The owner of a now-defunct Kennewick fitness club, who charged a special fee to membership accounts without authorization, was found to have done nothing wrong criminally until an off-duty detective complained and stirred the pot in his department, a defense attorney claimed Wednesday.
Jason Ray Sleater, 35, might not be facing eight theft counts now if it weren't for the actions of Kennewick police Detective Bill Dramis, according to Scott Johnson, Sleater's lawyer.
Dramis, a member of 509 Fitness, confronted Sleater in March 2011 about a $19.60 "gym enhancement fee" on his credit card statement. Dramis got angry at Sleater, identified himself as a Kennewick detective and told the gym owner he had committed fraud and would be prosecuted for it, Johnson told Benton County jurors in opening statements for his client's trial.
Two patrol officers who responded to the club that day for other concerns were asked by Sleater to remove Dramis from the property because he was being belligerent and had been told to take up the issue with Sleater's lawyer, Johnson said.
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And even though the officers decided nothing further needed to be done on the issue of enhancement fees, Dramis had to make good on his threat, the attorney claimed. Dramis allegedly wrote up his version of what occurred for his supervisors and gave names of friends and family members to his colleague, Detective Rick Runge, which sparked the investigation and resulted in prosecutors filing charges against Sleater.
"This is a case of revenge. While the detective may have felt slighted, he converted that slight into something that never should havehappened," Johnson said.
Jurors will "get to hear a lot based on evidence ... about what happens when the power of state, (when) they're angry or mad, can be used against one citizen," he said, suggesting that in the end, the panel will agree his client did nothing wrong.
Later Wednesday, Johnson asked for a mistrial, alleging that Dramis had been talking to state and defense witnesses while they waited in the courthouse hallway. Johnson claims the detective told one witness that Sleater is a narcissist and asked a former gym employee how long she worked there and if other employees were going to testify.
Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner denied the motion, but told Johnson he can ask each of the witnesses about what happened in the hallway. Courthouse security officials also are pulling video footage from the hallway for Johnson to use in his case.
Sleater is charged with one count of first-degree theft and seven counts of second-degree theft.
Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor countered that it's a simple case against Sleater.
The former Kennewick man, who now is living in Spokane, had been owner of the 540 N. Colorado St. gym when he "helped himself" to members' debit and credit card account numbers and charged them a fee that was not disclosed in their contracts.
Sleater bought the gym in June 2008 from Diehl Rettig, Bill Lampson and other partners and changed the name to StarFit Fitness Club. In April 2010, Sleater brought in a new partner, Jeremy Appleby, to help operate the gym and the name was changed again, this time to 509 Fitness.
Bloor said Appleby lost more than $100,000 as part of this venture, and didn't pocket anything from the enhancement fees. Meanwhile, Sleater got more than $7,000 for them, in addition to dues payments, he said.
The gym had more than 1,000 members at the time.
About 375 members total were charged $19.60 on either Feb. 21, 2011, or March 7, 2011, and yet Sleater never got their approval before doing it, Bloor explained. Then, Sleater closed the fitness club March 20, 2011, after a good chunk of that money had been deposited in his business bank account, Bloor said.
"How did he think he'd get away with this? First of all, he did. Just look at things financially," Bloor said in his opening statements.
"A lot of club members complained and credit card companies refunded their money. But a lot said, 'Eh, who cares. I'm not going to worry about it,' " Bloor added. "But how did he think he could get away with it, legally speaking?"
The prosecutor said Sleater came up with a number of excuses for how he could get away with assessing the fee, claiming it would be used to upgrade the equipment and maintain the facility, even though the gym was in danger of closing because of competition.
Sleater told his partner, "Nobody keeps their contracts. Don't worry, we can sail through this thing," while advising the billing company that his attorney had approved it. Meanwhile, Sleater either told members to get out of the club when they questioned it, or showed them a letter dated Dec. 12, 2010, that explained the fee and he claimed to have mailed out, Bloor said.
Johnson later argued that of the 375 members, only 13 were not happy about it and filed a protest. He also said the first round of people who were charged the enhancement fee were members who didn't pay a joining fee, and that notices were posted throughout the gym in common areas.
Johnson alleges that partner Appleby saved himself and sacrificed Sleater by refusing to meet with police until he and his lawyer could sit down with prosecutors. Appleby never was charged, which Johnson suggests also is because Appleby was not at the gym when Dramis trespassed, so the detective didn't have a problem with that partner.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; email@example.com