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The un-made man 

Crazy money, mob rules and the many sides of Steve Kaplan

It's the Gold Club's last night on Earth, and Steve Kaplan is nowhere to be seen.

"Where's Steve?" defense attorney Don Samuel yells down from the upstairs VIP bar.

Below, shoulders shrug. As this endless Thursday winds down, a bizarre cast of characters has assembled: haggard defense attorneys, their lucky plea-bargaining ties loosened; dancers teetering forward on stiletto pumps to hug each other farewell; newspaper reporters huddled uncomfortably near the bar; defendants relieved to have copped a plea to avoid jail time. But no Kaplan.

Upstairs, Samuel chuckles as he pours one final flute of high-test champagne onto the storied carpet of Gold Room VII, the notorious corner closet where, over the years, an All-Star roster of pro athletes had come to get their axles lubed and their fenders polished. Downstairs, a half-drunk stripper does a half-hearted last twirl on the brass pole.

Around 10 p.m., club manager Jimmy Carillo, arrayed in a UNC warm-up suit complete with a powder-blue ball cap, calls the evening to an end. "I see everybody partying and having way too good a time on our worst day and I need to get everybody out!" he shouts, shooing dancers toward the gilded doors.

And, finally, there is the diminutive, balding Kaplan. Out of his ill-fitting suit, he's now in jeans and a sweatshirt, leaning against a column, talking quietly with a well-wisher. Soon, federal marshals will come with chains to padlock his primary asset, his money-minting machine, his X-rated playpen, the crown jewel of a staggeringly successful business career.

Earlier that day, the Gold Club trial skidded to an abrupt halt when defense attorneys struck a deal with the feds. As part of the same package, 10 other defendants got away with likely probation.

As his co-conspirators and defense team made their way to the courthouse parking lot, the collective spin began: Kaplan had fallen on a grenade for his compadres by agreeing to a deal that put himself behind bars for as much as three years while his partners in crime would need only pay occasional visits to their friendly neighborhood probation officer.

Kaplan, who already was picking up a mountainous legal tab for all his fellow defendants -- an amount possibly even exceeding what some prize suckers had involuntarily spent in his club -- had traded his own freedom for the sake of loyal employees who refused to roll over on their boss, the saga went. Here was a Jewish-American prince of a man. A real mensch, already.

But although Kaplan has been on public display every day at his trial, many observers hadn't actually heard him speak until he stepped up Thursday to plead guilty to federal racketeering charges in a choked voice. The only real portrait of him has come from his former co-workers and friends, perhaps not the most reliable group.

"Steve's a stand-up guy; he took the heat for the rest of us," Carillo says.

So how did a nice Jewish boy from New York like Stevie Kaplan end up being measured for striped pajamas by the feds?

Like father ...
Carillo, who could easily segue into a second career as Joe Pesci's stand-in, met Kaplan 23 years ago when they played neighborhood hockey together in New York. Back then, Kaplan worked at his father's newsstand.

By most accounts, Steve Kaplan is nothing if not his father's son. He took over his dad's magazine business and built it into a thriving retail stronghold in New York's busy Penn Station. George Kaplan's involvement was welcomed in his boy's other enterprises, such as nightclubs in Boca Raton and New York and, ultimately, the Gold Club.

And he maintained his father's social relationships, say federal prosecutors, who had been following the senior Kaplan's involvement with various Mafia button-men since the 1980s. By the time Steve Kaplan bought out an estranged business partner to take sole possession of the Gold Club in 1994, he had already begun following in his father's footsteps as an "earner" for the mob, paying cash tributes to ensure protection and privileges, the feds contend.

Steve always made friends easily, Carillo says, but isn't what you'd call boisterous, or even especially talkative. He has a boyish charm. He favors torn jeans and T-shirts over the tailored suits he had to wear during the trial. Just a regular Joe. He's taken up golf recently. Steve liked the earning potential of adult entertainment, but "he never loved the business, knowhutimean?" (Carillo is now officially laying it on thick.)

He continues: Steve adores his two daughters and kept his wife, Mona, away from Atlanta because he didn't want her to have to endure the media circus surrounding the trial.

After his dad died of cancer in 1998, Steve even paid for one of his dancers to receive expensive cancer treatments from a specialist in Houston.

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