Elbows, accusations fly between competing chapels

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

LAS VEGAS Garden of Love. Chapel of Dreams. Crystal Cathedral.

The names evoke images of love, marital bliss, piety.

But accusations by proprietors of those and other Las Vegas wedding chapels portray a cutthroat industry beset by assaults and death threats sometimes on the very steps of the Clark County Courthouse.

''We are the wedding capital of the world, and we've got a war zone out there,'' said Sherrie Klute, owner of the Stained Glass Wedding Chapel and Crystal Cathedral. ''We don't need these strong-arm tactics.''

Klute has hired armed guards to accompany her to the courthouse, where chapel brokers, ministers and hired hands vie for business from couples just getting their marriage licenses.

Sometimes, the competitors try to outbid one another, passing out brochures or hurling expletives at couples who choose another chapel.

City Finance Director Mark Vincent met recently with chapel owners to discuss concerns that the courthouse crush was tarnishing the industry's reputation. The city is considering tightening some ordinances and parking regulations near the courthouse.

''We all agreed there's a problem out there,'' Vincent said.

Several officials said the city's handbill ordinance is being widely ignored. It allows the handing out of fliers, but prohibits solicitors from speaking to potential clients or walking them to a chapel.

The city and Las Vegas police have formed a task force to investigate and address the problem, Sgt. Eric Fricker said.

''We have reports from chapels and employees of cars being paintballed, fights, tires being slashed,'' Fricker said. ''The whole thing is bizarre, and trying to get to the bottom of it is difficult.''

Some accusations are directed toward a newcomer to the Las Vegas wedding industry, the Las Vegas Garden of Love, and its owner, Cheryl Luell.

She called the accusations false. She said she and her husband, Craig Luell, are too busy running their 7-month-old business to harass competitors.

Cliff Evarts, owner of the 2-year-old Las Vegas Wedding Bureau and Vegas Wedding Chapel, claims Luell and her husband have threatened to assault him and that Luell's employees have told his clients his ministers aren't licensed.

''She's trying to corner the market through illegal tactics,'' said Evarts' lawyer, John Curtas.

Luell said she is the one who has been assaulted, screamed at and wrongly accused by her competitors of vandalism and selling drugs.

Competitors, prompted by jealousy over the success of her chapel, are uniting to drive her out of business, she said.

''You want to know how many weddings I did last month? Five-hundred-ninety-four,'' Luell said. ''That's where the problem is. Those people at those chapels used to get more business before I opened.''

Klute's husband, the Rev. Stephen Smith, said Luell and Garden of Love employees tried to intimidate him because he began offering services at the Stained Glass Chapel for whatever couples felt inclined to donate to his ministry.

Smith reported to police that on one occasion a man approached him, shoved a pointed object into his back and threatened to beat him up.

He said he was beaten outside his church on a Sunday morning in June by a man who told him to stay away from the courthouse.

Smith said he can't connect his assailant to the Garden of Love.

''With all these accusations, there are no charges, not one ticket, not a battery charge,'' Luell said.

Cynthia Dyson, a wedding coordinator at the Garden of Love and former employee of Evarts, who left the Vegas Wedding Chapel on good terms, said Luell was being ''crucified'' by her competitors.

''Cheryl is not doing anything but being a businesswoman,'' Dyson said. ''She's very outgoing and she's out there doing her job. They're very intimidated by that.''

Amid the accusations, Fricker said it was difficult for police to establish blame.

''There's a lot of 'He said, she said,''' Fricker said. ''We don't have many independent witnesses. Most are employed by one chapel or another.''

Woody Bowers, assistant security supervisor for Clark County, said more than one chapel was causing problems at the courthouse.

Charlotte Richards, owner of the Little White Chapel and the industry's grande dame, with more than 40 years of experience, said she doesn't rely on business solicited at the courthouse.

She said she thought more than one operator was being aggressive, and said her attempts to get the city to address the problem in the past have been ignored.

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