A post-lunch porn rush is under way at Hollywood at Home Movies and Magazines. A few men ranging in age from late 20s to upper 60s pass by the new releases and classics in the front of the Overland Park store. Over the course of an hour on a Tuesday afternoon, men march up the stairs at the back of the store, push through the see-through, baby-blue curtain and enter a tiny room dedicated to adult magazines and videos. They browse the movie titles, flip through the magazines and, eventually, drop $7 apiece to rent videos for four nights.
On the store's back wall, a poster advertises Hustler publisher Larry Flynt's best-selling book Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth. The pornography baron watches over the shop like a portly guardian angel, and he's an appropriate one. Hollywood at Home is caught in a Flynt-style free-speech fight.
On September 25, a Johnson County grand jury indicted the video store on misdemeanor criminal charges of promoting obscenity. The store's alleged crime was renting out four allegedly obscene movies — Don't Kiss Me I'm Straight, Hellcats 12, Anal Machines and Real Female Masturbation. A man who gave his name as Sean O'Cleary rented the videos in late August and never returned them. He had paid a $100 deposit and, later, called to tell the store that he'd turned the films over to the grand jury.
The grand jury handed down 15 obscenity charges against the store and three other Johnson County businesses. They're accused of renting out racy videos, selling sex toys and displaying obnoxious Halloween costumes.
Johnson County isn't alone. Citizen petitions have forced grand juries to convene throughout Kansas. This grassroots effort is the work of Phillip Cosby, a Ned Flanders look-alike and anti-pornography crusader. The 56-year-old retired Army master sergeant is the zealous leader of the Kansas City office of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families.
Cosby calls sex shops "an open sewer," "a moral cancer" and "a wicked stronghold." He has cautioned that "a tsunami is hitting our community." He blames the sex industry for causing rape and pedophilia. (Violent secondary effects of porn consumption have been widely discredited.) He has even coined a pet name for businesses that sell adult videos or sex toys: SOBs — an acronym for "sexually oriented businesses."
Cosby's bosses at the Cincinnati-based National Coalition preach "biblical sexual ethics." They don't want people watching porn, reading X-rated magazines, masturbating with sex toys or engaging in premarital or gay sex. They want trials in order to redefine obscenity in communities throughout Kansas.
The coalition's vision of community standards may not be representative of Johnson County, as a trip to Hollywood at Home and the other accused stores implies. Still, Cosby's Kansas City pornography jihad will serve as a test run for the rest of America: If he successfully shuts down the metro area's porn shops, the national office will wage similar holy wars with porn stores across the nation.
But Cosby's efforts are toothless. The Kansas obscenity statute that Cosby relies on has been ruled unconstitutional, and the stores he has targeted can beat the charges — if they choose to fight.
Cosby's strategy is possible thanks to a Kansas law that allows any citizen to convene a grand jury.
Cosby declined to discuss his strategy with The Pitch for this story, citing the paper's "bent." "We're not really moving in the same direction," he said. "I know you believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe, and I think we're just not a good fit."
After the indictments were issued, Cosby claimed in news reports that law enforcement officials were "breathing a sigh of relief" and referred to himself and his followers as "the cavalry."
It's unclear whether law enforcement considers Cosby "the cavalry." Of the dozens of stores that Cosby has targeted over the years, none has closed its doors.
Nowhere is that more evident than in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas.
Giant gold letters scream "Adult" from the horizon as Interstate 70 curves west toward the heart of Kansas. A second word — "Superstore" — slowly becomes clear as the miles click closer to Exit 272.
The Fair Road exit leads directly to the entrance of the Lion's Den Adult Superstore. This is where Phillip Cosby's war on pornography began four years ago.
Just after 1 p.m. on an early October afternoon, it's clear who won the war by looking at the half-dozen cars parked outside the gray, wood-paneled building. An 18-wheeler idles near the fenced-in entrance. The store's tinted windows are covered with advertisements for an in-store appearance by voluptuous porn star Stormy Daniels.
In September 2003, the Lion's Den opened in an abandoned Stuckey's restaurant just west of Abilene. The Stuckey's had sat empty for years, rundown and neglected. Then one day, Abilene residents saw renovations under way at the building. Guards watched the entrance to the store as workers unloaded trucks. No one was allowed in the parking lot.
The next day, the Lion's Den opened.
Rumors spread that an adult bookstore had opened. A group of citizens decided to see for themselves and went on a fact-finding mission, says Virgil Eubanks, an Abilene resident and former pastor who retired in September from the First Christian Church of Abilene. What Eubanks saw inside the interstate superstore was "raw pornography."
"If you're asking for my opinion, everything in that store is obscene," Eubanks says. "That was the easy part."
Phillip Cosby was a month away from retiring from the U.S. Army. With a 22-year military career ending, Cosby found a second calling as an outspoken anti-pornography crusader. Cosby placed an ad in the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle seeking men to join his battle with the Lion's Den; 140 responded, according to the September issue of KC Business. Cosby and Eubanks formed a coalition of churches, pastors and local residents called Citizens for Strengthening Community Virtues. A two-year legal battle with the Lion's Den and its customers followed.
On November 6, 2003, Cosby and Eubanks returned with the Dickinson County sheriff for a shopping spree at the Lion's Den. Eubanks says the sheriff told them that buying the sex toys and videos "was the best way to collect evidence." According to a February 14, 2004, article in the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle, Dickinson County taxpayers picked up the $1,332.71 tab for 36 items charged to a Sheriff's Office credit card. Among the DVDs and sex toys were black handcuffs for $7.95, a 36-inch whip for $61.95 and an anatomically correct inflatable pig (named Ms. Piglet) for $21.95.
Cosby's group launched "Operation Daniel," a 100-day picket named after the prophet Daniel, who was cast into a den of lions but was spared because of his faith in God. They picketed the Lion's Den in shifts, like striking union members.
Picketers began to target anyone who pulled into the parking lot. They jotted down license-plate numbers from semis and called the trucking companies to out the drivers who had stopped at the sex shop. They called businesses that owned company cars spotted outside the place. They called wives and family members of locals who shopped there.
Responses to the phone calls were mixed.
"Some companies responded very favorably. And we're glad we called them," Eubanks recalls. "Others didn't seem to care much."
Thanks to the pickets, business at the Lion's Den dropped by 30 percent, and 75 percent of the truckers kept driving, Cosby bragged to Christian newswire AgapePress in January 2004. The Lion's Den declined to comment on Cosby's efforts.
The campaign wasn't about hurting business at the Lion's Den, says the Rev. Mike Keating, pastor of Emanuel United Methodist Church in Abilene, where Cosby was a parishioner. The point, Keating says, was to make the shopping habits of Lion's Den customers known to their friends, family and employers. "Overall, people were appreciative and polite because it was handled in that tone," Keating says.
Meanwhile, Cosby ran for Dickinson County Commissioner on a values campaign. At the height of his celebrity, Cosby finished third out of five candidates in the primary election, receiving 452 votes.
Cosby also petitioned for a grand jury, which found that the Lion's Den sold obscene items, including dildos, strap-on devices and fake vaginas. The charges were thrown out because of a clerical error. But a year later, Dickinson County filed 10 new charges of obscenity against the Lion's Den for selling blow-up dolls, artificial vaginas and an artificial mouth.
Cosby's efforts had a fatal flaw. He relied on a 1986 law that made dildos and artificial vaginas illegal. The law had been thrown out by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1990. In that case, prosecutors had charged Wichita adult-bookstore owner Randy L. Hughes with obscenity for selling undercover cops "The Sexplorer Pleasure System," a vibrator kit with a dildo attachment, and "Miss World," an inflatable doll with an artificial vagina. The high court declared the statute unconstitutional because "the Legislature may not declare a device obscene merely because it relates to human sexual activity."
Because the Kansas Legislature hadn't rewritten the unconstitutional portion of the statute, District Court Judge Robert D. Innes had no choice but to throw out the case against the Lion's Den.
Cosby didn't think of the cases as failures. "If you look at the big picture with what's happening in Kansas in general, the event in Dickinson County is a spark that has gone off across Kansas," Cosby told the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle. "Nothing is in vain."
At the Lion's Den, a final, silent protest remains. A billboard on westbound I-70 reads: "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good. Pornography destroys families." On the back side, it continues: "Jesus heals and restores. Pornography destroys."
Inside the Lion's Den, Ms. Piglet, the inflatable pig doll purchased by the county as part of Cosby's campaign, sits on a shelf like a victory trophy.
But Cosby is long gone.
Not long after his legal failures in Abilene, Cosby tried his game plan again in Wichita and Salina. A grand jury failed to bring charges against two Salina stores. But in Wichita, grand juries have indicted six video stores in cases that are awaiting jury trials.
In April 2006, Cosby left Abilene for Kansas City to run the local chapter of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. Cosby's goals matched those described in the coalition's 2006 annual report, which defines its mission as "[to] educate the Christian community on sexual ethics according to a biblical worldview; encourage and challenge Christians to live sexually pure lives; engage Christians in public policy relative to sexual ethics; embrace those harmed by pornography and help restore them to sexual wholeness."
Cosby had turned his distaste for pornography into lucrative jobs for himself and his wife, Cathy, who also works for the National Coalition and "has been an integral part of her husband's aggressive confrontation of the sex industry since September 2003," according to her biography on the organization's Web site. Cosby's salary isn't listed on the coalition's most recent tax form, filed on June 30, 2006. But the salary of his predecessor is listed as $70,934.
In Kansas City, Cosby found an ally with deep pockets — Bill Dunn Sr., chairman emeritus of J.E. Dunn Construction. Dunn didn't return several calls to his office seeking comment, but a July 2006 article in The Kansas City Business Journal touted Dunn's 25-year campaign against pornography. Dunn told the paper that he sponsored three lunch meetings with Cosby to show off his strategy to a group of local pastors.
Dunn made headlines in 2005 for a 10-minute rant at the annual Mayors' Prayer Breakfast in which he decried the sharp downward trend of values in America and blamed activist judges, the American Civil Liberties Union, gay marriage and illegitimate births. Dunn's speech angered then-Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes; in response, she boycotted the next year's breakfast.
Cosby's Kansas City invasion kicked off in May at the Kansas City headquarters of the Salvation Army, where he showed off petitions. The petitions demanded that grand juries hear evidence against 32 businesses he accused of selling or renting materials depicting "actual ultimate sex acts, normal, perverted, violent or obscene, masturbation, anal sex, oral sex, excretory functions, sadomasochistic abuse, torture and lewd exhibition of the genitals."
Under Kansas law, a grand jury can be convened by any citizen who gathers signatures equal to slightly more than 2 percent of the total votes cast in a county's last gubernatorial election. Cosby claims that his petitions include 20,000 signatures.
Cosby claimed to have the support of 100 churches, including St. Patrick's Church in Kansas City, Kansas; Faith Covenant Church of Prayer in Blue Springs; and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Sex is "God's idea," Cosby told The Leaven, the newspaper of the Kansas City Archdiocese. "It's a wonderful gift God has given us to be enjoyed within the covenant of marriage. When that gift is taken out of the context of marriage, it destroys families, children and society."
This year, Cosby collected thousands more signatures to convene grand juries in Johnson and Wyandotte counties. The results of Cosby's petition drives have been mixed.
Across the state line in Missouri, Cosby's followers have filed petitions in Cass, Clay, Jackson and Platte counties. But in Missouri, signed petitions alone are not enough to call a grand jury. That decision is left to a judge's discretion, and, so far, no Missouri businesses have been charged with obscenity.
Jackson County has yet to publicly make a move. Jackson County Prosecutor Jim Kanatzar met with a group of ministers in May when they delivered a petition. The only result thus far has been a letter penned by Kanatzar and sent to 20 Kansas City-area businesses explaining Missouri's obscenity law.
A grand jury in Clay County failed to return an indictment.
In Platte County, World's Liquor voluntarily stopped selling mainstream magazines such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler after receiving a call from the county prosecutor.
In Cass County, the prosecutor is leaving obscenity decisions to the Belton chief of police, according to one of Cosby's National Coalition updates posted on the Web.
Meanwhile, grand juries in Wyandotte and Johnson counties in Kansas met for the first time on July 16.
In Wyandotte County, a grand jury handed down obscenity indictments on August 29 against two Kansas City, Kansas, businesses: M&M Inc., a convenience store on State Avenue; and Smoke Easy Cigarette Outlet, a smoke shop in a rundown strip mall at 6000 Leavenworth Road.
The Johnson County grand jury didn't return an obscenity indictment for 10 weeks. Then, on September 25, obscenity charges were announced against Hollywood at Home, Spirit Halloween and Priscilla's. Eight days later, a fourth indictment was unsealed, accusing a store called Gringo Loco of selling an obscene video.
Jurors never questioned representatives from Hollywood at Home, says Richard Bryant, an attorney for the video store.
"This grand jury never talked to the stores to find out what percentage of their stock or what the demand of it was," Bryant says. "This grand jury never talked to any therapist that talked about the therapeutic value of some of the mechanical items from Priscilla's. This grand jury heard what the prosecutor's office wanted them to hear."
What happens in a grand jury courtroom stays there. Grand juries have a 90-day window to investigate businesses, with an option of continuing for an additional 180 days. No defense is provided, though jurors can summon witnesses and evidence.
No police or prosecutors would discuss the details of the cases with The Pitch.
The recent action isn't the first time that a grand jury has met in Johnson County to consider what's obscene. In 1989, an anti-pornography coalition called for a grand jury to define obscenity. Representatives from Hollywood at Home testified before the grand jury, which also targeted other businesses, but no indictments were issued. In the end, the grand jury issued a four-page report that suggested banning sexually explicit videos featuring incest, rape, sex with minors, bondage, torture, flagellation or bestiality. The report also recommended outlawing "fetish" films and sex tapes "lacking significant story line or plot." The grand jury also set guidelines for stocking sexually explicit material and set a minimum age of 21 for renting or selling sexually explicit material. The report became an informal guide for prosecutors and businesses.
The latest Johnson County grand jury formed in mid-July and disbanded on October 2. Before they broke, the jurors issued a final set of recommendations. They called on law enforcement to enforce obscenity laws and on the media to educate the public about them. They asked business owners to reconsider selling potentially obscene material and urged them to stock "all questionable material" out of sight of minors. Finally, they encouraged lawmakers and district courts to retain the grand jury as a tool.
The statement lacked guidelines for business owners or prosecutors as to what exactly this grand jury considered obscene.
Instead, it signed off on criminal charges that will be decided by a Johnson County jury, which will have to review a stack of dirty magazines, DVDs and sex toys.
Dozens of piñatas hang from the ceiling of Gringo Loco. They hang so low that customers have to duck to navigate the aisles and avoid getting kicked in the head by a candy-filled Spider-Man.
The shelves of Gringo Loco, a tiny Latino convenience store in an Olathe strip mall, are stocked with ethnic foods, knickknacks and Spanish-language CDs.
The grand jury accused the store of selling Babysitter #18, a 2004 film about sitters watching a 30-year-old baby, seducing a police officer and getting the attention of a "cop — and his night stick."
Cosby likes to lump stores such as Gringo Loco and Hollywood at Home with chain adult bookstores and strip clubs on his list of SOBs.
And Cosby's cause has caught on in Overland Park. A parent filed a complaint against Spirit Halloween, a costume shop affiliated with Spencer's Gifts.
On September 2, Mark Rocklage called the Overland Park Police Department after his 12-year-old daughter showed him one of the store's adult costumes. Sgt. Jim Weaver says the police investigated but didn't cite the store.
Instead, the police handed their findings over to the Johnson County District Attorney's Office, which tossed the case to a grand jury.
Rocklage declined to speak with The Pitch, but he told WDAF Channel 4 that the costumes showed male and female body parts. "It also showed bestiality," he told the TV station.
The costume Rocklage was referring to was called "country lov'n," which depicts a pajama-clad hillbilly attached at the crotch to an inflatable sheep in fishnets. The costume sells for $49.99 on Spirit Halloween's Web site.
A grand jury accused Spirit Halloween of stocking racy costumes where minors could see them. Among the other objectionable costumes was a "snake charmer" costume with a cobra growing from its crotch; a "tricky dick" inflatable-penis costume; and a "wet T-shirt winner," with a see-through white T-shirt and "Z cup polyfoam breasts."
Fortunately for Spirit Halloween, a jury won't have to decide if the costumes are obscene. Johnson County District Attorney Phill Kline dismissed the charges against Spirit Halloween on October 10 after the store agreed to take the four costumes off the shelves and put them behind the counter.
However, a jury may still have to decide if dildos, a butt plug, a cock ring and an inflatable cheerleader doll named Chrissy, sold at an Olathe Priscilla's, are obscene. The Priscilla's, at 1848 East Santa Fe, is also charged with selling the porn flick Teen Cum Targets.
In Wyandotte County, porn magazines and DVDs caught the grand jury's attention. The M&M Inc. gas station, on a commercial stretch of State Avenue, is accused of a single obscenity violation for selling the July 2007 issue of Naughty Neighbors. The nudie magazine, published in Miami, shows penetration, blow jobs and sex-toy play and features "The MILF Next Door." A hometown girl even made the pages, with a model named Leena listed as hailing from Independence.
Smoke Easy Cigarette Outlet is accused of selling five obscene magazines and DVDs. Smoke Easy, on Leavenworth Road, is accused of selling a pair of DVDs: Sex Party Teens and Latinas Lambe Mecos 4. Smoke Easy also faces charges for magazines: the August 2004 issue of Tittie Time; the May 2005 issue of Finally Legal; Men's World, Volume 18, No. 6; XXX FUX No. 26; and Men's World Close Up No. 9.
Nearly all of the magazines and DVDs named in the indictments are available over the Internet. From shops in Missouri, The Pitch purchased several of the items that the Wyandotte County grand jury deemed obscene. Tittie Time includes close-ups of abnormally large breasts, but the magazine stops short of showing penetration. XXX FUX and the Men's World titles are cheeky British "jazz mags" that refer to body parts, underwear and sex as, respectively "bums," "knickers" and "shagging." But Men's World self-censors, digitally obscuring blow jobs, hand jobs and sex-toy play.
Maybe a clue as to what offended the Wyandotte County grand jury is in the video Sex Party Teens. The film opens with a girl's 18th birthday party being crashed by two men who have sex with her and then degrade her. One of the guys asks the girl, "Eighteen, huh? You don't look a day over 12."
Phillip Cosby's wish may finally be coming true in Johnson County. The cases against Hollywood at Home, Gringo Loco and Priscilla's appear destined for trial.
And although jury trials are scheduled for early December in the Wyandotte County cases, prosecutor Kristianne Gray says the state is working on a resolution with the businesses.
Meanwhile, Cosby seems more cavalier. In an Internet message to coalition members, Cosby issued another threat to the SOBs.
"The porn shops that escaped this investigation should not rest too easy," he warned. "We can always have another grand jury, take another look on another day."