What would you do if information came to light strongly suggesting that your boss was perhaps committing a crime? Would you quit immediately? What if you knew that he hadn't been charged but might be under criminal investigation? How do you weigh the ethics of working for such a person against meeting your financial obligations?
These are some of the questions that employees of the three branches of Freaks Tattoo and Piercing — Freaks on Broadway, Freaks on 39th, and Freaks on Noland — have had to consider recently, following one of the creepiest local stories in recent memory.
On March 8, Kansas City, Missouri, police were dispatched to 4101 Troost. A two-story building at that address houses Nu Troost Tattoo on the street level and apartments on the second floor. It's owned by Rodney Sanell, a 47-year-old man who also owns the three Freaks locations. The call was placed by a 21-year-old woman who was both an employee of Sanell's and a tenant in one of his second-floor apartments. She told police that she believed she had found hidden cameras in her apartment. What followed sounds like the plot of some lurid TV procedural.
Upon removing a fake smoke detector in the kitchen, an officer found three wires that led up through the ceiling. He then found three similar devices — nonfunctional smoke detectors — in the tenant's living room, hallway and bedroom. In her bedroom closet, he found a bundle of wires that led into a gray pipe. The pipe ran down through the floor.
At that point, the officer contacted the sex-crimes unit and headed downstairs, where Nu Troost Tattoo does business. He located the gray pipe and followed it down another floor, into the building's basement.
"At the bottom of the stairs I observed a bundle of similar wires that ran along the North side of the basement to some shelves," reads that officer's report. "A couple of boxes were removed from the shelves, which revealed a computer monitor that had been sitting behind them. The computer monitor was off. After turning on the computer monitor I observed what appeared to be 7 more video screens of the interior of the victim's apartment. There were 4 black screens apparently from the 4 cameras that had already been removed. To the right of the computer monitor on the shelf I observed a wooden box, with a lid facing the side. The lid was opened and I observed what appeared to be some kind of computer video machine. The machine was on and had wires running to it."
In all, police found 11 hidden video cameras in the apartment. Four had been installed in the tenant's bathroom, including one with a view of the shower and one facing the toilet. The tenant told police that Sanell had installed the smoke detectors while she was out of town last October. She also said Sanell had sexually propositioned her several times — advances she had rebuffed.
Among the possible criminal charges that could be filed against Sanell is one for invasion of privacy: a Class D felony. He has yet to be arrested or charged, but the court of Freaks opinion seems to have reached its verdict. (Sanell did not respond to phone calls or e-mails seeking comment for this story.) Shortly after the police report surfaced, Freaks on 39th, Freaks on Noland, Freaks on Broadway and Nu Troost Tattoo closed. A March 13 post on the Freaks on Noland Facebook page reads: "We regret to inform all of our awesome and loyal clients, that Freaks on Noland has now closed its doors... ALL employees are innocent victims of this horrible crime. As we the artists spread to different shops in the area, you will soon be able to locate all of us ... Our lives were all turned upside down over night, and I have barely slept in days. Thank you once again for all the years."
"This is a guy I would have stood in front of a baseball bat for, two weeks ago," one longtime Freaks on Broadway employee tells me. The employee, who asks that I not reveal his name, is among a majority of Freaks employees who have already quit. "We're talking about somebody we were all close to. We're all just in a state of shock and don't want it to be true. And obviously, we're concerned about our reputations — none of us had anything to do with this, and we don't want to be associated with any of it."
Last week, Freaks on Broadway reopened, and I stopped by to ask what the future holds for one of the biggest tattoo operations in Kansas City. Four tattoo artists and two piercers were working in studios. Business looked steady. I spoke to two Freaks employees — Jean Pierre Voges and Zeke Hernandez, both of whom told me that they've worked for Freaks for more than 10 years — who are part of an effort currently under way to consolidate operations at the Broadway location. They are, they said, just trying to keep a well-respected, 15-year-old business viable until a change of ownership can be executed.
"There's negotiations to purchase the business from him [Sanell], at which point he will be entirely out of the picture," Voges said. "But obviously, that doesn't happen overnight, and in the meantime, somebody has to keep the business going, and that's all we're trying to do."
"There's an emotional aspect to this and a business aspect," Hernandez said. "They're two separate things."
Neither wanted to talk to me about what went down at 4101 Troost.
Meanwhile, quite a few unemployed tattoo artists and piercers are scrambling to find work. Freaks on Broadway alone employed eight full-time tattoo artists prior to the discovery of those cameras. Some have found temporary gigs at other shops, but many have parted ways with Freaks at the risk of their livelihoods.
"We decided to stand on moral ground and bail on the thing," another former Freaks employee told me last week. "Because when you boil it down, we don't want money from our hard work flowing to a guy like that. Some of us had been with Freaks for over a decade. Some of us lived in his properties. We all put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into Freaks. I've been offered jobs and guest spots from some places since. But no matter where any of us go, it's going to be a financial hit."