Police track prostitution from streets to Internet

"Buxom Blonde Dejah" says your satisfaction is her desire. "Jenny" is "new in town" and knows "what I have to do to make friends." "Leslie" is available 24/7 and will gladly take your credit-card number.

On the Internet and in the back pages of the local weekly newspapers, hundreds of women in the Seattle area advertise themselves as scantily clad strippers, massage therapists and escorts. It's common knowledge to police that many of them are also prostitutes.

This week's case of the two women, a mother and daughter, arrested for running an alleged online prostitution operation in the Seattle area highlights a relatively new twist to the world's oldest profession: Prostitution is no longer just the gritty public nuisance on display on the streets; it's a booming high-tech culture that's easily accessible via phones and cyberspace.

For law enforcement, the difference is huge.

"In the old days, if you went to the strip, you'd know it," said King County Sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart, who used to be a vice detective. "There'd be condoms in front of the businesses, it would be more visible. Nobody wants to live in a community where there are hookers around. So they'd call us.

"But now, people are making appointments on the Internet, the condoms are getting flushed down toilets at motels and nobody knows about it. The impact that one has is vastly different than the other."

Sheriff's detectives launched the investigation into the online escort business called "Garden of Eden" after the older woman's ex-boyfriend called vice detectives to turn the women in, according to search-warrant documents filed this week.

The women have not yet been charged in the case.

The former boyfriend, Jeff Skinner, was upset because the women wouldn't return his beloved dog, a miniature pinscher named Joker, after a nasty breakup, the court documents say. The couple broke up several months ago after the 49-year-old mother accused Skinner of assaulting her and filed a restraining order against him, according to court documents.

Skinner told detectives that he had tried over and over to get Joker back, but he had been unable to find his ex-girlfriend. So he turned her in.

According to the court documents, Skinner told detectives that he lived with the woman in Lake Stevens for four years but that he only became aware of the true nature of her business affairs recently.

The web site allowed customers to go online, check out photos of women, prices and available time slots before calling to make an appointment, according to the search-warrant papers.

Detectives traced the website to the house of the daughter, and followed the mother as she went to different hotel rooms and collected bags and packages from women in each one, the papers allege.

But some police agencies say that given the other crimes they need to combat, they choose not to deal with such online and newspaper prostitution. Especially because it's more tolerated by the public.

"It's like enforcing marijuana use," said Pierce County Sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer. "The public tells us regularly that vice crimes, escort services are at the bottom of the priority list."

It's not to say police don't work these cases.

This fall, Seattle police detectives posted a fake ad in a local weekly paper and set up a place for unwitting customers to meet a policewoman posing as a prostitute. By the time they were done, they had arrested 59 "johns."

In March, Bellevue police detectives arrested at least three prostitutes at local hotels after undercover officers responded to ads in the weeklies and made "dates" with women.

In Bellevue, police have turned their attention to building cases against the escort-service operators, by tying them to tax evasion and money laundering, said police spokesman Michael Chiu.

And those are just the busts they have publicized. Police say they are patrolling the Internet and classified ads and making routine misdemeanor busts.

"But it's a constantly revolving door," said Lt. Richard Hybak of the Seattle police vice squad. "You can arrest 20 people tonight and there's 20 people waiting to take their place."

So how effective is busting a few johns or arresting the Dejahs, Jennies and Leslies of the trade?

Women who engage in prostitution can only be charged with a misdemeanor crime, which means they'll probably face a small fine and no jail time. Same with the men who solicit them.

Getting at the people police call "dispatchers," who run many of these online operations and profit from them, can be difficult. Promoting prostitution is a felony.

Which is why the King County Sheriff's Office jumped all over the recent case. An informant gave them detailed information about the Web site, "Garden of Eden," and the alleged operators, a 49-year-old Kirkland woman and her 31-year-old Arlington daughter.

Detectives recovered a "black book" with the names of hundreds of clients, including businessmen who work for major Seattle-area corporations.

In fact, the online proliferation of prostitution is leading to a more white-collar john, who doesn't have to risk the stigma of driving around, looking for a prostitute.

Instead, the Garden of Eden set up the "escorts" with men at area hotels and motels, police allege.

Urquhart, with the Sheriff's Office, says the escorts who worked as prostitutes for the two alleged madams aren't the priorities in this case.

Several of them were brought in from out of state to work here temporarily. Tracking them down becomes too labor-intensive, he said.

Police have focused on the role of intermediaries, like The Stranger and The Seattle Weekly, alternative newspapers that regularly carry four to five pages of escort advertising.

With some exceptions, most of the advertisements in weekly papers are not placed by independent women looking to make extra money, Hybak said. Usually, they are placed by organizers who handle a group of prostitutes. The escorts pay the organizers a cut of whatever they make.

A management consultant hired by the Seattle Police Department last year suggested that the police try to get the weeklies to quit running such ads.

Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, well known for her studies of human sexuality, says one of the greatest uses of the Internet has been for sexual networking, both romantic and commercial.

"It doesn't seem far from buying sexual toys in the privacy of your own house, to buying people, if they are offering themselves for sale," Schwartz said. "There are a zillion sites out there. The sheer number protect them to some extent."

Street prostitution still exists. But those women are of a different mind-set than many of the women who work online.

"You would not believe some of the prostitutes out on the streets," Urquhart said. "They just want $20 for the next rock of cocaine, and if you don't have $20, they'll take $10."

The women who work online and through the newspaper ads charge several hundred dollars for their services, police say.

In both cases, however, police say it doesn't mean the dangers and social problems around prostitution have gone away.

Many prostitutes are still either drug addicts or victims of abuse, police said. And they still risk AIDS and other diseases, and the possibility of assault, rape and murder.

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com; Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Staff Reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to the report.