March 19 2003 12:00 AM

San Diego cops use the internet to nail visiting prostitutes


    Gretchen Perry is described by her escort agency as “Jennifer,” a “beautiful blonde” who “knows she can get further with her beautiful mind and personality than with just her good looks alone.... She aims to make everyone smile.”

    On Monday, Jan. 27, the day after the Super Bowl, Perry flew to San Diego, aiming to make more than a few men smile, and set up shop in a room at the Doubletree Hotel in Mission Valley.

    The men who made appointments with her before and during her four-day stay in San Diego contacted her through her agency, Miami Companions. One of them was a cop with the San Diego Police Department's vice squad. He reached her the day she arrived and set up an appointment for two days later.

    No, he wasn't just out looking for a good time-unless that's how he regards busting professional escorts on prostitution charges. On Jan. 29, the vice cop showed up at about 1 p.m. at the Doubletree for his “date.” Money changed hands, and about 10 minutes after the exchanged greetings, Perry was cuffed then hauled off to San Diego County's Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee. Perry, who brings in $350 to $375 an hour, allegedly had $3,400 stuffed in a zip-up bank bag when she was arrested, said vice Sgt. Mark Sullivan of the San Diego Police.

    Perry wasn't in jail long. Before she even had a chance to call her employer, arrangements had been made to bail her out. Soon she was on a plane, perhaps heading to Orlando, Fla., where she lives. She probably didn't even get to see the Gaslamp Quarter. Sullivan said an interview revealed that Perry had been anxious to see San Diego's downtown entertainment district. It was her first visit to the city that calls itself “America's Finest.”


    “Jennifer,” whom Miami Companions says is college educated, is one of thousands of women who crisscross the country, hooking up with men in major cities, particularly when those cities are hosting big events such as the Super Bowl. The agencies call them “escorts.” The cops call them “circuit girls.” Assuming they're found guilty, the criminal-justice system knows them simply as “prostitutes.”

    The San Diego vice squad has been spending a lot of time on the Internet lately, making dates with women like Perry, although the majority of women are independent, without representation from agencies. In her case, Sullivan went to an online message board, perhaps, which displayed the heading, “SuperBowl bound-two SuperBabes.” One click later, “Jennifer” was described as “another exceptional, intelligent, sophisticated girl friend experience type.... The response from gentlemen in northern florida [sic] and Detroit has been that she is nothing short of spectacular.”

    That was all Sgt. Sullivan needed to know. Following the website's instructions, he had a detective contact Miami Companions. The detective agreed to the agency's detailed protocol and arranged to meet Perry at the hotel.

    “The trend is girls are moving from the streets to the Internet,” Sullivan said. “We have officers constantly surfing the web and monitoring the websites.”

    Sullivan illustrated his point by clicking his “Favorites” button and showing CityBeat the websites of some of the more popular escort services and web clearinghouses. He said the officers make contact using phony names and “clean” e-mail addresses that can't be traced back to the city of San Diego or its police department.

    Every sting operation begins with an ad posted by either the escort herself or by the escort's agency. The vice team answers the advertisement by either phone or e-mail. Fees and services are arranged ahead of time.

    The Internet has made the task so much easier, Sullivan said.

    “With ‘Jennifer,' we took advantage of the fact she had the advertising and [was] in town with Super Bowl specials. Pretty easy to do her,” he said, adding that the vice squad nailed 16 circuit girls in a week's time just before and after the big game.

    But theirs are equal-opportunity operations. Using female cops posed as prostitutes, they also nabbed a bunch of customers, roughly twice as many as the escorts, the vice sergeant said. Those numbers are in line with a typical week's worth of prostitution busts. Last week, Sullivan said, vice arrested 18 prostitutes and 22 johns.

    Edward Tabash, a criminal defense attorney specializing in prostitution cases, said sting operations like San Diego's are common among police departments throughout California. “Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego county vice squads routinely set up women-they are tricked into meeting cops at hotels, then arrested,” Tabash said.

    Prostitution advocates have tried to counter the stings by providing online advice aimed at minimizing the potential for arrests, such as advising clients to avoid discussing payment and refrain from handing money directly to the escort.

    But silence during the exchange of money won't protect against arrest. In the eyes of the law, once any exchange of money occurs, an arrest can be made.

    However, a mere agreement to engage in prostitution is not by itself a violation, unless “some act, in addition to the agreement, is done within this state in furtherance of the commission of an act of prostitution by the person agreeing to engage in that act,” according to the law.

    That begs the question: how far do cops go in order to make an arrest?

    All it takes is some heavy petting, Tabash said: “Any kind of sensual touching in a paid-for context is prostitution, including a body massage.”

    But one prostitute advocate says the law allows cops to go all the way with the escort.

    “The law has been upheld in several Supreme Court cases-cops can have sex with [a] prostitute and then arrest her,” said Norma Jean Almodovar, who has worked both sides of the law as a former Los Angeles police officer and a call girl. These days, she likes to be called a “sex-worker activist.” Almodovar is executive director of an organization called Call Off Your Tired Ethics and president and chair of the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education.

    CityBeat's request for a ride-along on one of the vice squad's undercover sting operations targeting circuit girls was denied. “The officers would not feel comfortable doing what they do in front of an audience,” Sullivan said.

    The vice sergeant said there is a line that cops won't cross in the hotel room, but he declined to pinpoint it, citing a need to keep secret law enforcement “patterns” of behavior.

    Sullivan said the vice squad conducts ongoing operations against circuit girls even in absence of large conventions or big entertainment events.

    Two weeks ago, the cops carried out a sting against a single alleged Internet prostitute, whom Sullivan said was apparently “very patriotic.” Through her website, “Jenni” offered a “freebie” to one military man with orders to ship out to the Persian Gulf. Since one of the vice detectives happens to be in military reserves, Sullivan faked documents saying the detective was about to ship out. Since she was offering a freebie, the plan was to bust her on charges other than prostitution, but another lucky man in uniform got there first, so money changed hands and “Jenni” was hauled in for selling sex for money.


    Sounds like entrapment, doesn't it?

    To Miami Companions it does.

    “We've had cops do some pretty underhanded, sneaky shit to try to get the girls-totally illegal things,” said an anonymous Miami Companions representative in an e-mail to CityBeat. “They're the ones that should be in court on trial.”

    A circuit girl from Canada who traveled to San Diego last week declined to be interviewed, but her boyfriend, Mike, returned CityBeat's call. He cut the conversation short, but not before giving his legal opinion: “[The cops] can't do that, it's entrapment!”

    Not so, according to the law.

    The entrapment defense is only available to someone charged with a crime when the crime was not contemplated by the defendant but rather planned and induced by police officers, and the defendant's participation in the crime was the result of persuasion or fraud by the police, noted attorney Tabash.

    When assessing whether or not entrapment exists, one need only to ask this question: was the conduct of the law enforcement agent likely to induce a normally law-abiding person to commit the offense?

    In that light, prostitution is exempt from entrapment defense.

    “Entrapment would not be available as a defense if someone were selling illegal drugs and sold drugs to an undercover police officer,” Tabash explained, “because the defendant was already predisposed to selling drugs and would have sold them to anyone who happened to come along.

    “However, if the defendant were not inclined to sell illegal drugs and an undercover cop pressured the person day and night over a period of six months to start selling, and the defendant succumbed to the pressure; then, the defense of entrapment would be available, because an otherwise innocent person engaged in the unlawful activity only as a result of heavy pressure from a law enforcement official.”

    Tabash said that in the past seven years, he has not once been able to use the entrapment defense. The bottom line is that because his clients were prostitutes, they are presumed under the law to be already predisposed to soliciting.


    A first-time prostitution arrest is a misdemeanor offense that carries a fine. The second arrest means a mandatory 45 days in jail plus a fine. The third arrest requires 90 days in jail plus a fine. The girls must also post the minimum bail bond of $2,000.

    Because Perry worked for an agency, making bail was a lot easier for her than it is for independent escorts. The representative from Miami Companions said Perry had declined to comment on her San Diego experience, but the agency rep did explain how the company protects its girls when they're traveling:

    “With an agency like ours, we pay 100 percent to bail her out and 50 percent of lawyer fees. We actually had paid the bail and filled out the paper work before [Perry] was even allowed to call us to say she was arrested. We keep very close tabs on the girls-we knew within 10 minutes of her not calling out that she had been arrested.”

    E-mails with follow-up questions about how the agency is able to get its escorts out of jail so quickly were not returned.

    Wendy Zamutt, otherwise known as the “Bail Bond Woman” namesake of her San Diego bail bond agency, said the escort companies probably have people in town who keep an eye on the girls. It's “likely that the agency has lookouts posted who see when the girls are arrested, then go downtown and fill out and sign paperwork and get bail posted,” she said.

    The Miami Companions representative said little good comes of these arrests: “In five years, we have never had a girl actually get a record. In any arrest the lawyer appears on their behalf, and the case is always dropped. They don't want the girl, they want the agency.”

    Sgt. Sullivan countered that charges stick in San Diego. He said that sometimes lawyers for first offenders can bargain down the charge to something like disturbing the peace, another misdemeanor. But they do cop to breaking the law.

    And, he said, because of her arrest, it's likely that Perry won't return to San Diego, and the police department considers that a victory.


    The benefits of higher-class prostitution, it seems, are well worth the risk.

    Veronica Monet, a 13-year veteran of the escort business, says prostitution offers her fulfillment on many levels. At 29, Monet gave up her secretary job and followed in a prostitute friend's footsteps.

    “I was sick of the pats on the head, Secretary's Day and roses, but no money,” Monet said. “My girlfriend was making lots of money and taking good care of herself emotionally and physically and seemed extremely happy. I decided I wanted what she had.”

    More than 1,500 men later, she says she continues to love her job and her clients.

    But it's more than just the money that keeps her in the business. There's plenty of glamour and excitement, too, she reports. Nor is sex a constant component of the dates. Since escorts sometime provide companionship for two or three days for a single client, there's lots of non-sex fun and games.

    “My favorite jobs are when I get paid to go to the symphony, Broadway plays, eat at five-star restaurants, shop for designer clothes for me, ride around in limos and jet planes, visit museums, get a hot-rock massage and stay in my own private, two-story cottage on the beach,” Monet said.

    Monet doesn't worry so much about arrest. “The whole thing is a joke,” she said, “a game of cat-and-mouse, and sometimes the mouse wins and sometimes the cat wins.”

    It would be hard to say that, overall, the cat is winning.

    Almodovar, the former cop and escort, said that when she worked the Super Bowl in Los Angeles-as an escort-literally hundreds of prostitutes flooded the city.

    She laughs at the number of 16 circuit girls netted by San Diego police during Super Bowl festivities. “Just too many of us and too few of them,” Almodovar said.


    Monet says she knows firsthand that prostitutes are seen as “disposable” by society. The women rarely report it to the police when they're raped or robbed on the job, she said.

    Two years ago a client of Monet's turned out to be one of those serial rapists who prey on prostitutes. “Fortunately, I got out of there without getting hurt because I accepted his rubber check as payment, but another girl was not so fortunate and he stabbed her in the face,” Monet said.

    The guy's still on the loose and active targeting prostitutes in the San Francisco area, his rampage fed in large part by lack of trust and respect between police and prostitutes.

    “Since he is targeting prostitutes, he is still at large,” Monet said. “I cannot get any of the other prostitutes to come forward, and since all he did to me, in the eyes of law, was pass a bad check, I have no case.

    But Monet says she isn't completely helpless if attacked. She learned women's self-defense before getting into the sex industry.

    Such education is “very helpful, as we learned to defend ourselves in rape scenarios-attacks from behind or while asleep, etcetera. There is no position I can assume with a client without knowing exactly how I could defend myself if something went wrong,” Monet said.

    Tabash said he has many clients in Los Angeles who have been robbed by the same john, but the women are too afraid to report it to the police for fear of arrest. “In these cases, prostitution laws encourage crime, and decriminalization would clearly lead to less crime,” he said.

    Putting on her activist shoes, Almodovar said that as long as prostitution remains illegal, prostitutes will continue to be marginalized and victimized. “Their needs will be ignored, and brutality against them will be rationalized or even condoned,” she said. “The stigmatization that goes along with prostitution laws strips these women of their rights.”

    Almodovar says decriminalization is the only solution that makes sense. “Only through decriminalization will we be able to extend constitutional protections to all, including prostitutes,” she said.

    Monet agrees: “Decriminalize and let the laws that govern other male dominated businesses govern this one as well. There should be no special laws passed to govern this industry. If heterosexual white men were the ones prostituting themselves, we would have decriminalization already.”


    However, many mainstream feminists oppose decriminalization because it continues to perpetuate the objectified status of women. And those in law enforcement and government continue to consider prostitution an affront to morality.

    But Monet views the moral struggle over prostitution in a religious context. “No matter how hard they try, prostitution is part of the culture and part of the economy,” she said. “People are afraid of prostitution because their religious backgrounds tell them to be. It is fear and ignorance couched in a society that worships violence while it shuns sexuality.”

    The Miami Companions representative offered this view: “People who look down on girls in this business have more skeletons in their closet than anyone else. It's easy for people to shake their head in disgust. Who judges sin, or should I say, who is suppose to judge sin? God is the only judge, and he knows everyone's heart.”

    For his part, Sgt. Sullivan sees prostitution as cycle of addiction whose only cure is arrest. “It's a problem of sex addiction,” he said. “These men try out girls and use again and again. And just like one motorcycle ride is never enough, the men keep going back.”

    While mainstream society holds tightly to traditional values about sex, Almodovar has proudly embraced her past “whoredom.” She says it's the best job she ever had. “It was honest, extremely sexually liberating and gave me control over my life,” Almodovar said. “But it is only because I embraced my bad-girl status.”

    Monet admits that working in a profession that is shunned by society is difficult, but she has no regrets. “The social stigma hurts the most,” she said. “But being true to myself and being free is the best!”

    --------------------------------------------------------- CityBeat editor David Rolland contributed to this story. ---------------------------------------------------------


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