Cyanide in the beefcake: Somen Banerjee, inventor of the Chippendales, stands accused of much more than driving women crazy. Did he not hatch a plot to leave Blackpool strewn with dead Adonises? Phil Reeves reports

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Audiences worldwide have not always been able to keep their hormones in check in the face of oil-drenched rippling muscles and straining G-strings. British women seem to find it particularly difficult. But the business of seeing, or being, or even founding the Chippendales seemed harmless enough. Until now.

In the past few months the Chippendales company, which has a troupe touring Britain, has been swept into a scandal which sent reverberations half-way round the world, from Los Angeles to London. Its founder, Somen 'Steve' Banerjee, has been arrested and is in a US prison awaiting trial for an assortment of alleged offences which read like a Mafia godfather's rap sheet. They include accusations of racketeering, arson plots and murder. Above all, they concern an alleged scheme to kill members of Adonis, a rival troupe of 16 male dancers operating in Britain. That hit was to be in Blackpool.

Several of Banerjee's associates have described him as a pleasant man who is about as likely to plot a murder as Mickey Mouse is to take heroin. He is, they say, a soft-spoken individual who dresses as smartly as a Wall Street banker, quietly enjoys the trappings of wealth (a large home near the Pacific ocean; two Mercedes cars), but prefers the company of his family to high living.

American prosecutors take a different view. They say the 46-year-old Banerjee not only masterminded plans to kill two men involved in running Adonis, a troupe set up to compete with the Chippendales in the beefcake stakes, and made an advance payment of dollars 7,000 to dollars 8,000 to a hitman, but also asked him to organise the death of a third member of the Adonis troupe - a former business associate who had become the group's choreographer.

Furthermore, the authorities claim, Banerjee was behind the murder of his New York-based partner, Nick Denoia - a former television producer (and ex-husband of the Hollywood actress Jennifer O'Neill) who was shot in the face in his office in 1986 by a man posing as a messenger. And the motive for all this murder and mayhem? 'To enhance the business of Chippendales, or to gain revenge from persons who had caused injury to the business,' alleges the United States Attorney's office in Los Angeles.

When Banerjee, a Bombay-born businessman, set up the Chippendales in a small club in Los Angeles more than 15 years ago, it was the first troupe of its kind. American women flocked to see them in such numbers that the city fire authorities wanted to close the place down for overcrowding.

Within a few years the company was also staging nightly shows in the Magique club in New York, had three touring troupes performing across Europe and the US, and an annual turnover of several million dollars.

Towards the end of the Eighties, rival groups were cropping up - including Adonis, an American-registered company which contained several ex-Chippendales and was concentrating its operations on Britain. Tensions quickly developed. The Chippendales acquired a reputation for playing hard-ball. Adonis complained to the Office of Fair Trading that the company was demanding contracts from venues which banned other groups from performing there for a year. When a New Mexico disc jockey thought it would be amusing to get together some overweight semi-naked dancers - a group of 16-stone-plus fatties who called themselves the 'Chunkendales' - he got a lawyer's letter from Banerjee.

That there was a plan to murder members of the Adonis group is not in dispute. Two men have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the plot. They have agreed to testify against Banerjee in return for reduced sentences. Details from their court documents, never before published, tell a story that bears more similarity to one of the wilder exploits in Miami Vice than to reality.

In July 1991, the FBI was approached by a man called Lynn Bressler, who was offering his services as an informant. Bressler told the agency he had been hired as a 'hitman' by an individual named Ray Colon in Los Angeles. Colon had asked him to travel to Britain and kill two members of Adonis, who were performing at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.

The intended targets were Steve White, Adonis's Australian business manager, and Read Scot, a former Chippendale employee who was one of its two masters of ceremonies. The fee was to be dollars 25,000 a head although, curiously, Colon later said he was not too bothered if someone else was killed instead of Scot. White, whom Colon dubbed 'the snow man', was the one he really wanted dead.

Bressler described, to the FBI's amazement, how he went to Ray Colon's dollars 350,000 home in a prosperous neighbourhood in Los Angeles, where Colon, who worked with his brother-in-law Billy Barnes, fetched a canvas bag from his garage. It was marked with a skull and crossbones and contained, detectives later discovered, enough cyanide to kill 2,300 people. Bressler was given an eye-drop bottle containing a small quantity of the poison. Colon had decided that the best way to carry out the murders was to inject the victims.

The 49-year-old Ray Colon and Billy Barnes, 33, make an unlikely pair of international criminals. Colon's career had weaved its way erratically through several jobs, including being a reserve officer with Palm Springs police in California, and a stint in the US Air Force. By the mid-Eighties he was a qualified driving instructor, but was sacked after a drink-driving conviction and had turned his hand, like so many in Los Angeles, to attempting in vain to make a living as a television scriptwriter. He was largely dependent on his third wife, Barbara, a registered nurse who earned around dollars 70,000 a year.

Barnes's career was even more disastrous. He started out in the US military, but left and, by the age of 31, was out of work and struggling to raise the dollars 300 a month he had to pay in maintenance to his family in Oklahoma. His role in the plot appears to have been that of researcher. He travelled to Britain to find out more about the whereabouts of Adonis, returning with a map, directions to Blackpool and details about lodgings, which were passed on to Bressler.

On 12 July, Ray Colon drove his hired hitman to Los Angeles airport to board a Virgin Atlantic flight to London. Bressler had been furnished with dollars 1,200 in travel expenses, a code name ('Strawberry') and instructions that, after the murders had been carried out, he was to telephone Colon and say, cryptically: 'I signed up that draft choice from the south.'

Bressler, who had previously informed for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, later claimed that at first he believed the whole escapade was a joke, but decided to inform the US authorities once he realised it was in deadly earnest. On reaching Britain, he did just that.

Thus it was that, 10 days later, FBI Special Agent Dan West was sitting in an office in Las Vegas, Nevada, bugging a transatlantic telephone conversation between Colon and Bressler. As the tape whirred, the two men were discussing how to carry out the hit. Colon suggested that Bressler should hit his victims on the head with a brick or a hammer - 'something nice and fast' to 'neutralise the situation' - before injecting them in the neck with cyanide. He continued, attempting to disguise the conspiratorial talk by referring to the murders obliquely:

Colon: 'You know like say you take this, ah, dog that's always shitting on your lawn.'

Bressler: 'Yeah?'

Colon: 'You know what I mean? The one that's always taking a stroll by the beach.'

Bressler: 'Yeah, right. I gotcha.'

Colon: 'Shit, you can, you could whack him on the back of the head, man. That fuckin' dog gonna go down. Then you could stick him, you know?'

Bressler: 'I gotcha. I gotcha.'

This tape, and several others, were sufficient evidence on which to arrest Colon and Barnes, who, after considerable haggling, struck a plea bargain. Barnes is serving 51 months in prison in California; Colon will be sentenced next month.

The question that will face a US jury is: what role, if any, did 'Steve' Banerjee play in this whole grisly affair? The truth will only be known after his trial, which is due to begin in June. But whatever the outcome, there are many on both sides of the Atlantic who will never again be able to laugh with quite the same unfettered abandon at the sight of a chunky male unveiling his wares on stage.

(Photographs omitted)

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