no such reservations. He's eager to clear the air, albeit in his own Zahandian way. He launches into a strange, cryptic defense -- one that, if it were true, probably would land him in more trouble than the present accusations against him:
Blaine invokes the Ecstasy/Infidelity Defense.
"I was in relationships with half of these people," he says.
For a while, his marriage was shit. So, yes, he hung out with strippers. Bought 'em shit, tipped big, whatever. And yeah, he's met a gang of people on MySpace and spent some coin on them too. "I spent money on all of these girls," Blaine says.
Of course, he took money from them too. But there's a reason for that, and it's not about bail. It's about Ecstasy.
Mind you, he didn't touch the pills. "I'm straight-edge," he says, showing off three black X's tattooed on his calf. But there was a time when he had a connection in Sandusky -- a dude from the joint -- who needed "investors" in E deals. So Blaine gave the dude cash, which turned into more cash. He calls it flipping and says he enlisted friends -- Raia and both Melissas included -- to kick in. "Sometimes we lost money," he says.
As convenient as the straight-edge Ecstasy-investor tale is, it doesn't explain why so many women say they gave money to Blaine's wife, thinking she was Blaine's sister and thinking it was going to get Blaine out of lockup. This is where the Ecstasy Defense breaks down.
Blaine's not sure what that's all about. Seana, he says, would never be involved with anything like this. Him -- he's shady. He knows that. Admits it. "I am not a good person," he says. Not Seana, though. Never.
So perhaps it's a conspiracy, he says. Raia got pissed when things went south and used the internet to turn the world against them. "I don't know half of these people," he says, though he seems to remember all his accusers by name. "Now they all got the same story."
Or maybe, he posits, his friends used his account to message women and tell them Blaine was in jail. Maybe another friend pretended to be Seana, and that's who picked up the money. He'll have to look into that. "All my friends are shady," he explains. "All my friends would sell me out in a second."
There's a rumbling in the bedroom. Seana's gotta go to work. This is not good. He thought she'd already left. "Now we're in a fight," Blaine says, dropping his head. "She's gonna be pissed I'm talking."
That was Raia," the deep-voiced deejay says. In the darkness of Cleveland's P.M. -- where the flicker of The Cosby Show and Divorce Court provide much of the light -- it's difficult to tell. But the eyes adjust. Yes, it is Raia, stepping off the stage, slipping on her cotton string bikini as Beyoncé bellows from the club's speakers.
Not long after she was fired, Raia says, P.M. called and asked her back. Now it's not quite one o'clock. Middle-aged customers sit alone, waiting for someone to spend money on.
Raia walks past them all to the bar. To talk.
It has all been said, over and over, but she's still talking, still messaging, and still posting websites she knows will be shut down. She's still dedicated to convincing the world's women that Blaine Zahand exists simply to steal their hearts and their hard-earned Hamiltons.
"If I don't stand up and say, 'Fuck this,' who's going to?" she asks between sips of a fruity green cocktail.
Besides, she hates this job anyway. She wants out, wants to do something else. "I think I could be good at something," Raia likes to say.
The deejay calls her name.
"I'll be back," she says. "Six minutes."
She walks to the stage, grabs a bottle of disinfectant and a soft towel, wipes down the brass pole, and dances.