Ascension Parish sheriff’s deputies booked a convicted sex offender and another man Wednesday on false public record and other counts stemming from a scheme to hide the ownership of a troubled strip club on Airline Highway in Prairieville, the Sheriff’s Office reported.
The allegations surrounding the arrests connected with Suthern Kumfort’s Lounge also shed light on the lucrative side of maintaining the grandfathered status of the few strip clubs remaining in Ascension Parish after a parish licensing law effectively limited their number.
The Sheriff’s Office and the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control conducted a joint investigation into the bar following a May 4 slaying in the club parking lot, deputies said in a news release Thursday.
Zachary Pusch, 20, of Prairieville, who was working for the bar, was booked with second-degree murder in the fatal beating of Willis Tanner, 28, 8531 New River Road, St. Amant, deputies have said.
Tanner was a patron of the club.
His slaying on May 4 is the second at the bar since 2008.
Deputies said the bar was operating at the time of Tanner’s death on current but invalid parish licenses listing the former bar owner.
The bar closed May 5 and has not reopened, deputies have said.
On Thursday, investigators accused the sex offender, Charles Puckett, 61, of 39219 James Drive, Prairieville, of conspiring with Steve Duke, 56, the alleged business owner, to hide Puckett’s ownership of the strip club.
Puckett was convicted of forcible rape on Aug. 4, 1992, in a case involving victims who were minors, deputies said. He was released in 2001 but remains on parole, deputies said.
As such, Puckett is ineligible to obtain an Ascension Parish license to operate a sexually oriented business — required for strip clubs — or a state permit to sell alcoholic beverages, authorities have said.
On Wednesday, Puckett was arrested and booked on six counts of being a principal to filing and maintaining false public records and two counts of failure to register and notify as a sex offender, deputies said.
Duke, of 15230 Silver Oak, Prairieville, also was arrested and booked Wednesday on two counts of filing and maintaining false public records, deputies said.
Sheriff Jeff Wiley detailed Thursday how investigators found two other people whom Puckett had unsuccessfully sought out to stand in for Puckett on state or parish licenses before Duke became the listed owner in January.
The other two people were not able to stand in for Duke, Wiley and deputies alleged, because either that person or an immediate family member had a criminal history that disqualified them from obtaining the licenses that Puckett was seeking.
Neither was arrested Wednesday but one of them, Donna Faulkner, 53, of 15230 Silver Oak, Prairieville, remains under investigation, deputies said.
Wiley said investigators believe Duke does not now and never did own the business but is a former employee of Puckett’s who lives in a mobile home rented from Puckett.
Wiley said investigators cannot find any assets that Duke has that would allow him to buy the strip club and claim Puckett is the business’ owner.
A 2003 ordinance calling for the licensing of sexually oriented businesses greatly limited where strip clubs can be located in the parish, leading to buyouts of old club businesses to preserve their grandfathered locations.
Investigators found Puckett bought a 55 percent stake in Suthern Kumfort’s from a former owner on Aug. 19, 2009, for $80,000, deputies said.
Wiley said Puckett promised to buy the remaining 45 percent on Jan. 18, 2011, from another former owner for $80,000 to $90,000, but never came through with the money.
On May 25, investigators seized records from Puckett’s house and the club detailing Puckett’s ownership of the bar, deputies said.
But Steve Duke’s attorney, Joe Long, contends his client is the 100 percent owner of the bar business and that state corporation records and parish license applications show as much starting in January.
According to land records, Puckett has been the owner of the club building since February 2010, but Long maintains that Puckett acts only as Duke’s landlord.
Long also contended that deputies knew Duke was the new owner due to responses for 911 calls in which deputies spoke to Duke.
Long said Duke was applying for his new licenses and operating under a longstanding parish practice of using the prior owner’s current licenses while the new application was being reviewed.
The Sheriff’s Office and the parish sales tax office handle much of the vetting for those applications and deputies approved Duke’s background check March 2, Long said.
Long said the applications were improperly denied by the parish on the day after Tanner’s death. An administrative hearing is set for Tuesday.
Wiley responded that deputies knew Duke was operating the bar and are not challenging that Duke falsely represented himself to be the owner.
“We are asserting that, based on witness testimony, video, and hard documents, we will prove that he was not the owner and never was, Mr. Puckett, the convicted sex offender was,” Wiley said in an email response.