Sting Turns Up Police Heat On `Johns' -- Des Moines Sees Rise In Prostitution, Despite Targeting Customers

DES MOINES - Along Pacific Highway South, where Des Moines police recently arrested a Tukwila police officer in a sting, prostitutes are part of the everyday scenery.

As the temperature turns up a notch, the business of selling sex heats up too, according to police.

"They don't like standing out in the rain any more than anyone else does," said Sgt. John O'Leary, the Des Moines officer who headed the June 11 sting in which the officer and 12 other men were arrested.

Using female decoys, Des Moines police put together one or two stings a year.

O'Leary said King County police in Federal Way and SeaTac and police departments in Kent and Tukwila also conduct occasional sting operations. Ironically, Tukwila carried one out the week before Des Moines. Tukwila Police Chief Ron Waldner declined to say if the arrested officer took part in the operation.

Businesses on Pacific Highway South, O'Leary said, have been complaining about prostitution around them, often in parked cars "in broad daylight."

Because of limited resources, most departments focus their enforcement efforts on prostitutes, not their customers. Setting a sting operation takes a big investment of time and backup personnel. Des Moines used a dozen officers in its last sting.

With more money and more officers, O'Leary said the Des Moines Police Department could conduct a successful one every week.

Precincts frequently borrow decoy officers from other areas, because regular decoys would get too well-known. Officers from as far away as Olympia and Everett have trolled for prostitutes' customers in South King County, said Craig Sarver, spokesman for the Federal Way precinct.

Despite the best efforts of Des Moines, O'Leary said he believes prostitution in the city is on the increase. So are muggings and robberies of both prostitutes and their customers, he said. In the past month, several of each have been victimized.

The motel that police used in the sting operation was the site of a recent robbery of two guests and another case in which officers seized methamphetamines and guns and arrested two men on drug charges.

The 37-year-old Tukwila police officer, Carl F. Johnston, was arrested by uniformed officers when he accompanied the Des Moines undercover police officer to a motel room near the corner of South 222nd Street and Pacific Highway South.

Police said he agreed to pay her for a sex act. But, in a statement to officers, Johnston said he was only interested in a private strip show and it was never his intention to have sex with a prostitute.

The officer was driving by in his pickup when he stopped near the two police decoys. He began talking with one of them after she approached his truck, police said.

Johnston was charged last week in Des Moines Municipal Court with patronizing a prostitute, a misdemeanor offense.

Waldner, the Tukwila chief, said Johnston, who was suspended pending an internal investigation, has been on the force less than two years. It is his first job as a police officer, Waldner said.