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Death of a Toriphile

Getting Back to

Fairy Blessings

Rachel Siani was a student at my college and a Toriphile. Although I never knew her, I feel the loss of her from this earth and need to share her story with all of you. You are remembered Rachel.

The Philadelphia Daily News, April 17, 2000

The death of a dancer This story was reported by Steve Esack, Chris Brennan, Regina Medina and Scott Flander. It was written by Flander. Daily News Staff Writers

It was in the world of strip clubs, of brass poles and lap dances and folded dollar bills slipped into G-strings that Rachel Siani found a part of herself that had been hidden.

Outside that world, in her everyday life as a Bucks County Community College student, she was reserved, almost shy. Just a sweet, pretty, dark-haired, blue-eyed, 21-year-old girl-next-door.

But friends said she seemed to live behind a wall, in her own protected place, and she let few people in. And they said it was just as difficult for her to leave that place. Rachel Siani was full of life and energy and vibrancy, but had a hard time letting it out.

Until, in the world of strip clubs, she climbed up on the stage, and was introduced as "Roxanne," and the pounding music began.

"She was seductive . . .very sensuous," said "Cashmere," a fellow dancer at Divas in Bristol. "Among a group of girls, she was quiet. Every now and then she talked. You wouldn't expect her to get up and dance the way she did."

But it was a potentially dangerous world that Rachel Siani had entered.

And in the end, it swallowed her whole.

In the early morning hours of March 29, she was murdered - allegedly by John Denofa, one of the strip club's biggest customers.

A man who, with his wife's knowledge, went to Divas every Tuesday evening - and usually stayed overnight at the adjoining Econo Lodge.

A man who would give Siani - and dancers like her - hundreds of dollars a night if they would just sit next to him, and talk with him.

A man who had a sudden, violent temper, particularly when he had been drinking, according to employees of the club.

A man who, they said, felt the world - and everyone in it - owed him something.

Friends say they don't know why Rachel Siani chose to go into the Econo Lodge with Denofa that night, after Divas had closed. They can only guess. But she did not come out alive.

YOUNG WOMEN become topless dancers for all kinds of reasons. Rachel Siani told friends she did it for the money. And there was plenty of cash to be made. She could pick up as much as $400 to $500 a night - often a dollar bill at a time, fellow dancers said. And she worked three to five shifts a week.

That meant she could earn $1,200 to $2,500 on a good week. Enough to give her the independence she wanted, and allow her to attend the community college, where she was a B student.

But for Siani, exotic dancing was more than just a job, friends said. It was a means of self-expression. Something happened to her when she got up on stage. Fellow students at the community college could clearly see that in the acting class she had been taking. When she performed in class skits, she was transformed from a shy, quiet student into a dynamic, exciting presence. And she played her roles with astonishing dead-on accuracy.

Jared Yankowy, a performance major, recalls acting in a "real campy" love scene with Siani. "Her energy level shot up," he said. "She was a natural. She nailed the part. She had a lot of talent born into her."

Classmates said Siani didn't hide that she was a topless dancer. In fact, she performed a skit for her class in which she portrayed one of the "grimy men" who paid to watch her at Divas.

In the skit, she sat in a chair with her hands propping up her chin - as if she were at a bar, watching the stripper "Roxanne." Siani pulled out a real wad of dollar bills, and went slackjawed, leering, as her eyes slowly went up from the imaginary "Roxanne's" ankles, to her thighs, to her waist, to her breasts, to her face. Finally, Siani straightened herself up in the chair, waved a dollar bill at "Roxanne," and bellowed - in a deep, manly voice - "Hey, honey, why don't you come over here!"

The class roared with laughter. Siani seemed drawn to performing, because of what it could do for her.

Amy Snodgrass, who lives with Siani's stepbrother, Tony, said Siani loved to go to karaoke bars and sing Tori Amos songs.

"It helped her express her feelings," said Snodgrass. "She was so quiet."

As a topless dancer at Divas, Siani took her performing - and what it meant to her - to the limit. "It was a release for her," said Lane Stocker, a close friend. "It was a way for her to express herself. It made her feel better."

It was a way, Stocker said, for Siani to come out from behind the wall that she had built up between herself and the world.

She may have had to play a role to do it, but it helped her to become alive.

Behind her wall, Siani was an observer, said Stocker. She watched other people, studied their behavior. That's one reason she was such a good actress. She knew what made people tick.

And when she danced, she was no longer an observer - she was out in the world, she was a participant. Her parents weren't happy when they learned from someone else that their daughter had become a topless dancer.

"We found out about it, and when we did, we sat down and talked about it," recalled her stepmother, Janet. "She was comfortable with it, and felt secure. We were not. But she's an adult." Friends of Siani said she was determined to make something of herself.

Her dream was to become a singer, perhaps like Tori Amos. But Siani knew that was a longshot, and she hoped to transfer to a four-year college like La Salle to get a degree in music therapy.

Her penchant for observing people had led naturally to her interest in psychology, friends said. And she talked about wanting to help others with what she learned.

Rachel Siani had seen her own share of trouble. At her funeral service on Thursday, her stepbrother Tony told mourners that Siani didn't have an easy childhood. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she took it hard. Her mother - with whom she was very close - died when she was 11.

College was important to her, said friends. So important, that when business was slow at Divas, she'd do her homework in the dressing room - or sometimes right at the bar, while other dancers were gyrating nearby on the stage.

Said Jason Francis, a former bouncer at Divas, "I used to help her with her psychology homework and her acting. She would act stuff out with me." Siani, said Francis, "was all about school." That is, until she got on the stage herself and changed from Rachel Siani into "Roxanne."

At Divas, cartoonish paintings of voluptuous women line the lavender walls. A large, rectangular bar surrounds the stage. Overlooking the stage is an area where men sit at smaller tables, and - in an adjoining, semi-private section - cushioned chairs where they can get one-on-one couch dances.

While one or two topless women dance on the stage, the ones who have finished dancing walk around to the men who are sitting on the bar stools or at the tables. They chat with the men and solicit tips, following a time-honored ritual. First, they cup their bare breasts together, encouraging a customer to slip a dollar bill - or a five or a ten - between them. If the customer obliges, the woman will turn to the side and draw back her G-string for the man to put a bill on her waist as well. If he does, she'll turn her back to him, and bend over a little, and open up her G-string from behind, seeking yet another bill.

When a man seems particularly interested in a dancer, she'll ask whether he wants a couch dance. For $20, she'll take him to the semi-private area and spend one song - usually about three minutes long - grinding her body against his.

One 34-year-old Divas customer recalled how "Roxanne" captivated him with "the blue eyes and the smile." Roxanne was different from the other women, he said. "She wasn't the kind of gal that you would say, 'I wanna do ya.' She wasn't like that." He loved for Roxanne to do couch dances for him, particularly to the song "Lighting Crashes," by the rock band Live.

When the group sang the lyrics "The angel opens her eyes, pale, blue-colored iris," the blue-eyed Siani would act out the part, he recalled. "She'd run her fingers over her eyes," he said. "That was Rachel. She was an angel in my eyes."

BUT THERE is a darker presence at the clubs, always out there, always waiting. Dancers, bouncers and bartenders say that most customers are harmless. But there are some men who do not always treat the women like angels.

At many clubs, bouncers will escort the dancers to their cars at the end of the night - just in case some drunken, lust-crazed customer is lurking about. Clubs can't stop dancers from seeing men on their own time, but the women are warned to be extremely cautious.

"They need to know who they're walking out of here with," said an employee at one Bucks County strip club. "You don't walk out with with someone unless you really, really know them." But some of the dancers don't heed that advice. They don't understand the danger. "Some of the girls are too trusting," the employee said. "The men throw money at them. They're enticed by the money."

If police are right, John Denofa, a self-employed sign painter, was the kind of customer that the clubs fear the most - the kind that can kill.

To his Buckingham, Bucks County, neighbors, the 35-year-old Denofa seemed a nice enough guy. Though he and his wife, Lisa, didn't have any kids, they were an active part of their neighborhood life, and at annual block parties would set up a tent and put out the biggest spread of food and drink. One neighbor recalled Denofa mentioning Divas in passing. The neighbor said it didn't seem to be a big deal.

But to Denofa, Divas was a big deal. Lisa Denofa told police her husband went to the club every Tuesday night, and stayed over at the Econo Lodge. Diva employees say Denofa, whom they knew as Jack, was a familiar face. Sometimes he even socialized with them.

He liked to sit with certain dancers and talk with them. In return, he'd shower them with money. One of those dancers was Siani.

"If he was there, it got to the point where she didn't have to work," said the dancer, Cashmere, explaining that Siani made so much money from Denofa she didn't need to dance on stage, or do couch dances. "She would make five, six, easy." As in $500, $600.

Even after Siani's shift ended, she would sometimes continue to sit and talk with Denofa. She'd keep him happy, and keep the money rolling in.

"He was one of her biggest customers," said Cashmere. Denofa was generous with other dancers as well. So much so that when Siani was found dead, many employees at Divas didn't believe it was Denofa.

"A lot of us didn't think it would be him because he wasn't obsessed with her," said Cashmere.

Also, Denofa didn't seem the type anyone really had to worry about. He didn't even ask for couch dances. "He wasn't the pervert type," said Cashmere. "He would just sit there. He was real respectful of us and the job we did, and he'd just give us money."

One employee said Denofa would test the dancers to see how much they trusted him.

"He would convince them to let him hold their money, their tips for the night," said the employee. "If they trusted him, he would give them twice their money back."

But as in so many other stories about a man accused of killing a woman, it turns out that the man - in this case, Denofa - had a problem with anger.

One employee described Denofa as the kind of person who acted like everyone owed him something. And if he didn't feel he got that - if things weren't going exactly the way he wanted, he'd get angry.

Especially, said employees, when he had been drinking. Several employees recalled the time the kitchen closed three minutes early, infuriating Denofa, who demanded to be served.

"He had some drinks in him," said one dancer. And woe to any bartender who dared to tell Denofa he'd had too much. Said one Divas employee who watched such a scene, "He became pretty belligerent, and took on a completely different attitude."

He'd also become angry if a dancer didn't want to sit with him right away, said Cashmere.

He wouldn't yell at them - but he would snub them. He might not talk to them for the rest of the night. Sometimes he'd ignore them for weeks.

AND THEN came the night Rachel Siani died. Andrew Seawall, who edits and publishes the local strip club magazine, Unveiled, knows many Divas dancers and customers. He says he spoke to several about what happened that night.

They told him that Siani finished her shift dancing at Divas at 10 p.m, then drove home. She later returned, though, and went inside the club to talk with friends. A group of employees and others, including Denofa, decided to go to Sportsters, a bar in Fairless Hills. Siani got a ride there with a fellow dancer, and Denofa rode with another driver.

Shortly before 2 a.m., Siani and the dancer left Sportsters and went back to Divas, said Seawall. A little later, Denofa got a ride back to Divas as well. According to Cashmere, when Denofa arrived, Siani spotted him in the parking lot.

"She said, 'Oooh, there's Jack, Let me go speak to Jack,'" Cashmere recalled.

According to investigators, at 2:40 a.m., a Bristol Township police officer on patrol was in the Divas parking lot. He watched as a man and woman went into the Econo Lodge together.

Shown photographs later, the officer identified the couple he saw as Rachel Siani and John Denofa. Why did she go into the hotel with him? Cashmere says she doesn't believe it was for sex. Siani "wasn't the type to leave with someone and prostitute herself," she said. "I think she trusted him as a friend because he's been coming here for a while."

Denofa has denied killing Siani. As he was hustled off to the Bucks County prison after his arraignment on murder charges April 7, he told reporters, "I last saw her at 11 p.m. after I smoked a joint with her. That's a fact."

Police say otherwise.

They say he killed Siani in his second-floor motel room, then pushed her body out of the window, down onto the concrete walkway below. She apparently was beaten to death. He then put her body into the back of his red Dodge pickup truck, got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and drove to the bridge that links the highway to New Jersey. There, police say, he tossed Siani's body over the rail, where it landed in a field. Among the most damning evidence are the video surveillance tapes taken on the turnpike the night Siani died. They show what appears to be Denofa's pickup going through a toll lane with the body of a woman lying in the back. A woman who matched the description of Rachel Siani

WHEN SIANI'S friends talk about her, they don't try to draw any great moral lessons from her life and death. Not everyone who knew her approved of what she did. But they know she lived her life the best she could, in the best way that she knew how. In a way, she was as much a reflection of her world as she was a part of it. Says her friend Lane Stocker: "She was a composite of everything around her, and everything she experienced." 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.