Prostitution sweep targets Aurora

Three months ago, more than 400 Greenwood-area residents crammed into a local elementary school cafeteria to say they'd had it with sleaze.

Neighbors near Aurora Avenue North said they felt imprisoned in their homes almost every night — fearful of seeing prostitutes engaging in sex acts in cars just outside their front doors. Many mornings, they said, were spent clearing their yards of used condoms, syringes and broken bottles. So over the past three months, Seattle police have held several large undercover operations designed to nab prostitutes and their clients. For nearly 10 hours Friday, more than 25 officers participated in what Capt. Mike Washburn called the largest sting he's been involved in since taking over the North Precinct.

Geographically the city's largest police precinct, the North includes neighborhoods north of the Ship Canal Bridge and south of the Shoreline city limits, to Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington on the east. About 45 percent of all Seattle homeowners live in the area, and it's where 34 percent of the city's crime is committed, Washburn said.

Police say the city's biggest prostitution problem is along Aurora.

"One of the things we want to do is make an impact in the violent crime up and down the Aurora corridor," said Washburn, who started working in the precinct in September. "This [prostitution] is the hardest problem to solve in the North Precinct. It's been here so, so long."

Curtis Gehrke, manager of Acme Auto Electric, 9015 Aurora Ave. N., said prostitution has plagued the corridor since his family opened the business in 1947.

"It's a constant problem," said Gehrke. "If we have a big police presence out here, it does seem to change and the problem is gone."

Gehrke said fellow members of the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association use handheld video cameras to record license plates of cars picking up prostitutes. The association also has a 24-hour hotline for people to call and report prostitution.

Cindy Potter, of Greenwood Aurora Involve Neighbors (GAIN), said that since the group formed in August she has "become so much more acutely aware" of prostitution.

"I see things I never saw before," Potter said. "You grow up thinking prostitutes wear fishnet stockings and miniskirts. Actually they can look pretty drugged out, pretty tired and not very happy and [still] make money on the streets."

During the GAIN meeting at Greenwood Elementary School last fall, City Council members, police, members of Mayor Greg Nickels' staff and a King County prosecutor took the stage to hear out the demanding crowd.

Police said they couldn't promise the additional officers that residents wanted, but they did decide to hold more undercover stings.

"There's a spike of crime in Greenwood and it's affecting our quality of life," Potter said.

On Friday, female officers posing as prostitutes tried to lure customers at Aurora and North 143rd Street.

Dressed in brightly colored T-shirts, puffy vests and tight jeans, they shuffled through parking lots, watching traffic. Interested customers pulled over, the women confirmed the men were willing to pay for sex and then directed them into a motel parking lot.

There, a team of marked police cars descended onto the property.

During the 10-hour operation, the team arrested 14 people. Another team of male officers, posing as customers, arrested six. In addition, one person was arrested for allegedly assaulting an officer, and six people were arrested for narcotics possession.

While Washburn hopes the operation will make a dent in prostitution, Lt. Ron Wood, part of Friday's sting, is more skeptical.

"We're not going to eradicate prostitution by doing this," he said. "But we can diminish it if we do it enough."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or

Seattle police search a man who was arrested Friday in the parking lot on Aurora Avenue during a prostitution sting. (THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES)