An attorney who has presided as a substitute Roanoke judge was convicted Friday of misdemeanor assault and battery of a dancer at the strip club he managed.
Charles John “C.J.” Covati was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $1,000 during a bench trial in Roanoke General District Court. The 52-year-old Covati plans to appeal the conviction, his lawyer said.
The victim testified that Feb. 18 was her first night on the job at The Gold and Silver Gentlemen’s Club on Franklin Road, the city’s only strip club. Covati was on duty as a manager and directed her to join him in a private booth to perform, she testified. Covati told her that he needed to ensure she knew “what can happen” to a strip club dancer, but she explained to him that she had experience stripping and knew that customers might misbehave, she said.
During what was described as her training dance, the woman testified, Covati pinched and twisted her nipples, grabbed her by the throat and started to choke her, and penetrated her anus with his finger. She said she felt immediate pain in her breasts and had a bruised and sore neck for three days. The Roanoke Times is withholding her name because it is does not name victims of sex crimes.
Covati was at the time approved to serve as a court-appointed defense lawyer for general district court defendants, but the court temporarily suspended that approval upon learning of the allegation, said Rick Kahl, Roanoke’s general district court clerk. Covati has also served as a substitute judge for general district and domestic relations cases but, for reasons unrelated to the criminal case, is no longer in that role, the clerk said. It wasn’t clear Friday how the conviction might affect his law license.
Under questioning by defense attorney Matthew Dunne, the woman admitted that she did not stop the dance, cry out for help, call 911 or immediately report Covati to other club personnel.
“I was intimidated and I was afraid. I was with a man three times my size,” she said.
Her immediate plan was to first report the incident to the club owner, which she accomplished a few days later, she said. Covati fired her about a week after that, at which time she contacted police, she said.
“So, it took a termination to make this complaint to police?” Dunne asked.
“No, it took an assault,” the woman said.
Taking questions from prosecutor Josh Elrod, the woman explained that she had hoped that going to the owner first might bring a reprimand for Covati and she could keep working. She supports her adult son, who has extensive medical needs, she said.
When she was fired, she reported the assault to police at 10 p.m. the same day and told an officer that the incident would have been captured on video, she said. Roanoke police investigated.
“This isn’t really about justice. It’s about money,” Dunne told the woman.
The woman replied by saying she had declined what she was told was an offer of money from Covati to drop the charge. She gave no further details.
Covati did not testify.
Judge Harold Black convicted Covati of a single count of assault and battery after listening to the woman’s account and that of two club employees who testified that no assault occurred. Covati was sentenced to 90 days in jail, with 60 days suspended, and was told to report to jail Sept. 28. If he appeals to circuit court, he would not have to enter jail on that date, Elrod said.
Elrod, Buena Vista’s commonwealth’s attorney, and Black, a retired Bedford County judge, were brought in to handle the case in lieu of regular court personnel.
Black commented that, since the woman reported the incident to the club owner, the judge expected that video of the encounter would have been kept. It wasn’t, employees testified. Dunne said the club’s video system keeps no more than 30 days of images, though employees gave estimates of the storage capacity ranging from two weeks to three months.
Video coverage is always on in the private dance booths, testified Kenneth Yopp, a club assistant manager.
“We can see everything,” he testified.
Yopp said he was watching the monitor for the camera that was on in the booth where the woman said Covati assaulted her. Yopp denied that Covati committed the three acts the woman described.
Yopp, whose job is to monitor the booths and intervene if needed, testified that he never received a signal from the woman to indicate she was in trouble. The signal entails the dancer raising a middle finger toward the camera, Yopp said.
Under cross-examination, Elrod showed that Yopp first discussed the woman’s accusation against Covati in July, five months after she said it happened. By that time, Yopp would have monitored thousands of additional private dances in his role as overseer of the private booth area, the prosecutor said. Yopp agreed.
Allyson Powell, also an assistant club manager, testified that she watched a video replay of the woman to review her readiness to dance for customers. Although she described her recollection of the scene as fuzzy, Powell testified she did not see Covati assault the woman.
Covati no longer works at the club, Powell said. City records show he is associated with a restaurant that shares the same address.