Probe of the members of the Royal Order of Jesters' carousing goes national
2009-05-08 0:00

By Dan Herbeck |

Former State Supreme Court Justice Ronald Tills
Case against 3 men from area wraps up.

To hear the leadership of the Royal Order of Jesters tell it, the illegal activities that ensnared three Buffalo-area members in a federal investigation are isolated events not in keeping with Jesters traditions.

But sources close to the investigation and former Jesters from other parts of the country tell a different story, one of bizarre activities — including routinely hiring prostitutes for gatherings, sex competitions and degrading initiation rites for new members — at many Jesters outings, with off-duty police hired to keep nonmembers away.

“I quit the Jesters more than 20 years ago, and this kind of thing has been going on at least 40 or 50 years,” said Malcolm “Mutt” Herring, 90, of Montgomery, Ala. “I quit because I don’t drink, and I don’t mess around with other women, other than my wife. Going to one of their events was like going to a whorehouse.”

Royal Order of Jesters "The Actor"

While the case against the three Buffalo-area Jesters is wrapping up, with sentencings expected soon, federal agents have expanded their investigation and are looking into allegations that illegal activities occurred at outings sponsored by more of the Jesters’ 191 chapters. The local men who pleaded guilty in the Buffalo case, and others, have cooperated with the feds, providing information about Jesters events in other cities.

Gary N. Martin, president of the 22,000-member Jesters, says he is disturbed about the allegations. But Martin said that, to his knowledge, such conduct is extremely isolated and never condoned by the organization.

“We believe that this is isolated, inappropriate, indeed illegal conduct by only an extremely small fraction of our membership,” said Martin, a Houston car dealer. “We have, however, taken a number of significant steps to make it abundantly clear to [members] that such behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

The Jesters, a 98-year-old, nationwide fraternal group whose past members have included movie stars, judges, prominent businessmen and two presidents, is a tax-exempt organization that admits it is dedicated to one thing: the pursuit of mirth and merriment. Last year, the group put its Buffalo chapter on probation, after investigators from a human trafficking task force learned that Buffalo members took prostitutes—some of them illegal aliens — to Jesters weekend gatherings, known as “books.”

A Jesters spokesman said a chapter in Big Sandy, Ky., also was put on probation because of incidents uncovered in the same federal probe.

Code of secrecy
Retired State Supreme Court Justice Ronald Tills; his former law clerk, Michael R. Stebick of Orchard Park; and retired Lockport police Capt. John Trowbridge all pleaded guilty to transporting prostitutes across state lines. Trowbridge is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday in Buffalo’s federal court, and Tills is scheduled for a pre-sentencing conference Thursday.

With rare exceptions, the Jesters’ 22,000 members operate under a strict code of secrecy.

“When I joined, they told me their motto was, ‘What you hear here, what you see here, stays here when you leave here,’ ” said J. L. Edwards, a former member from South Carolina. “Everybody’s told to keep the secret.”

Edwards, a farmer in his 60s, said he belonged to the Jesters for seven years, ending in 1998. Edwards said he quit because he felt guilty about things he saw at the Jesters’ gatherings.

Edwards told The Buffalo News the incidents he witnessed included:

• Prostitutes walking around parties, wearing only panties, soliciting Jesters to meet them later in their hotel rooms.

• “Sex contests” involving prostitutes and Jesters members, performing in front of large groups of Jesters.

• Off-duty cops in uniform, making sure that no non-Jesters entered the rooms where activities were going on.
“You had prominent people at these books — ministers, police chiefs. It’s an elite group, people like Judge Tills,” Edwards said. “A lot of these guys were prominent men in their 60s and 70s. They have beautiful young women with them, and it makes them feel like they’re a young buck again.”

A national Jesters spokesman, Robert Leonard, said the organization is unaware of any such activities. And if they ever did occur, he said, they were not part of the official functions.

The case involving Tills, 74, of Hamburg, sent shock waves through the national Jesters organization.

A former assemblyman and State Supreme Court justice, Tills hastily retired in March 2008 from his $300-a-day job as a hearing officer for the court. His resignation from the part-time post occurred shortly after he became aware that members of the Western New York Human Trafficking Task Force were investigating him and other Jesters.

Tills case a shocker
Last September, Tills pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony violation of the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people across state lines for prostitution.

Between 2001 and 2007, Tills admitted, he arranged for prostitutes to perform at Jesters events in Dunkirk; Brantford, Ont.; Niagara Falls, Ont.; and unspecified cities in Florida, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

As the former director of the Buffalo Jesters, Tills has cooperated extensively with federal agents who are investigating other chapters, sources close to the case said.

And court papers filed by Assistant U. S. Attorney Robert C. Moscati make clear that investigators do not believe Tills was the only Jester involved in procuring prostitutes.

“This organization maintained chapters throughout the United States. [It] was the custom of these chapters to host periodic meetings, usually on weekends,” Moscati said of the Jesters.

“At most of these meetings, some members of the organization would be tasked to arrange for the presence of women at the meeting, for the specific purpose of utilizing the women to engage in sexual intercourse and other sexual activity with the organization’s members in exchange for money,” Moscati said.

Martin, the group’s president, is working to distance himself from what happened with the Buffalo chapter.

Last August Martin sent a directive to all 191 local chapters, forbidding the following conduct during initiation ceremonies:

• “Any type of physical brutality, such as whipping, beating, striking, branding, electronic shocking [or] placing of a harmful substance on the body.”

• Sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, confinement to small spaces, or other activity that subjects Jesters to “an unreasonable risk of harm.”

• Any activity involving consumption of food, liquor, drugs or other substances that would expose a Jester to “an unreasonable risk of harm.”
“The warning was sent out in an abundance of caution,” Leonard said. “It was based on some prominent lawsuits filed about hazing at college campuses. It had nothing to do with any specific incident involving Jesters.”

Many Masons upset
The Jesters are a division of the Freemasons, one of the world’s largest and oldest fraternal organizations. Many Masons are upset and angry about what has happened with this subgroup.

Some feel it may be time to disband the Jesters, said Christopher L. Hodapp of Indianapolis, co-author of the book “Freemasons for Dummies.”

“They’ve got no business being Masons,” Hodapp said of the Jesters who cavort with prostitutes. “It’s completely opposed to the obligations we take in joining a Masonic lodge. The Masons are about family, community and faith-oriented activities that make good men better.”

According to Leonard, five former Buffalo Jesters — Tills, Trowbridge, Stebick and two other men he declined to name — resigned from the Jesters because of the federal probe.

He added that, as far as national leaders know, the only Jesters events featuring prostitutes were those identified in the federal case in Buffalo.

But some investigators doubt that.

“I don’t believe that,” said Elizabeth Fildes, an Erie County sheriff’s deputy and program director of the Human Trafficking Task Force. “It seems like it went on for a very long time.”

The task force includes investigators from the FBI, U. S. Border Patrol, U. S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and the Erie and Niagara sheriffs’ offices.

“From my conversations with the government, it seems they believe a lot of the other Jesters chapters were doing the same things as the Buffalo guys,” said Joel L. Daniels, Stebick’s attorney.

Critics of the Jesters — including Sandy Frost, an online journalist from Tacoma, Wash. — said it is outrageous the group gets tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service since, as stated in its own literature, its sole purpose is to have fun.


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