The intersection at Telegraph Avenue and Derby Street is home to many familiar Berkeley institutions. On the northwest corner is Andronico's supermarket. To the south of Andronico's is Willard Junior High. And across the street from the supermarket and the junior high is what police consider Berkeley's most notorious brothel, the Golden Gypsy Massage Parlor. There are no red neon signs at 2628 Telegraph advertising the Golden Gypsy's services to Telegraph commuters or Willard schoolgoers. In fact, there are no signs at all on the two-story beige building with its shades always drawn and its north-facing windows completely boarded over. Still, most locals will probably have heard of the Golden Gypsy. When a former city official who lived nearby was asked if she knew anything about the Golden Gypsy, she replied, "Oh, the whorehouse?"
For a quarter of a century -- since the pre-AIDS days of the mid-'70s -- the Gypsy has managed to keep its doors open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week. It has done so in spite of the forced closure of at least nine similar establishments across the city, undercover police investigations, and, yes, a couple of busts for pimping and prostitution. The Gypsy's endurance can be credited, in part, to its below-the-radar modus operandi. And its owners have also tried to be good neighbors when complaints have come their way. Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington, who represents the South Campus area, says that a few years ago he relayed a few gripes about the Gypsy's outward appearance; within three days the Gypsy's management hired workers to trim the bushes and pick up the trash out front.
In recent months, however, complaints about the Golden Gypsy became too much for Berkeley police to ignore. And now it looks like one of Berkeley's most famous underground landmarks is about to be history.
In April, Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler received an anonymous letter from a woman who described herself as being from "a prominent Berkeley family." Her husband, she wrote Butler, was "an executive [at] the Port of Oakland" and he was paying for sex at the Golden Gypsy. She knew that to be a fact because she had hired private investigators to follow him, and her hired gumshoes had gone to the Gypsy and paid for sex themselves. Doctors at the adjacent Berkeley Family Practice Medical Group, which has a parking lot between the two businesses, also were complaining about encounters with clients from the Gypsy. A female employee of the medical clinic wrote zoning officials that Gypsy clients had once asked her and a colleague, "How much did we cost and how much for a 'blow job.'"
Berkeley police already knew all about the Golden Gypsy. In 1988, Berkeley cops had raided the Golden Gypsy and charged its owners with pimping and pandering, though the charges were ultimately dropped. Eight years later, Berkeley undercover cops arrested three women for prostitution. Apparently the police felt that the latest wave of complaints warranted another raid.
On July 27 around noon, Berkeley police detective Stan Libed, dressed in plainclothes, rang the door at the Gypsy after obtaining a search warrant. Unbeknownst to the people inside, another undercover cop had already infiltrated and been escorted to one of the building's private rooms and been asked to shower and disrobe. The door swung open and, according to the police report, the blond greeter directed Libed "toward a half dozen scantily clad women and asked me to chose [sic] one." Libed chose a five-foot, 26-year-old Asian woman using the name "Jennifer."
Shortly after picking out Jennifer, the detective yelled, "Police!" Immediately, nearly twenty cops rushed the building. Libed quickly handcuffed Jennifer. Meanwhile, the suspected owner, Thomas D. Robinson, was trying to slip out through the sliding glass door of his office. Robinson, a tall, young-looking sixty-year-old with a reddish brown mustache, was quickly detained however, as was his younger brother, Benny, who acted as the Gypsy's maintenance man.Robinson chose to be cooperative, even handing police the keys to his nearby home on Carleton Avenue.
When the bust was over, the cops thought they had made a big score. They cited a half-dozen "johns" including a prominent East Bay architect. They also cited more than ten "massage therapists" who had no training in massage therapy. Police also found other more circumstantial indications of sex like condoms, condom wrappers, dildos, vibrators, and KY jelly. The cops ultimately confiscated more than $85,000 from the Gypsy's premises, as well as another $188,000 from Robinson's nearby home.
And the police found something else in Robinson's house that would have given his clients fits: videotapes. According to Berkeley police, Robinson videotaped the sex acts of his employees and clients in room number six on numerous occasions, most likely using a camera hidden behind an empty fire-alarm switch.
From a legal standpoint, the videotapes were crucial, since they would undercut any "blind eye" defense. At the Golden Gypsy, clients were charged a "house fee" ranging from $55 for 30 minutes to $65 for an hour. Whatever deals or "tips" for other activities that the girls negotiated in the privacy of these rooms were supposed to be unknown to the owner. The videotapes that police found, Libed reasoned, showed Robinson "was well aware of the criminal activity."
The district attorney eventually charged Robinson with felony counts of pimping and pandering. And on August 3, Berkeley code enforcement official Maurice Norisse, who had joined the July 27 raid, wrote Robinson that the city was going to try to revoke his use permit on the grounds that he was engaging in illegal activities. The city wanted to put the Gypsy out of business -- and perhaps end an era as well.
The Golden Gypsy came into being during a much more permissive time in Berkeley history. Though the exact date of its inception is unclear, the Gypsy was certainly in business by the mid-'70s. It ran ads in the old Berkeley Barb that promised, "Come on, let's do it at the beautiful Golden Gypsy." But times were a-changin' in Berkeley. In 1977, feminists and local progressive hero Father Bill O'Donnell began pressuring the City Council to get rid of hookers from the streets and massage parlors.
The following year, the City Council enacted an "adult oriented business" ordinance that targeted massage parlors. The law prohibited new adult businesses from being established within 1,000 feet of another adult business, or within 300 feet of a residential zoning district, or within 600 feet of a public park, health clinic, library, school, or church. (In earlier times, the city treated massage parlors no differently than, say, barber shops, and required no special approvals.)
When the adult-oriented business law went into effect, city zoning officials exempted in seventeen massage parlors that were already in existence. Today, only five of those parlors remain in Berkeley, including the Gypsy. The city shut down at least nine parlors in the late '70s and early '80s using its red-light-abatement powers.
An Oklahoma native raised as a Baptist by his grandparents, Tommy Robinson always seemed to be butting heads with the law. When he was sixteen, Oklahoma cops arrested him twice for car theft. After he moved to Oakland in the early '60s, police arrested him for soliciting prostitution. In 1966, he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary after breaking into the Dairy Rich Company's building in the dark early morning hours with two friends. In 1972 -- shortly before the opening of the Golden Gypsy -- federal agents bought coke from Robinson, who also reportedly boasted he could also get "pounds of marijuana in Arkansas."
In spite of his run-ins with the law, Tommy eventually took over the day-to-day operations of the Gypsy from his ex-wife, Evelyn, police say.
Sandy [not her real name], who worked at the Golden Gypsy as a masseuse during the late '70s, '80s, and '90s, describes Robinson as a "decent guy" who acted as a glorified innkeeper. "He creates an environment where attractive women go into a room with a client who is entitled to take off his clothes ... and when the door closes, it's private." She adds, "Nobody was hurting anybody. People were getting what they wanted. Robinson's the American entrepreneur. There's a market, and he's going to take advantage of the market." Indeed, the Gypsy has made Robinson a wealthy man. In 1966, he was making $3.68 an hour as a production worker for the Carnation Milk Company in Oakland and told a probation officer that his most valuable possession was a 1960 Chevy for which he still owed $700 in payments. Now, Robinson drives a 1995 Porsche 911 and owns more than $1 million worth of Berkeley property including the parcel containing the Golden Gypsy.
Or what used to be the Golden Gypsy.
Posted at the entrance of the Golden Gypsy now is a handwritten sign in red marker that reads "Closed."
Robinson, who is out on bail, has yet to enter a plea. His attorney, Jules Bonjour, coyly says that if his client enters a plea it will be not guilty. Meanwhile the Zoning Adjustment Board is scheduled to decide later this month whether to revoke the Gypsy's use permit.
Prepared for the worst, former clients are eulogizing. One man posted this note on a well-known sex Web site: "As some of the older guys who have been around for years will tell you, there has been a history of places coming and going in the Berkeley area. And my hope is that some similarly large, discreet, and well-run place will spring up somewhere in a similarly convenient location. The need is too great. It needs to be addressed." Even some neighbors are mourning the loss of the Gypsy. One employee of the nearby Andronico's, who refused to give his name, says he never had any problems with the Gypsy and adds that many of its employees shopped at the store. "It's been a landmark," he says. "To be honest, I'm sorry to see it go."
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