After 27 years in the adult entertainment business, Slim Baucom knows the city’s secrets. He also has a few of his own.
Last month, as part of a plea in a federal corruption case, former Mayor Patrick Cannon admitted that a nightclub owner whom the Observer identified as Baucom regularly paid him for political favors. Court documents and prosecutors did not reveal how the ambitious young politician became involved with the longtime Charlotte strip-club owner.
At first, Baucom publicly denied any close relationship with Cannon. But in a series of recent interviews with the Observer, Baucom admitted they had a longer and closer relationship than previously disclosed.
“He was a good friend,” Baucom said.
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They were so close that in early 2005, when Cannon was mayor pro tem, Cannon and his family lived for free in Baucom’s house on Lake Wylie.
Baucom, who has not been charged with a crime, said he wishes he could explain his role in the Cannon case. On the advice of his attorney, he said he could not answer questions about it. “I don’t think I’ve done nothing wrong.”
It’s not the first time Baucom has been accused of paying off a top-ranking politician. Jim Black, the former speaker of the N.C. House from Matthews, testified in his 2007 corruption case that Baucom gave him an illegal $2,000 cash contribution. Baucom denies it.
“For me to risk going to prison over something so small would be ludicrous,” Baucom said. “I’m 60 years old. I’ve got my family who’s the most important thing in my life.”
It would be easy to underestimate Walter David “Slim” Baucom Jr. He is a high school dropout with a country-boy vernacular. He favors T-shirts and blue jeans. He often drives a pick-up truck.
But no one should underestimate Slim Baucom.
He is a nationally known operator of the largest strip club enterprise in the Southeast. From his MAL Entertainment corporate headquarters, his family members control trucking, construction and assorted other companies. In fact, most of his businesses are run by family members. He even bought part of a neighborhood in north Charlotte so many of them could live nearby.
Baucom is a big man, 6 feet 6 inches, 280 pounds, as imposing as some of the bouncers who stand at the doors to his clubs. His nickname “Slim” is a holdover from childhood when he was so skinny he said he could “stand under a clothesline and keep dry.”
He speaks softly and politely, occasionally interjecting a self-deprecating joke. He doesn’t volunteer information. But when you ask him questions, he generally answers – including questions about topics as intimate as his faith and the morality of his business.
“He’s a little bit of a charmer,” said his estranged wife, Jackie. “He knows exactly how to camouflage the bad.”
Baucom portrays himself as an upstanding corporate citizen, who happens to work in a business that engenders little public sympathy, in a city once described as having a church on every corner. He said he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs.
Yet he owns some of Charlotte’s most erotic playgrounds – the Leather & Lace strip clubs, The Gentlemen’s Club, The Gold Club, The Crazy Horse Showclub – where women bare their breasts and indulge other people’s sexual fantasies.
Rumors have long circulated about a dark side to his character. He knows what people say about him: “I’ve heard that I’m still a drug dealer, a pimp, a gun runner. I’ve been accused of being an Outlaw, accused of being a Hell’s Angel. I don’t know why people think that.”
Over the years, Baucom’s clubs have amassed a voluminous file of ABC violations, including illegal video poker machines, nudity, drug dealing, intoxication and simulated acts of sexual intercourse. Those types of violations are considered routine in adult entertainment, the cost of doing business in an industry known for pushing legal and community standards.
Baucom also has faced more serious charges. In 1984, he got caught selling cocaine. In 1991, he was fined $10,000 after a manager at one of his clubs shot and killed two people. In 1997, an ABC agent wrote that Baucom had a reputation for allowing the Outlaws motorcycle gang to sell drugs in his clubs, although the accusation was never proved.
The IRS now says Baucom’s organization owes $497,986.71 in back taxes. (Baucom said he wasn’t aware of the tax lien until he read about it in the Observer. He said the lien consists of penalties for late filings, and that his accountant is working with the IRS to satisfy the debt.)
Cannon: ‘vicious rumors’
The most intriguing disclosure about Baucom came June 3 when Cannon pleaded guilty to accepting at least $50,000 in bribes. Most of the money came from undercover FBI agents posing as out-of-town real estate investors.
Cannon also admitted that from December 2009 through March 2014 he accepted periodic payments from Baucom. Specifically, Cannon admitted taking a $2,000 bribe in January 2013. In exchange, Cannon admitted, he used his elected office to exert influence over city zoning, planning and transportation officials on Baucom’s behalf.
Baucom or his attorney for years have had to deal with regulatory bodies over zoning issues and community concerns in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. “I hear horror stories from other cities,” Baucom said. “Charlotte negotiates.”
Prosecutors say during the four years Cannon took money from Baucom, Cannon helped him with various issues, including the zoning of his now-demolished Twin Peeks club on North Tryon Street.
In an interview Tuesday, Jackie Baucom said Cannon was a close friend of her husband’s for many years. “He showed up at the office all the time,” she said. “They called each other all the time.”
On Wednesday, for the first time, Slim Baucom confirmed their relationship.
When Cannon and his family stayed in Baucom’s lake house in early 2005, it was a pivotal time in Cannon’s political career that would end in his temporary withdrawal from politics.
In February, he announced his candidacy for mayor.
In April, he sold his home off South Tryon Street near Renaissance Park. He would not close on a new, larger home in Ballantyne until June.
“He was in transition,” Baucom said, explaining why he let the Cannon family use his house.
A source told the Observer recently that he witnessed Baucom buying furniture for Cannon at an auction in April 2005. Baucom said he doesn’t remember, but Jackie Baucom confirmed the account. She said she was at the auction. Most of the furniture, she said, was for Baucom’s son, and a few pieces went to Cannon.
Asked how he would classify the gifts of furniture and the use of his house, Slim Baucom said, “Cannon was a friend of mine.” And then this: “I really don’t want to talk about Cannon.”
Jackie Baucom said they were gifts for a friend. “David is very generous,” she said. “He has done things like that with my pastor, with people from my family.”
Then in May 2005, Cannon abruptly ended his campaign for mayor and announced he would not seek re-election to City Council, citing the recent deaths of an aunt and his wife’s grandmother. He said he wanted to focus on family.
But in a farewell speech, Cannon acknowledged that “vicious rumors” had been circulating about him. He said they were aimed at assassinating his character “on a matter that in my family’s mind as well as my own, is an abomination unto God, that also sent a few media outlets into wild-goose chases.”
Around that same time, Cannon faced financial troubles. The IRS filed $193,553 in tax liens against him between 2003 and 2008. Cannon satisfied them in December 2008.
He re-entered politics in 2009, winning an at-large City Council seat. Less than a year later, federal authorities say they got a tip that Cannon was potentially involved in illegal activity.
The investigation that led to Cannon’s arrest continues, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Friday. She wouldn’t confirm Baucom is a target or whether he is cooperating.
Cannon’s plea bargain limited the charges against him to the five years prior to his March 26 arrest. But any illegal activity and his openness with investigators could influence his sentencing.
Legal experts say Cannon faces five to seven years in prison.
Reached on Friday, Cannon texted: “Wish I could comment so your readers could have a fair and complete story as to why I was there (at Baucom’s lake house) in brief. I’m in a Catch-22, it seems.”
‘Should be blind by now’
Besides most questions about Cannon, Baucom refused to answer one other question. It involved the morality of stripping.
For the past few years, he has allowed two religious groups into his clubs to counsel strippers about sexual exploitation. Mark Blackwell, president of Justice Ministries, said that members of the nonprofit talk with dancers, hoping to build relationships and make sure no one is being abused.
“They’ve helped quite a few entertainers,” Baucom said.
Have any dancers left the business because of it?
“A few has left and got their life right with God.”
Are you implying that their lives were not right with God when they were dancing?
“I’m not going to answer that.”
Do you believe your life is right with God?
“No.” He sounded emphatic.
“I have not been saved and baptized, even though I go to church and believe in God very strongly. It’s an internal battle I have within myself all the time ... the strip club aspect versus the godly aspect.”
It was a surprising answer from a man who has been described as “a strip club mogul,” who has seen so much flesh revealed in his clubs that he said: “I probably should be blind by now.”
Baucom set aside a room in his office building where the ministry stores Bibles, deodorant, tampons and other personal items for the dancers. On a white board on the wall is a list of the women’s names. Written beside two is the word “saved.” By two others, “out of the business.”
“If I lose a dancer to my competition, that stings,” Baucom said. “If I lose a dancer to the man above, I can live with that.”
Jackie Baucom confirmed that her estranged husband considered getting out of adult entertainment. “I did see a side of that man that wanted to change,” she said. “It’s so sad to see somebody that you see glimmers of good in him, but you can see the polar opposite.”
Inside the clubs
Baucom opened his first strip club in 1987. As Charlotte grew and prospered, so did his business.
He now owns 10 clubs in and around Charlotte, ranging from the original Leather & Lace on South Boulevard, a tiny working man’s hangout near the Dilworth neighborhood, to the new upscale Scores Gentlemen’s Club off I-77 in Mooresville. He also owns part interest in a club in Raleigh. As many as 800 strippers work in his clubs, he said.
“All of the clubs are different. I don’t want to be like a McDonald’s, you walk in one, you walk in all of them.”
Walk in Leather & Lace. The club is no bigger than some living rooms, purple lights on the ceiling, multicolored strobes on the stage, “Hoochie Mama” on the sound system. A handful of patrons watch as a stripper with a spider-web tattoo wraps her legs around a dance pole. She shimmies up, flips upside down and glides to the floor, legs spread wide. She stands and stretches, swaying suggestively. Lowering her arms, she slips off her bikini top. She is naked except for a triangle of cloth the size of a credit card.
Now, walk in Scores Gentlemen’s Club. The floor is carpeted, the chairs plush, the tablecloths red velvet. A large stage dominates the 10,000-square-foot Vegas-style building. Eighteen dancers take turns, performing a continuous night-long striptease. When a woman with a pink garter slips out of her dress, a man walks to the stage. The stripper crawls to him like a lioness. She rolls onto her back, raises her legs over her head and shakes her fanny a few inches from his face. He tucks money into her garter. She crawls away.
Sex and titillation are Baucom’s products. He has a salesman’s intuition for what will drive men to shell out $10 just to get through the door. He knows what works in adult entertainment and how to market it.
“This is a business for me,” he said. “I ain’t going to put my bathrobe on and go try to play Hugh Hefner. It’s a business like any other business around town.”
He works out of a two-story brick office building at 8001 N. Tryon St. One brother oversees the clubs, another manages the original Leather & Lace; his sister is in charge of the cleaning crews; a son runs the office; his first wife works there, too. He pays a lawyer to negotiate zoning regulations, lawsuits and ABC issues with government agencies, as well as his speeding tickets.
From the same building, members of his family operate Baucom Trucking, Baucom Transportation, RDR Trucking Inc., Baucom Group & Associates (a general contractor), as well as a wrestling promotion company, among other businesses. Baucom also owned a swingers club, where married couples exchange sex, but he said he sold it. His daughter runs Exotic Travel, which caters to swingers and corporate clients.
Baucom or his companies own at least nine houses, according to public real estate listings, but he owns only one of the club buildings (The Gold Club on Old Pineville Road). Family members live in some of the houses; others are rentals; one is a safe house that he allows Restoration Link to use for families and women in transition.
Although Baucom is not a recognizable figure in most of Charlotte, he is nationally known in the adult entertainment industry, both for his business acumen and his charity.
“He is the nicest and most well-respected club owner,” said Don Waitt, publisher of E.D. Magazine. (The initials stand for Exotic Dancer.) “He’s a very smart guy, a very country guy and he probably plays that a little bit to his advantage.”
Angelina Spencer met Baucom in 1999 at a meeting of the Association of Club Executives, a trade organization for adult clubs. “I honestly thought he was a janitor because he keeps such a low profile,” she said.
Spencer is now executive director of the association, and Baucom is on the board. She praised him for hiring teachers to help his dancers earn GEDs, and for providing the house for women fleeing abusive relationships.
Regrets and promises
For someone who spends so much time in nightclubs, Baucom said he doesn’t even know what beer tastes like. His father was an alcoholic.
“I’ve learned the hard lessons of life, that’s for sure. It ain’t always been easy,” he said. “I made bad decisions and mistakes I regret. Like in the early ’80s – I ain’t telling you nothing new – I had a wife, three kids, I was struggling to make it. The only answer I come up with was to start selling drugs. I’ve never done drugs in my life. Of course, I got busted.”
He avoided prison, but says it’s a black mark. “I will regret it to my dying day.”
When his sons were growing up, Baucom said he asked them to promise him three things:
“You’ll never drink, never smoke and never do drugs. I would walk up to them two or three times a week, or two or three times a day, and ask them, ‘What are the promises?’ ”
Now he says he demands the same from his 7-year-old granddaughter.
Asked whether he would want her to be a stripper, a pained expression crossed his face. He shook his head and mouthed the word “No.” A few moments passed before he spoke.
“Little girls are not sitting in the sandbox thinking, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a stripper.’ ” He said it’s a way many desperate women support themselves and their families.
“I hate it when people stereotype these entertainers as drug users, prostitutes and sluts,” Baucom said. “It’s so far from the truth. So many of them are single mothers, or married. We have real estate agents, paralegals, college students.”
Jackie Baucom was a stripper. She helped him get started in the business. They married in 2000.
“He could be the sweetest man alive, but there’s a Jekyll and Hyde in there,” she said. “I was with the man for 27 years. On Jan. 22 of 2012 he sucker-punched me on the left side of my head and knocked me out. My ear, my cheek and my head were swollen.”
Baucom was charged with assault on a female, but three months later the charge was voluntarily dismissed. He admitted in an interview that he hit her. Jackie Baucom said she withdrew the complaint, in part, because she hoped it would mend fences with his family.
The couple has been separated since. Jackie Baucom said she was struck by lightning in August 2006 and was saved that same week. She said she has forsaken alcohol, drugs, stripping and their swinger lifestyle.
Though they live apart, they talk often. He mows her lawn.
Secrets of the night
Baucom won’t divulge how profitable his businesses are. He said the most any customer ever spent in one night was $30,000 at Scores. But he says his clubs get a lot of bad checks, too.
“I get these clubs up, and these other ones drop. It’s like a car engine, the pistons going up and down. I can’t seem to get them up at the same time.”
The recession hurt the industry, Baucom said, but he believes online pornography will be its undoing.
“In the future this industry will ... I’m not going to say fade out ... but it’s going to become less and less popular. Like book stores ... they used to be on every corner. Now people buy books off the Internet. With technology, there will soon probably be a virtual dancer.”
For now, Baucom still makes the rounds most every night. On a Thursday evening, he began at 9 with a quick walk-through at Leather & Lace on South Boulevard. Not much was going on. A couple of dancers sat fully clothed on the laps of customers, hoping to get paid to strip down.
From there, Baucom drove 30 minutes to Scores in Mooresville where 18 strippers were entertaining customers seated around the stage and in a private area upstairs. A stripper greeted him with a hug and introduced “the new girl.” Baucom didn’t talk a lot, but the dancers all seemed to know who he was, the tallest man in the room, dressed in black, from his shoes to his short-sleeve buttoned-downed shirt.
He ate a salad for dinner, then drove back down I-77 to The Gentlemen’s Club on Woodlawn, where a stripper was giving a customer a very suggestive lap dance. Then he drove over to The Gold Club on Old Pineville Road.
“You look nice tonight,” a dancer said when he arrived.
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Baucom replied.
A stripper gyrated on her back on the stage, but most of the dancers were talking with customers. Near the bar, a male patron was dancing, sandwiched between two strippers who playfully stroked his chest and back. During the day, the man manages a well-known business in town. At night, he frequents the club.
Slim Baucom knows his secret.
Ames Alexander, Maria David, Andrew Dunn, Mike Gordon, Steve Harrison, Gavin Off, Ely Portillo and Rick Rothacker contributed.