March 17, 2021

6. A Tad of Cyanide

by Welcome to Your Fantasy

Background show artwork for Welcome to Your Fantasy

1991. The UK. An international murder plot featuring a hitman, cyanide, male strippers, and a kingpin who’s determined to take out his competition at any cost. Hollywood movie plot? Or just another day in Steve Banerjee’s reality?

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Cover artwork by Lindsay Mound.

Where to Listen


Content Warning: The following program contains adult content, violence and strong language. Listener discretion is advised.

Natalia Petrzela: Previously on Welcome to Your Fantasy.

Dan Peterson: And all of a sudden, the sand pops up by us, and we hear the "phoom!" And we're like, what? We saw this "pfft," and then you hear this little "phzz." And we realized that someone was shooting at us. And of course, we both thought it was Steve.

Candace Mayeron: This is the infamous 1987 calendar.

Eric Gilbert: Banerjee was flipped out because he actually created this million-dollar mistake.

Candace Mayeron: This, of course, drove Banerjee into a frenzy, and caused him to really be looking harder at what Nick was doing, because now money was starting to be an issue.

Eric Gilbert: He would just sit there mumbling, and he would just say "Fuck him." And he said it in a way, like, he wanted to kill him.

[NEWS CLIP: Just after 3:30 this afternoon, 46-year-old Nick de Noia, an Emmy award-winning producer and director was murdered in his 15th floor office.]

Mike Geddes: It almost looked like a hit.

Candace Mayeron: I screamed and screamed, and I howled like a wounded animal at the top of my lungs. Nobody heard me. Nobody could hear me at all.

Natalia: On April 10, 1987, in North Bergen, New Jersey, Nick de Noia was buried in a family plot in the Flower Hill cemetery. It was a cool spring day, and a small group of Nick's family and friends gathered around as his coffin was lowered into the ground.

Al Juliano: I felt like everything happened pretty quick, like, the viewing and the funeral. It felt like, I know it wasn't one day, but it all felt like one day to me.

Natalia: Al Juliano worked for Nick for nearly four years, first at Chippendales and then as Nick tried to get his new male strip show, US Male, off the ground. Nick wasn't just Al's boss, he was a friend too. At first, when he heard that Nick had been killed, Al just couldn't accept the reality of it.

Al Juliano: I guess that's one of the thoughts that passed through my head, is this real, or is this another ploy for publicity? I kept hoping that it was just like a publicity stunt. I hope it's Nick fucking around, it's just some kind of publicity stunt. But when I went up there, it was real. It was very real.

Natalia: At the funeral, Al talked to a few other people who were also close to Nick. But for most of the day, he stood off on his own in a daze.

Al Juliano: Just kinda felt like, I don't know. It was like riding the wave, just went with what was going on, and I was laying on a board in the ocean.

Natalia: Nick's family was absorbed in their grief. And Will Mott, who'd been at the office when Nick was shot, was busy helping the police.

Al Juliano: Will Mott was in a van watching who was going in, pointing out who was who to the detectives.

Natalia: In the days since Nick's murder, the police had come up empty. No good leads on who'd killed Nick and why. So they were there at the funeral too, hoping the killer might show up.

Al Juliano: The detectives came and talked to me. They pulled me aside at the funeral. They asked me a bunch of questions. They said, "Who do you think did it?" I go, "It's his partner." He goes, "No, no. We already cleared him. He was in a restaurant in LA at the time." I go, "I'm not saying he pulled the trigger," I'm saying, he had it done. And they're like, "Well, we don't have any evidence of that. We don't have any proof of that." I'm like, "Well, you asked me who I thought.” Yeah, that was Steve Banerjee, yep.

Natalia: Al wasn't the only one convinced Banerjee was behind Nick's murder.

Mike Geddes: I remember two dancers would say, "Yeah, maybe he wasn't getting along with Steve." And it's funny when people say the word of somebody they don't like, it always seems to accent it like "Steve." You know, not like, "Oh, Steve."

Natalia: Mike Geddes was the lead detective on Nick's case. Picture a New York cop straight out of central casting. These days, he's got a shock of white hair, really bright blue eyes, rosy cheeks. He's stocky, has a sarcastic sense of humor. He kind of reminded me of Archie Bunker, but in the best possible way. Before he joined the NYPD, he was a bartender in Queens. And he used to do this thing every once in a while to get a laugh from the crowd.

Mike Geddes: And I always had a thing where I would take my shirt off and dance on the bar and kid around. So when Chippendales came about, I used to tell everybody I was Chippendales before there was Chippendales.

Natalia: Oh my God! That's a great story.

Mike Geddes: And we always kidded about it. So when I got the Chippendales homicide, I was like, wow, you know, this is so, you know ...

Natalia: Like the universe has delivered.

Mike Geddes: I believe everything's connected, you know?

Natalia: It's not super easy to imagine Mike Geddes dancing shirtless on a bar. I mean, this is the kind of language he tosses around when he's feeling especially salty.

Mike Geddes: And I was really—excuse the expression—but pissed.

Natalia: Geddes is retired now, but he talks about Nick's case in this way that makes you think he's had a hard time letting it go, even three decades later.

Mike Geddes: The family needs to have closure any time somebody's killed.

Natalia: Yeah.

Mike Geddes: Because too many people in this country don't have closure on somebody who was killed in their family. And that bugs me to no end. Myself personally.

Natalia: The funeral didn't turn anything up for Geddes. And no matter how many friends of Nick and employees of Chippendales believed Steve Banerjee was behind it, they couldn't find anything connecting him to the murder. Nothing. Geddes worked the case for a while, but got nowhere. So the case went cold.

Mike Geddes: The wall was, you know, hit. Eventually, what happens in most homicide cases is you do—you know, those first couple of days are the most important, you know? And then what happens is you hit the wall, somebody else gets killed.

Natalia: Yeah. Unrelated, just ...

Mike Geddes: Unrelated. Yeah.

Natalia: So that was it. There was a quick blitz from the press: "Strip King Shot Dead," "Emmy Winner Murdered." And then the world spun on. The investigation petered out, and Steve Banerjee got away with murder. I can imagine an alternate universe where Nick's death, and the fact that so many people think Banerjee was involved, brings so much attention that it affects the business, forces people to distance themselves from Steve and the brand, smears Chippendales reputation.

Natalia: But, that's not what happens. Instead, the club keeps putting hot guys on stage seven nights a week. The tours continue. The merch keeps moving off the shelves. And most employees—even the ones loyal to Nick—they stick around. Even some of them who'd left for US Male, they go back to working for Banerjee and Chippendales. Like Nick's friend Al Juliano.

Al Juliano: And I didn't want to do it because I felt it was like Banerjee was part of it, and I felt like if I go back there, is that really just slapping Nick in the face? It was so hard. It was such a hard decision to go back there. Just fuck, I didn't want to do it. Like, I really didn't want to do it, but I'm sitting in New York and I'm running out of funds that I had saved up.

Natalia: As for Steve, he can't even bring himself to pretend to be sad about losing his business partner. When Bruce Nahin, the club's lawyer, set up a reward fund to help catch Nick's killer, he told me that Steve wouldn't even give him a nickel.

Bruce Nahin: Yeah, the guy did him a favor.

Natalia: That's what he said to you?

Bruce Nahin: Yeah.

Natalia: "That guy did me a favor."

Bruce Nahin: Yeah.

Natalia: Because with Nick out of the picture, Steve's in a position to own Chippendales outright, to get all of the revenue and have total control.

Eric Gilbert: Banerjee, he was addicted already at that point to the cash. The brand was a big deal, having the location, control of it and everything. He was carrying around suitcases of cash when he would fly places, because he would get that much cash out of these shows. And it fed cash into his personal safe at his house.

Natalia: And no matter how many times Nick's friends and colleagues tell the police that it's gotta lead back to Steve, nobody has any evidence to pin it on him directly.

Candace Mayeron: So Nick was killed in 1987, and we all knew it was Banerjee, and nothing was done about it. And he was just flourishing, and he was making zillions of dollars, and we're all saying, "What the hell?" You know, Nick's murder hasn't been solved. We all know who did it. We can't figure out why nothing has happened.

Natalia: It might have stayed that way forever. But Banerjee gets cocky. And careless. And he tries to kill again.

Bruce Nahin: It's like once an animal tastes blood, they have an addiction to tasting it. He got away with it once. Why would you not think he would use that tool again?

Natalia: I'm Natalia Petrzela. This is Welcome to Your Fantasy, episode six: A Tad of Cyanide.

Candace Mayeron: I don't remember very much about the funeral. There were cops there.

Natalia: That's Candace Mayeron. The former investment banker Nick hired, who learned of his death when she was on tour with the dancers in Indianapolis.

Candace Mayeron: Banerjee wanted to come to the funeral and Val de Noia refused him. Val knew too. There isn't anybody who didn't know who was behind this. And Val refused Banerjee to come to the funeral.

Natalia: Val is Nick's brother. He was so distraught, and so intent on catching the killer, that he started calling Geddes every single day to check in on the case. For a while, Val even took over Nick's job, practically daring Banerjee to come after him too.

Mike Geddes: I was telling Val, "You don't need to do this. You don't need another death in the family." He says, "No, I want that son of da da da da to get caught." That's all he was interested in. He figured by exposing himself, something would come out of it where they could identify the killer of his brother.

Natalia: Everyone had their own way of coping. Candace knew she had to keep the tour going. She told me it's what Nick would have wanted.

Candace Mayeron: I couldn't wait to get back to the guys. I just—I hated being away from them. I just wanted to get back to the company. Those were my brothers, and our father had been killed, and I just wanted to be with them.

Natalia: Yeah. And you continued the show. The show went on.

Candace Mayeron: I continued without even one night dropped. The only people I could commiserate with were Chippendale people. I mean, obviously I informed my family, or my family had heard about it. I was getting phone calls from friends and family, "Are you in danger, Candace?" I said, "I'm not in any danger at all." And I knew it wasn't. It was Banerjee hated Nick. He didn't hate me, so I just took over.

Natalia: All of a sudden, Candace's new boss is Val, Nick's brother. She says he couldn't have been more different from Nick.

Candace Mayeron: Well, Val was older than Nick for one, so he was a fuddy-duddy.

Natalia: Soon, Candace and Val begin to clash.

Candace Mayeron: Val fired me. He thought that they could do all this by themselves with this new tour promoter. And one month later, he absconded with all the money, and the show was dead and the tour was over. And Val accepted Banerjee's offer.

Natalia: Steve Banerjee offered to buy back the tour rights from Val, who agreed. And so The Napkin Deal that had given Nick ownership of the tour had come full circle. And Banerjee was the one left standing, tour rights in hand.

Scott Marlowe: So they kind of questioned everybody and they said, "Does anybody have any reason to believe, or any idea of why someone would want to kill Nick?" And I stupidly blurted out of my mouth, because I don't know how to keep my mouth shut apparently, "Who wouldn't?" [laughs]

Natalia: That's Scott Marlowe again. You might remember him from Episode Three, the guy who left Wall Street behind and ended up humping a motorcycle onstage. He was dancing at the New York club when Nick was murdered.

Scott Marlowe: And immediately, the detectives walked over to me and said, "What was that?" And I said, "Who wouldn't want to fucking kill him?"

Natalia: Wow!

Scott Marlowe: You can imagine that they shuttled me off to a private fucking area two minutes after that wanting to discuss it with me. But I had a perfect alibi, and I had no knowledge of the murder beyond the fact that he was dead.

Natalia: How did the other dancers react when you made that joke? Was it what everyone else wanted to say?

Scott Marlowe: I think some people smiled and some people were upset. I think some people really liked Nick. I think Michael liked Nick a lot.

Michael Rapp: De Noia and myself never had any problem. I was a good boy. [laughs]

Natalia: You did what you were told?

Natalia: Michael Rapp, pecs as big as Kansas, Perfect Man, et cetera et cetera. He saw the same things Scott Marlowe saw, and he remembers talking to the cops about it too.

Michael Rapp: And they said, "So do you know anyone who would want to kill Nick de Noia?" I go, "Yeah, I know several people who want to, because he was a power control freak."

Natalia: Back on the west coast, people like Eric Gilbert, who had a front row seat for the Nick and Steve wars, had the same suspicions as everybody else.

Eric Gilbert: I was in Arizona at the time on a business trip, and this person called and he said, "Did you hear de Noia got shot?" And I'm like, "Wow. Where?" And he's like, "In his office in New York." And the first thing I said is, "It's Banerjee. Has to be Banerjee." And it was weird seeing Banerjee after it happened, because I was scared, you know? I was scared of him. But he acted totally calm. Like, he didn't even refer to it. It was like something had just been taken off his desk and he doesn't have to look at it anymore.

Natalia: Did you ever think he was capable of murder?

Eric Gilbert: No. Although I had a feeling. I had never met a real psychopath until then, and I started to learn what a psychopath really was. After Nick was killed, he didn't say anything about Nick. And then he came into my office one time, like a year later, and he does this, like, really fake, weird tribute to Nick. I'm like, "Is there somebody taping this?" I mean, I'm looking around my office, like, I can't believe you're just going into this cheap, rehearsed soliloquy tribute.

Eric Gilbert: And he goes like, "Oh, I can't believe Nick is gone." I said to him, "He's been dead a year, Steve." And he's like, "Oh, I know. I just, you know, can't believe—" It's like he was trying to play some emotion that I've never—it's so weird, because I've never seen him act.

Natalia: Wow. Did he ever send out, like, a message of condolence?

Eric Gilbert: No, he didn't think like that. At times, I would really believe—I'd find out some more about Nick being killed, and I would really believe that it was true that Steve did it. I think at times, I'd convinced myself he didn't do it. And to keep working for him was really upsetting me. So anyway, that's why I left, eventually.

Natalia: By all accounts, Banerjee's doing fine. Better than fine. He's thriving. With The Napkin Deal null and void, some speculate that he's making about $100,000 per week off the tour alone, though it seems like no one's really keeping track, so who knows? He's got a new show too, and a new choreographer, Steve Merritt. The show's gotten an '80s upgrade. If Nick was "jazz hands," then Merritt is "Flashdance." His new show is called "Welcome to My Fantasy."

[NEWS CLIP: Tonight, more than 1,000 screaming women did live out their fantasy at Memorial Auditorium. They've seen these guys on all the major talk shows, and on one of the biggest selling calendars in the country.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: What are you doing here tonight?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: Watching men!]

Natalia: There was one setback. By the late '80s, Banerjee had spent practically a decade fighting with the fire department in LA, And the Alcohol Beverage Control Board—the ABC—over a whole slew of repeat violations. In 1988, things finally came to a head.

[NEWS CLIP: The possibility that the controversial nightclub might be shut down concerned women in line to see the second show tonight. But their reasons were selfish.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: I think it would be fair if there was too many people in there, but not tonight. [laughs] We drove too far.

Ralph Saltsman: I would be in the criminal court building for overcrowding cases, of which we had innumerable. I couldn't even begin to guess how many we had.

Natalia: Ralph Saltsman was one of the many lawyers who represented Banerjee in his fights with the city. Saltsman refused to bring Steve or any of the Chippendales staff to court hearings.

Ralph Saltsman: I wouldn't take anybody with me. I'd go there by myself. I wouldn't put him on the stand. My impression at the time was that I don't think that he would've made a good witness because I think his temper would have taken control over his testimony.

[NEWS CLIP: The publicity surrounding the fire department's campaign to shut down Chippendales hasn't done the night spot any harm. The fire department's tough talk has been cheaper than buying advertising for the male exotic show.]

Natalia: Finally, in late 1988, the ABC had had enough. They revoke Banerjee's liquor license and shut down the club on Overland Avenue. The original Chippendales—the birthplace of Steve Banerjee's male exotic dance show, and his dream of being the next Hugh Hefner—gone. Banerjee moves the show to a nearby club called Carlos and Charlie's, where they do the show a couple nights a week.

Eric Gilbert: Carlos and Charlie's was just some shitty bar on Sunset Boulevard.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Manning: We cannot in this city allow our citizens to be put at risk for an economic gain by someone that just absolutely doesn't care.]

Natalia: With the LA club a shadow of its former self, Banerjee decides to double down on the tour. And in 1990, he approaches a London music agent and promoter, Carl Leighton-Pope, with a business proposition. Would Pope like to take the Chippendales dancers on tour through Europe?

Carl Leighton-Pope: No. No. No. The last thing I was interested in was a group of guys taking their clothes off.

Natalia: Thing is, Banerjee was right. There was an opportunity there. A friend convinces Leighton-Pope that it'd be legendary, to take these American strippers and create a show for European women. It had never been done, he said.

Carl Leighton-Pope: And I said, "Look, this is what it's gonna cost, this is what we want to do. But no clubs. If we can't make this work in the theater, I don't want it. I'm not gonna run around doing this bullshit in clubs."

Natalia: Banerjee is in, so Carl gets to work booking Chippendales in 1,000-seat theaters all over the UK. And the women of Britain? They love it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bob Mortimer: First appearance in the UK of the Chippendales, sir.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vic Reeves: Yes, a tremendous show, isn't it?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Gina Yashere: It's got to be a screaming, baying pack of banshees. That's how it works.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Now listen, I am not leaving this bedroom until I get a tip from each of you. So let's start with Kyle.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Julian Clary: And do you scream and shout and then leave a little deposit on the seat?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elaine: I do, yeah.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lynne Haines: You know, it was well, should we Chippendale it this week, or should we pay the mortgage? No? Okay. Chips won.]

Natalia: The way Carl tells it, he genuinely cannot believe how well it's going.

Carl Leighton-Pope: I'm standing outside the stage door. A woman came up to me and said, "You're Carl Leighton-Pope, aren't you?" So I said, "Yes I am." She said, "I've seen the Chippendales 20 times." And I said, "Really?" And she said, "My husband pays for the tickets, but he gets well rewarded when I get home." Brilliant! I thought that was just so brilliant. We couldn't book theaters fast enough. And it was really exploding.

Natalia: Carl tells the story of what comes next like a general invading Europe: one conquest after another, boom, boom, boom!

Carl Leighton-Pope: Benelux: Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg. So then we took it to France. Played that big arena in Paris, and it all went completely mad. By which time, the Irish had found out about it. And so we moved south, and we took it to Switzerland, Germany, through Germany, down into Austria. It was going so well, you have no idea. I mean, it was flying.

Natalia: Tell me a little bit more about working with Steve Banerjee. What was your first impression of him?

Carl Leighton-Pope: I thought that he was a smart guy. I thought that he'd come up with something quite unique. But the paranoia became exhausting.

Natalia: What was that like?

Carl Leighton-Pope: It was terrible. It was, like, daily, constant. Banerjee would be on the phone, "What about this? What have you done about that? I thought you were going to get this. What about the numbers for this? Why isn't this—why aren't we doing this? Why aren't we—well, surely we should be." And it was constant questions about why we weren't running head to head with every other kind of Chippendale group that came out of the woodwork.

Natalia: We'll be right back.

Natalia: No matter the success, the money, the thousands of screaming women lined up all over the world, Banerjee's gonna Banerjee. And so he becomes obsessed with the competition.

Carl Leighton-Pope: He lived with a paranoia of people trying to steal his business.

Natalia: And while he wants to squash them all, there's one group that really gets under his skin: Adonis: The Men of Hollywood. They're American, but it's not just that. Adonis was created by a couple of former Chippendales dancers from Banerjee's LA club. And in the summer of 1991, while Carl Leighton-Pope is booking Chippendales in huge theaters all over Europe, Adonis books a run at a theater in Blackpool, a coastal tourist town that's sort of like the Atlantic City of the UK.

Graham Gooch: So it's that sort of vibrant place. And of course, the Blackpool Tower, which is sort of a slightly smaller version of the Eiffel Tower.

Natalia: Graham Gooch, the detective chief superintendent, presided over Blackpool's many hotel rooms and it's knock-off Eiffel Tower in the summer of 1991. He'd left Scotland Yard for Lancashire the year before. He told me that when he took the detective superintendent position, he was looking forward to the idyllic countryside. Investigating "misbehavior" rather than "homicides," as he put it. The summer days of 1991 passed without much excitement. His days were filled with cases of disorderly behavior and public drunkenness. And then on July 23 around lunchtime, Detective Gooch's office phone rang. And on the other line was the FBI.

Graham Gooch: They said, "You've got a problem. There's a hitman coming to kill some male dancers."

Natalia: How did you react?

Graham Gooch: Yeah, it's not the sort of call you get every day, really. And they said, "Yes, the group Adonis." And there was some chap coming from America to kill a couple of them.

Natalia: Gooch walked from his office over to the theater and into the tiny dressing room where he found three guys—two American dancers and their Australian manager—hanging out a few hours before that night's show.

Graham Gooch: We wanted to see them and sat them down and said, "Look, we've got a bit of a problem here, is that someone's hired a hitman to come and kill a couple of you."

Natalia: How did that land?

Graham Gooch: Well, I think it spoiled their day a bit.

Natalia: The threat of a hitman is a legitimately unnerving thing. But as the details of the murder plot were slowly revealed to Gooch, it goes from scary to, well, the most charitable way I can describe it is completely absurd.

Graham Gooch: He's gonna come here and he's going to stab two people, possibly three, with a syringe full of poison. Now these dancers are pretty big fellows, and so they're not gonna take it too easily.

Natalia: And, you might ask, how was the hitman supposed to successfully inject these three men—three huge men—with a syringe full of cyanide?

Graham Gooch: The person hiring the hitman said, "Well, you hit him with a brick or something, and knock him down and then inject him." Now if you do that to one person taken by surprise, but two or three? It's not gonna be a very easy thing to do. Normally, people won't sit round and let it happen. And then you've got to hope the other one sits down while you're killing one. So I thought it was a bit of a scatterbrained plan from the start.

Natalia: In terms of murder plots, how common is it to use a syringe?

Graham Gooch: Well, it's very rare, you know, to employ a hitman to go and do that. I mean, it's very common in fiction more often than it is in fact. To go and try to do not one, but two or perhaps three murders, going to a country with which you're not familiar, without any briefing much about where they're gonna be alone at any time, it was peculiar. And certainly wasn't very professional.

Natalia: But as far fetched as the plot is, Gooch still has to take the threat seriously. He assigns a few detectives to shadow the dancers in case anyone with bricks and syringes of cyanide comes for them.

Natalia: Did the men ever say, "We're not gonna do this. We're not going on. We want to go home. Get us out of here?"

Graham Gooch: No. I mean they went on and did the show. I think the old show business thing, the show must go on. And they did. It can't be very nice to know that somebody is actually planning to kill you, and somebody's on their way to kill you. But the show went on.

Natalia: The detectives watch over the Adonis men for two days, and they talk theories. Who would be after them? Like Dan Peterson after he was shot at at the beach, and Nick's friends and family after Nick was murdered, the men of Adonis all agree on one thing.

Graham Gooch: They caught on pretty quickly where it had come from. I think they were sort of a bit incredulous to start with, and then I think they started to put two and two together about who it was, because of the trouble they'd had with Steve Banerjee before, and having moved away from him, that they could see where this was all coming from.

Natalia: A couple of days later, the FBI called Gooch again.

Graham Gooch: They told us that the threat's gone. "We've got the man here." The man had been detained. So that was the end of it, really.

Natalia: But it was nowhere near the end. For the FBI, it was just the beginning.

Natalia: The guy the FBI had in custody was a small-time crook named Errol Lynn Bressler, who went by the name "Strawberry." According to the FBI, the guy who hired Strawberry had the touring dates wrong, which meant Strawberry arrived in England early, before the Adonis guys even got there. He waited for them, but when the right time finally arrived, Strawberry didn't go through with it. He bailed on the plan completely. Didn't hit anyone with a brick, didn't inject anyone with cyanide as he'd been instructed to do. Strawberry was out.

Natalia: Which might lead you to ask: who was the guy who hired Strawberry and came up with this harebrained scheme in the first place? Let me introduce you to Ray Colon. Ray's important to this story. He's important to Steve Banerjee's entire life of crime. Way back in the early days, Ray was the guy Steve often went to to get his dirty work done. But Ray's not your typical fixer.

Natalia: In the late '90s, at the suggestion of his therapist, Ray wrote a 900-page screenplay based loosely on the events of his life. The movie, if made, would be 15 hours long. We've confirmed that some of what's in the screenplay is true, and some of it is not. Welcome to Ray's fantasy, if you will. Ray died in 2002 from kidney disease at the age of 58, so we couldn't ask him about any of this directly. But we did talk to his writing partner at the time, Patrick MontesDeOca.

Patrick MontesDeOca: I met Ray Colon while I was in an acting school, doing a scene, a class. And he was interested in bad guys, and I was playing a killer. In the scene, the other actor broke the wall. He got scared. He thought actually I was going to kill him. Ray, he was looking for a reading of a theatrical screenplay that he had done about cops and robbers, and we became more or less affiliated and had a lot in common.

Natalia: Patrick started working on scripts with Ray in the '90s. They met in that acting class, and quickly found they both grew up in Astoria, Queens in the 1950s.

Patrick MontesDeOca: That was the contact that we made when we met, that we had that common denominator. I think you can generalize when most of the kids that grew up in New York in that time, that grew up in the street, they grew up with the mob, they grew up with the idea that a mobster is great, it's flashy, people fear you. And they build a life around that. But I made choices, good choices in terms of going into acting, you know? It was very positive for me to do that. But people like Ray, the only thing that they—I believe, I suppose, at the time wanted to do was to be accepted by the mob, you know?

Natalia: We never found any actual mob connections, but in his screenplay, Ray writes about his exploits like he's in a Scorsese movie.

Patrick MontesDeOca: Ray was funny, charming, but with a current tension underneath all of that, that he could snap any moment, so to speak. So he was in a way, pretty unpredictable. When he walked into a room, you know, he was a small guy, but he was very powerful. He carried a lot of power.

Natalia: Like, how would you describe it? He walked into a room and ...

Patrick MontesDeOca: Threatening power. Threatening. Threatening. Threatening. You know, threatening. Now you don't mess with this guy. But he had a real charming quality about him and that was the side that I saw.

Natalia: Very few people we talked to wanted to talk about knowing Ray Colon. But they all knew of him, because Ray had been hanging around Chippendales since the beginning. He moved to LA from New York when he was young to try and make it in the music industry. And the way Patrick tells it, Ray sort of stumbled upon the club back in the days when it was called Destiny II.

Patrick MontesDeOca: Ray had a production company at the time. He had left the studio and gone into the club by accident. And walked into this club. They were playing terrible music and Ray was sitting at the bar. And so Steve came over, introduced himself and the club was empty. And he asked Ray what he does and he said, "Oh, I'm a producer. I've got a studio down the street here." He says, "Maybe you can give me some idea about the club. What do you think I should do?" And Ray says, "Well, the first thing is, you know, throw out the band. Fire the band. Put some lights on, circulate lights, and get some disco music going." And that was the beginning of the relationship.

Natalia: Ray and Steve Banerjee become fast friends. Ray's a regular at the club as it transforms from dingy bar to local hot spot.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ray Colon: I mean, at that time, we were that close. He told me things that he—everybody wants to believe that they were his confidante. And it's bullshit.]

Natalia: That's Ray in a British documentary from 1998 called Chippendales: A Secret History. There's some disagreement about why Ray even did the documentary. According to Patrick, it was all part of this redemption project from the crimes Ray committed on Steve's behalf. But others thought that Ray was, if anything, an opportunist, and that this was just the next thing that came his way. Back when things were better between him and Banerjee, Ray worked briefly as Steve's musical director. Then he left to join the police department in Palm Springs as a reserve officer, which is basically like being a mall cop. On weekends, he'd drive back to LA to visit the club with his cop buddies.

Natalia: Even after Ray left the force, Steve thought Ray's time in uniform was useful cover for the "unofficial" work that Steve would ask him to set up over the next 12 or so years. By the summer of 1991, Steve couldn't stop talking about Adonis, the other American male exotic dance troupe getting work in the UK. First, Steve tried to stop legally, demanding that every venue where Chippendales performed had to sign an exclusive agreement. But when that strategy didn't work, Steve put in a call to Ray.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ray Colon: He said, "This is the son of a bitch I want you to get." You know? "This white guy and this other guy, these are the two guys I want." Then he gave me alternate guys, a bunch of alternate guys. About five alternate people.]

Natalia: In Ray's recounting, Banerjee instructs him to set up the murders of two men affiliated with Adonis. One's a former Chippendales star, and the other is his manager. Ray takes the job, but he knows better than to do Banerjee's dirty work himself, so he reaches out to a guy he knows who he thinks will be up for it. That's Strawberry.

Natalia: Ray offers him $25,000 a head to go to England and kill the men of Adonis. So according to Ray, Banerjee is at once extremely specific, "These are the two guys I need you to get," and laughably vague. Like, "Oh, and if you get around to it, go ahead and murder these other dudes, too." Next, they just need to figure out how they're gonna get it done. There's no way Strawberry's gonna be able to smuggle a gun on the flight to England. So Ray has other plans.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ray Colon: I don't know if you know what gophers are. You know, gophers are like little—they kind of look like mice, but they're like chipmunks, you know? And they burrow these big holes in your lawn, I mean humongous holes and tunnels. And I mean, big.]

Natalia: According to guys who knew him, Ray was a jokester, always teasing people and looking for a laugh. So I gotta say, it feels a little out of character that he's not leaning more into the absurdity of this murder plot. But I guess by that point in Ray's life, his lawn—and the gophers destroying it—were no laughing matter.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ray Colon: So I had cyanide to kill those little bastards, you know? So then, I said, "But I'll tell you what, I have some potassium cyanide. Maybe we can use that." He says, "Yeah." You know? He says, "Yeah, we can inject them with the cyanide." Just a tad of cyanide is gonna kill you.]

Natalia: So Ray sends Strawberry to London with cyanide from his personal stash, hidden in a bottle of Visine. Strawberry had often bragged to Ray about running guns between New York and Florida, but he'd also bragged about being a snitch. That one of the ways he'd make money was to set up drug deals, and then turn a bunch of those drug dealers over to the DEA.

Natalia: Which, again, makes you question Ray's judgment when it comes to hiring killers. So when things go south in Blackpool, Strawberry doesn't just give up on the hit, and he doesn't reach out to Ray and say, "I can't do this." Instead, he reaches out to the feds. And the FBI? They're on it. They talk to Strawberry at their Las Vegas field office, and they put a plan in place. Strawberry's gonna get Ray on tape discussing the hit. As far as Ray knows, Strawberry's still in London calling to walk through the details of the plan just one more time.

Graham Gooch: There was a phone call intercepted by the FBI where the person hiring the hitman said, "Well, you can hit him with a brick or something and knock him down, and then inject him."

Natalia: The FBI searches Ray's house three days later. They find 46 grams of cyanide in his garage, in a canvas bag with a hand-drawn skull and crossbones and the words "Do Not Open." It was enough to kill over 230 people. And probably a shitload of gophers too. I don't know. We called three different exterminators to ask, but they all just laughed.

Natalia: Ray is arrested and charged with murder for hire. He pleads not guilty, and is held in a Los Angeles detention center without bail. His court-appointed attorney tells him he could be looking at a sentence of 35 years. Ray sits in prison for seven months, worrying about the increasing pain in his kidneys and the little time he has left.

Patrick MontesDeOca: So here's what happened.

Natalia: This is Ray's friend Patrick again.

Patrick MontesDeOca: Ray, he was pretty much by himself when he realized the complications or the implications of his crime, and that he would be valuable, a valuable asset if he was to turn Steve in.

Natalia: But Ray stews for awhile, and then—and by the way, this is the scene that Ray describes in his zillion-page screenplay—he runs into an old mobster in the yard, a guy named Rocky.

Patrick MontesDeOca: And so Rocky walks over to him, "Hey, how are you doing buddy? How are you? I hear you had some trouble here." He hugs him and kisses him and he says, "I hear what you're doing with this guy, Steve, and you're taking it for him on the chin." He says, "Why are you doing that? So screw him, give him up. I'm telling you, I'm ordering you. Give him up."

Natalia: In reality, Ray eventually gets a lawyer, and that lawyer helps him flip. Every time Ray appears on screen in that documentary, his face is blurred out. He sounds resigned, like he's got no moves left to make at all. He's a guy with a complicated relationship to his own past, definitely not the only man in Chippendales history to fit that description. This interview he gave was in 1998, seven years after the attempted UK hit, and four years before he died. And when I listen to Ray speak, what I hear in his voice more than anything else is just relief.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ray Colon: What Strawberry did was the right thing. And I mean, thinking about it now, I'm glad he did what he did. As far as him turning me in, in a way I was relieved it was over, you know? Because I think at some point, I would have had to kill Steve or he would have had to kill me. It would have never ended, you know?]

Natalia: Next time ...

Candace Mayeron: We did the Geraldo show, which was my attempt to spur the FBI into getting a move on.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Geraldo Rivera: Some of the most sexy strippers on this planet. But that is not the entire Chippendale story, and today more scandal than you could ever imagine.]

Natalia: Wait, did you tell Geraldo behind the scenes that you thought it was Banerjee?

Candace Mayeron: We said it on the air!

Steve Clymer: If you think about the whole range of murders, many murders are heat of passion murders, and a murder for hire is a cold, calculated premeditated crime.

Natalia: Was this a kind of hot case?

Bruce Nahin: It's Chippendales, babe. We're still talking about it 40 years later.

Natalia: Welcome to Your Fantasy is a production of Pineapple Street Studios in association with Gimlet. It's hosted by me, Natalia Petrzela. Our senior producer is Eleanor Kagan, our producer is Christine Driscoll, and our associate producer is Erin Kelly. Nicole Hemmer and Neil J. Young are consulting producers.

Natalia: Our editors are Joel Lovell and Maddy Sprung-Keyser. It was mixed by Hannis Brown, and fact-checked by Ben Phelan.

Natalia: This show features original music by Daoud Anthony. And thanks to our music supervisor Jasmine Flott. The executive producers at Pineapple Street are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. From Gimlet, our executive producer is Lydia Polgreen and our editor is Collin Campbell.

Natalia: We've got a Spotify playlist with tons of music from the original show, so you can recreate the club experience for yourself in the comfort of your own home. You can find the link in the show notes.

Natalia: For clips from Chippendale's British takeover, and behind the scenes footage of Steve Banerjee directing a calendar shoot in Tahiti, check out our Instagram account @ChippendalesRevealed. That's the handle. @ChippendalesRevealed.

Natalia: Did you ever go to Chippendales? We want to hear about it. Leave us a short voicemail—30 seconds to a minute, tops—at (323) 475-9424, and we might play it on a future episode. That's 323-475-9424.

Natalia: This is a Spotify original podcast.