Bad Rap?

At first, Electric Ballroom co-owner David Seven thought he was just having another one of his Howard Stern dreams.

"I've been a fan of Howard's for years," says Seven. "I set the alarm on my clock radio so that I wake up every morning laughing at him saying something stupid, and a lot of times... I'll weave his words into my dreams."

One Wednesday morning in late January, however, the "something stupid" Stern was jiving about were allegations of onstage sexual assault at Seven's Tempe nightclub.

And this time, Seven wasn't laughing.
The incident Stern referred to occurred at Electric Ballroom January 21 during a hip-hop concert by the L.A. rap group Onyx. Two high school girls claimed they were pulled onstage and forced to simulate oral sex by Fred "Fredo" Scruggs and Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones. The rappers were arrested that night after the girls reported their accusations to Tempe police.

But Michelle Vega and Brandi Adamson--17 and 18 years old, respectively--dropped charges the next day, and their alleged attackers were released in time to make the next stop on Onyx's national tour.

No problem, thought Seven--a couple girls got onstage for some dirty dancing at a hard-core rap show, got a little embarrassed and briefly overreacted. Nothing to worry about. Then he woke up to Stern doing a "What did they think would happen?" shtick.

"I heard him talking about Onyx and Electric Ballroom in Tempe, Arizona, and I thought, 'What a corny dream,'" says Seven. "Then I opened my eyes and realized he was still talking.

"I bolted up and called Jim [Ballroom coowner Jim Torgeson] and said, 'Jim, the good news is our club is now nationally known. The bad news is, with publicity like this, you never know what lawyer's going to crawl out of the woodwork and get creative.' I took it as a bad omen."

Three and a half weeks later, Richard Mahoney, a former Arizona secretary of state and U.S. Senate candidate, held a news conference in front of Electric Ballroom where, flanked by Vega and Adamson, he announced that he was representing the girls in a lawsuit against the nightclub, Onyx and TMC Presents, a local hip-hop promotions outfit that staged the concert.

And, on the advice of their attorney, the girls have decided to press charges after all. According to a police report, the rappers stand accused of "sexual abuse" and "forced fondling."

Mahoney says he didn't get the idea to sue from Howard Stern. Vega and Adamson came to him, he says, and he decided to take the case because he believes them.

"Basically, these girls were emotionally raped in front of several hundred people," Mahoney says.

Vega and Adamson's story is this:
Just before Onyx began to perform, the two pushed their way to the front of the crowd that had jammed Electric Ballroom's floor. When Onyx took the stage, the crowd surged forward and the girls were pinned against the stage platform. (None of the 32 security guards in Electric Ballroom that night was positioned between the crowd and the stage, which, according to Mahoney, is primarily why Electric Ballroom is to be named in the lawsuit.)

One of the Onyx rappers saw the girls were in trouble, offered a hand and asked Vega if she wanted to come onstage. Vega says she agreed because she was having trouble breathing. "The crowd was jumping on us and pushing hard," she says. "People are saying I volunteered to get onstage, but I didn't want to be part of any act--I just wanted to not get hurt."

Vega says she nodded yes, and the rapper pulled her onstage--not by the hand, but by the hair--and pushed her down so that she was seated and faced the crowd. Onyx then began to perform a song titled "Suck the Next Nigga's Dick." Vega says that after the song began, Scruggs grabbed her by the hair again, wrenched her head around and forced her head into his crotch while rapping the enlightening lyrics "Whore, suck my dick."

According to police reports, Vega initially told a Tempe officer that Scruggs pushed her face into his crotch. She later changed her story to say that only her cheek was pressed into the rapper's groin.

"He stuck the side of my head into his privates, then shoved me back into the audience," Vega tells New Times. "I crawled out of the crowd to the side, and then watched them do the same thing to my friend."

Adamson says that after Vega was pushed into the crowd, several people lifted Adamson onto the stage, where Scruggs and Jones grabbed her head and pushed her face into both of their crotches before also throwing her off the stage. Adamson says she then crawled out to join Vega. Both girls say they were crying and protesting onstage.

"I was trying hard to get out of there, but people in the audience had my feet," says Vega, adding that the Onyx concert was her first hip-hop show.

One witness, Michelle Ellis, corroborates Vega and Adamson's account in a Tempe police report, and Mahoney says he has collected ten other statements to back up his clients' story.

However, Phoenix resident and hip-hop fan Travis Mowry, 25, says Vega's and Adamson's descriptions are inaccurate. Mowry says he had a clear view of the stage, and that both girls were onstage at the same time, that neither of them was pulled up by her hair or pushed by the crowd--"They crawled up on their own"--and that the girls were "sitting on the stage for at least a few minutes, swaying with the music and having a good time."

Mowry says he turned to get a drink just before the girls left the stage. "I heard a reaction from the crowd and turned back to see what was going on and they were already gone," he says. "Whatever happened, it was really quick." Once Vega and Adamson were back in the crowd, Mowry says, he saw them exchanging celebratory high-fives with several people.

A set of notes on the Onyx case that Mahoney inadvertently left behind after his news conference reads in part that "the young women protested immediately to security and called for police."

On the contrary, says Vega, she and Adamson didn't decide to contact the police until they left Electric Ballroom after the concert and saw Tempe police Officer Stephen Laird in the parking lot. (Laird was there to investigate a hit-and-run accident.) At the urging of a friend, Vega says she contacted the officer and filed a report. After interviewing the girls and Ellis, Laird asked Electric Ballroom co-owner Torgeson where Scruggs and Jones were staying and, about an hour later, placed them under arrest.

According to Laird's report, Scruggs and Jones were "messy" and "tired" when he interviewed them at their Tempe hotel. The rappers both initially denied any contact with the girls, then said they had merely given them autographs, then stopped answering questions. Scruggs and Jones are currently on tour and, according to their management, are unavailable for comment.

When Vega and Adamson were contacted by police the day after the concert, both said they had decided not to press charges. Vega says she and her friend thought they would have to pay to hire a prosecutor.

"I didn't understand how it worked," she says. "Now we're pressing charges. That's mainly what I want to do more than the lawsuit."

Vega says she hired Mahoney on the advice of an aunt who used to work in the offices of Van O'Steen and Partners, the attorney's firm. "I am not just trying to get money," she says. "I'm doing this to get back my respect. People are saying, 'Oh, she's so stupid, she wanted to do that,' but that's not the kind of person I am."

Tempe police forwarded the reinstated charges against Scruggs and Jones to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office on March 1. A spokesman for the county attorney says the case has been sent back to Tempe police for additional investigation.

And although Mahoney said at the February 16 news conference that he intended to file the lawsuit within three days, he had not done so by March 8. Mahoney said the delay was because of problems pinpointing Scruggs and Jones' legal residence in New Jersey.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse