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VOL. 43 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 5, 2019

‘Genius’ 1990 newspaper undercover sting crashed at Holiday Inn

By Lyle Graves

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Yes, as Tim Ghianni tells us, Bob Dylan, Prince, Britney Spears, Kiss and Willie Nelson have all checked into the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt during its 50 years. So have I, for two of the most ridiculous hours in Nashville journalism history.

It was 1990, and I was night Metro editor at the Nashville Banner. My crew for the afternoon paper – yes, there were morning and afternoon newspapers in the pre-internet 1990s – covered an assortment of beats, including Metro government and police. On this particular night, those beats would overlap.

I walked in that afternoon to a conversation between Shaun Carrigan, my boss, and one of my reporters, Rob Moritz, who covered Metro Police. It was both tense and giddy.

There was a tip from a well-placed, impeccable source that a high-ranking elected Metro government official owned an East Nashville house that was being used as home base for one of the city’s many “escort services.” Ownership of the property in question had been dutifully traced, and it was now up to us to prove the allegation.

But how?

A sting, of course, and who better to pull this off than newspaper professionals. Chimps might have been a better choice, it turned out, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plan – carefully crafted in five minutes or less – called for:

• Moritz to get a hotel room, call the escort service in question and arrange for a prostitute.

• Placing a photographer in front of the house in question to get a photo of the arranged-for prostitute departing for the rendezvous.

• Placing a second photographer outside the hotel lobby to get a photo of the prostitute arriving.

• Getting a photo of the prostitute in the room accepting cash.

Again, a simple plan. Except.

“No way,” said Moritz, injecting a note of common sense into a plan that had, thus far, avoided all traces. “I’m not doing that.”

After some unsuccessful cajoling, a hush of disappointment consumed our small group of master conspirators. Quickly, we scanned the newsroom in search of other reporters who might not possess the same moral code.

“I’ll do it,” I said. I don’t remember if I spoke up to spare someone else (unlikely) or because I thought it would be a hoot (more likely). I like to think I was taking the pressure off one of my coworkers.

But there was one (HA!) last detail: How would we get the photo inside the room? We would have to choose a hotel with balcony rooms, place the third photographer on said balcony and have them shoot through a gap in the drapes.

And so the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt was chosen.

Wanting to look the part of a salesman in town on business, I went home to pack a suitcase, then stopped by an ATM for a wad of cash. After making sure our photographers were in position outside the escort service house and the hotel lobby, I made the call. My “date” for the evening was on her way.

The photographer in the room with me slipped onto balcony, which had seemed much larger from the street. There was barely enough room to stand. It was pure luck that we were on the side facing Vanderbilt’s football stadium so the folks on West End wouldn’t see a photographer lurking on the balcony and call police.

Meanwhile, I staged the room. I hung clothes on the rack and placed a tape recorder inside an overturned shoe.

Our genius was about to unfold.

Or so we thought.

Turns out escort services have a different business model than the one we had envisioned. In our minds, these women were sitting in the rental house like relief pitchers in a major league bullpen. A call would come, not for a lefty or righty, but for a blonde or redhead. The front door would open like the bullpen gate, and out she would dash.

That didn’t happen (shock!), so photographer No. 1 had nothing. Worse, since he could not give a description to photographer No. 2 outside the hotel lobby, there was no photo to be had there.

Should we have shouted “ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!” at that point and eaten the cost of the hotel room? Wiser men might have made that choice. They were busy that night covering real news.

Cell phones might also have helped, but this was 1990.

Suddenly, a knock at the door. I quickly checked out the room to make sure the tape recorder was on and the opening in the drapes was sufficient for our photographer to get his now-worthless shot.

My guest entered the room, said hello and immediately searched the premises for anything that might indicate I’m running a police sting. She ran her hand under the pillows on the bed, checked the bathroom and looked under the bed.

I breathed a sigh of relief as she failed to check the shoe with the tape recorder. Then panic set in as she made a beeline for the balcony door.

She jerked both curtains wide and looked out, moving from side to side to get a full view of the balcony.

No photographer. Had he jumped? Where was he?

Turns out he had squeezed sideways into the few inches of balcony not visible without opening the door.

A bullet – perhaps literally – had been dodged.

Again, relief.

Again, short-lived.

Now came the realization that I was in a hotel room with a prostitute who had arrived with the expectation of leaving with $200 in cash. I’m not sure what we discussed or how many gallons I sweated in the ensuing 10 minutes, but I remember she expressed sympathy for my improvised change-of-heart, can’t-cheat-on-my-wife story, though she was clear the $200 was still hers.

And so it was.

My balcony photographer and I had a good laugh after she left, which one can do when someone else has promised to pick up the tab for $300 or so wasted on a fool’s errand.

The laughs were louder back in the newsroom, and even more so the next day when the larger staff learned of our exploits.

I put the audio recording of the encounter – the only evidence of the evening – away and was unable to find it when I searched years later. I’m so glad.

I can’t imagine what a fool I made of myself trying to get this poor woman out of my room without getting my backside kicked.

So aside from ordering a sloe gin fizz at the Commodore Lounge when I was a freshman in college, this is my most embarrassing story about the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt.

My best memory is watching Clifford Curry singing “She Shot a Hole in my Soul” and “We’re Gonna Hate Ourselves in the Morning” in the Commodore Lounge or Crafty Commodore, whatever it was called at the time.

Both titles would have been appropriate for this story had the sting escalated beyond simply stupid.

So I’m sorry, Holiday Inn Vanderbilt, for including you in this ridiculous plan. I wish you 50 more years of brighter moments.

Lyle Graves is associate publisher/executive editor of the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. Despite the antics outlined in this story, he remained with the Nashville Banner until its 1998 demise.

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