Prostitution sting leads to 104 arrests

Rented furnishings and hidden cameras were among the props Seattle police vice detectives used to arrest 104 men who showed up at a ritzy downtown condo in the past two weeks expecting to pay for sex.

Nearly three-fourths of the men who were arrested on suspicion of patronizing a prostitute responded to postings in the "erotic services" category on craigslist, the free online community where people can search for apartments, jobs, used cars, friends and dates. The rest answered escort ads found in the back pages of The Stranger and Seattle Weekly.

"We wanted to prove craigslist was in fact a vehicle for promoting prostitution," said Lt. Eric Sano, commander of the Seattle Police Department's vice unit.

Escorts and the agencies that represent them have long argued that clients pay only for the companionship of a beautiful woman, Sano said, "but for the most part, that's not how it works."

The vice unit launched its elaborate investigation after receiving numerous community complaints about prostitutes advertising on craigslist, Sano said.

To test the theory, undercover detectives arranged for escorts to meet them in a downtown hotel room on Oct. 19, Sano said. Detectives arrested seven women and a 16-year-old girl who made clear they expected payment for their sexual services, he said.

Vice detectives then turned their attention to men who, instead of cruising the streets for prostitutes, respond to online and newspaper ads looking for sex, he said. To make their ads believable, Sano said, female detectives were photographed in flirty poses, phone lines were established and appointments were set up.

Police discovered "a complete subculture" where men call themselves "hobbyists" and refer to the women they pay for sex as "providers," Sano said Wednesday, the last night of the undercover operation.

"They all know each other and have their own terminology," he said. There are even several online "review boards" where men rate their experiences and describe a woman's looks and the sex acts she's willing to perform, Sano said.

Craig Newmark, who founded craigslist in San Francisco in 1995, said he has heard that "prostitution is a significant problem" on the Web site and noted that craigslist has built a "top-notch" reputation for responding to complaints of illegal activity.

As for the local craigslist review board where men discuss the sexual exploits they paid for, Newmark said those who operate the site are improperly using the craigslist name and that legal action is being discussed by the Seattle-based law firm representing his site.

Craigslist, which is now available in some 300 cities worldwide, doesn't monitor what people post.

"We are a democracy ... and we find we can trust our community," he said. "I don't know what the situation is like in Seattle, but we would prefer that [police] go after violent criminals or crooked congressmen."

At one point, the Seattle police operation was exposed on the craigslist review board and "we had to quickly scramble to get new photos and phone numbers," Sano said. As they waited for men to call, "we cruised craigslist ourselves" and arrested 14 more women on suspicion of prostitution, he said.

"Every hobbyist knows the going rate is at least $150 an hour for 'full service' — which means intercourse and maybe a massage," he said, noting men also "negotiate for extra services," for instance paying an additional $50 to have sex without a condom.

The response was "absolutely wild," Sano said. Even after female detectives upped their price to $200 an hour as part of a Veterans Day special, "we almost had people triple-booked" for appointments, he said.

When a man arrived at the rented condo, he was greeted at the door and ushered inside, Sano said. As other detectives hid in a bedroom watching live footage from hidden cameras, the female detective, posing as "a provider," would engage in a conversation about sex and collect her fee, he said.

Once money had changed hands, Sano said, other officers would then walk out and arrest the man.

All but five of the men were interviewed, cited and released: One man, a registered sex offender, was booked into the King County Jail for violating conditions of his release, three others were booked on drug violations and another on a weapons charge, Sano said.

Arrestees have included "bank presidents, state employees, business owners, construction workers, physicians and surgeons," Sano said.

Though some may argue that prostitution and patronizing a prostitute — both misdemeanors — are victimless crimes, Sano doesn't see it that way: "No young girl grows up dreaming of doing this. These prostitutes are women who have had a rough life, whether they're addicted to drugs, or they've been abused or they have some pimp forcing them into it.

"It is easy money ... but these women are being exploited and it's degrading," he said. "You should hear what some of these guys have asked our detectives to do — it's disgusting."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654