Accused prostitution ringleader Santiago Steven Maese took the witness stand in his trial late this afternoon and calmly denied all charges against him.

Maese, 31, testified in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court that he wanted to run a business that was completely legal. He repeatedly told the jury he never told workers at the Doll House escort service, which he co-owned, to engage in any sexual activity for money. He said the women were given written and verbal instructions from him and an attorney at regular company meetings about what was, and was not, legal.

Soft-spoken and dressed in a charcoal-colored business suit, Maese often looked over at the five-man, three-woman jury during his testimony.

Maese characterized the Doll House escorts as "independent contractors," not employees, and said they were at first verbally rebuked or then let go if he discovered they engaged in illegal sexual behavior. He said they were required as part of the job to show up for appointments with clients and get nude. They could dance and be entertaining. The escorts could also touch certain body parts or let the clients touch them, without violating the law.

"It's all about creating a fantasy," Maese said.

He repeatedly denied encouraging or directing the women to engage in sex as part of the job and said he never got any money derived from sexual activities. Under questioning from prosecutor Chad Platt, Maese also refuted testimony from other witnesses, including former escorts who essentially said sex was an integral, although often implied, part of the business.

"You're saying your version is correct and theirs is incorrect?" Platt asked several times.

"Yes," Maese replied each time.

A parade of former Doll House escorts testified Friday that Maese never directly told them to have sex with clients, but many said it was clearly implied that sex was part of the job.

Nicole Hernandez said she understood that sexual activity was part of the job, because when she was asked to attend a bachelor party, she was told "this was not a lap dance" by her employers. She said she had sex with every client she entertained.

One witness with a rather exuberant manner, Danielle Thomas, cheerfully admitted that she told police during a "swear fest" interview that she hated Maese and "wanted to ruin his life." She said she and Maese did not get along because she thought the other escorts were selling their services too cheaply, and Maese also didn't protect her enough in various disputes.

One dispute involved a dissatisfied customer who wanted unprotected sex, and she said Maese told her on the phone to buy condoms and keep the client happy.

However, Thomas said she has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is being treated by three mental health providers, is on four prescription medications and has "grown up" and become much healthier since that time.

She has been arrested for prostitution and working without a sexually oriented business license four times. She got a plea in abeyance deal from Salt Lake City and state immunity from prosecution on anything she testified to about the Doll House in return for her cooperation, but said she no longer harbors ill will toward Maese.

"I'm not doing this to hurt him. I'm just doing what I promised I would do," Thomas said.

Heather Ann Tweed testified that she once was raped by a client, and both Maese and Curtis were "pretty horrified." Maese offered to call police, but Tweed said she was so traumatized at the time, she declined — something she now regrets.

Asked if Maese was a good employer, Tweed replied, "I don't have any complaints."

She also was asked whether Maese ever directed her to have sex with clients.

"Whatever we did was our decision," she said.

Maese is on trial for four counts of exploiting a prostitute, all third-degree felonies, and one count each of money laundering and pattern of unlawful activity, both second-degree felonies. Maese was incorrectly referred to by his middle name in the original charging documents and subsequent documents, but he told reporters Friday that Santiago is really his first name.

Maese is charged in a separate case this year with two new counts — witness tampering, a third-degree felony, and stalking, a class A misdemeanor. These charges stem from incidents of alleged harassment of the other Doll House owner, Tiffany French Curtis, 34.

Curtis originally was charged with the same crimes as Maese, but she took a plea bargain in February on misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to two years' probation.

E-mail: [email protected]; [email protected]