BY LYNN OLDSHUE
In a parking lot near Interstate 10, surrounded by cheap motels and gas stations, 25 undercover officers from units of the Mobile Police Department (MPD) assembled at 6:30 a.m. on May 9. It was the start of Operation Snag, a sting in multiple locations to arrest johns and prostitutes and find additional crimes. This was MPD’s first early-morning prostitution sting, but officers insisted it would be active this time of the day.
They were right.
7:10 a.m. — Undercover johns begin responding to online escort ads.
7:12 a.m. — “We’ve got one. She says $100 for 30 minutes or $80 right now.”
7:15 a.m. — Undercover prostitutes in a motel room make pictures for their escort ads on websites such as Escort Alligator and Skip The Games.
7:30 a.m. — The ads are loaded onto websites already filled with pictures of women advertising their naked bodies, what they will do with them and the price.
Ads offer in-calls, out-calls or car-calls: He goes to her, she goes to him or they meet in a car. Divorced moms. Horny moms. Horny, divorced moms. Married, looking for fun. Unmarried, young school teacher. Secret massage parlors. A girl who is six months pregnant and, “You know what that means: no condom.” Girls who are new in town. Girls who are just passing through. Girls looking for real men. Girls who will pay to play.
The Mobile Police Department operates several stings a year to get prostitutes off the streets and put fear into johns. They say stings also prevent more violent crimes.
“These stings aren’t just about prostitutes and johns,” said Maj. John Barber, who is supervising the sting. “Robberies, drugs, shootings and homicides are all part of prostitution. A lot of things can go wrong. There are no numbers for the avoided crimes and people who aren’t victims because we do our job well.”
7:35 a.m. — Texts come in from men across Mobile and Baldwin counties, searching for sex to start the day. One hour: $60, $120, $150. Anal sex. Blow jobs.
7:46 a.m. — Two clients are booked and on the way. A hidden camera sends video to officers watching and waiting in the surveillance room. The women are talking, vaping and biting their fingernails. Texting clients over prices and services. Sending photos confirming there is no bait-and-switch from the pictures in the ad.
7:50 a.m. — A text that the john has arrived. A reply with the room number. She stands up and shakes her hands to fan herself. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she walks to the door.
“Hey, how are you?” she asks. “What do you want to do?”
There are code words and signals with the team in case something goes wrong. Laws were already broken through negotiations in text messages. The arrest can be made as soon as he enters the door
7:52 a.m. — He walks in and puts the money on the table. The officers enter the room and say, “Put your phone down. You are under arrest.” Handcuffed, he is led to a third room where johns are held until they are taken to the precinct.
One of the first arrested is a 59-year-old farmer from Foley. He has been married for 35 years, but told the investigator, “When my wife finds out I might not make it to 36.”
By 8:20 a.m. one woman juggles six inquiries. Another juggles four. Men negotiate for the lowest price. “Thirty dollars for 15 minutes. Can you do that?”
“Are you 420 [marijuana] friendly?”
“I don’t care about your past. I want to take you to dinner and get to know you first.”
“Can you do a BBBJ? Eighty dollars for 30 minutes.” The undercover prostitute looks up “BBBJ” and says, “He means bareback blow job without a condom. Gross.”
She replies, “yes.”
By the end of the day, there were 16 arrests. Six men, ages 24 to 60, for patronizing a prostitute. Ten women, ages 20 to 40, for solicitation of prostitution. Barber said there would be fines and informal probation for first-time offenders or minimal criminal activity. The judge could give formal probation or jail time for anyone with a longer history.
A man posing online as a prostitute to lure and rob johns was stopped by the sting. He answered the door, said the woman was getting out of the shower and invited the undercover john in. There was no prostitute. He was arrested for solicitation of prostitution because there was not enough evidence for attempted robbery.
“Robberies during an out-call to a prostitute are under-reported, but they happen,” Barber said. “No man wants to explain where and why he was robbed in a situation like that. Prostitution can be dangerous for the prostitutes and johns. You walk into an unknown location or get into an unknown car and get much more than you expected.”
Prostitutes say danger and arrest are the risks of the job. The next call could be an officer, a robber or an abusive john.
Those arrested wait in the precinct for hours for interviews before being transported to Metro Jail. With handcuffed hands, women call sisters, mothers or friends to pick up kids from school. The children are unaware of what their mothers do during the day, or late at night, to help their family survive.
This is not Tina’s first arrest during her 10 years of prostitution. Forced to have sex with her mother’s friends and her father’s co-workers when she was 7 years old, she saw herself as a sex object at an early age. She was taken from her drug-addicted parents and placed in the custody of the Department of Human Resources (DHR), but continued the cycle. Hooked on drugs before she turned 18, Tina’s first child was also taken by DHR.
“I used to say when I had kids, I would do things differently,” she said. “That didn’t happen.”
Trying to explain her choices, Tina said it is expensive raising three daughters. She has little education, and prostitution is her only source of income. Friends noticed she lost weight and doesn’t look healthy, but life is hard living day to day. Her boyfriend of 15 years has diabetes and recently lost his legs. He can’t help the family.
“Everyone has their own reasons for prostitution,” she said. “I am trying to give my girls a better life than I had. I hope they never find out how I did it.”
Rhonda, wearing a tight-fitting green dress and red lipstick when she was arrested, was found on a transgender escort page.
“Growing up in Mobile in a black neighborhood and being transgender was hard,” she said. “I was 12 years old when I understood that I was different. People picked on me for how I looked, how I walked, how I talked, how I dressed.”
Rhonda became a prostitute when she was 18. She was on her own and couldn’t ask her family for help. She does hair, but her family doesn’t know that prostitution on the side gets her by.
Prostitution also temporarily provides the love she can’t find because it is “hard to date when you are transgender.” Being treated with kindness and told she is pretty by men paying for sex is better than being ignored and unseen. The johns have wives, girlfriends and kids, and Rhonda knows they aren’t coming to her for anything more.
“I want to be loved for me and have my own family one day,” she said. “Isn’t that everyone’s dream?”
Police Sgt. Patrick Sanders makes conversations with each person under arrest. He asks about families, how they ended up here and about Angel, a prostitute some girls knew who was found dead in a dumpster a few years ago. He reminds them that “nobody is perfect” and “don’t ever give up trying to do the right thing.” Sanders shows respect and compassion because he has gone through his own hard times.
4:30 p.m. — A john can no longer avoid calling his wife to tell her he won’t be home for supper. He explains that he has had issues lately and got caught. Sanders takes the phone to calm her down. After the call, Sanders says, “You are lucky to have a wife who will talk to you right now. I think you are going to be OK, but from this day forward, never do this again or you are going to lose her.”
Larry is also arrested for the first time, but he knew this day would come. Married for 38 years, he and his wife stopped having sex years ago and sleep in separate bedrooms. He says he is not 30 anymore and believes it is easier to pay for sex with a prostitute. He has an addictive personality, but has been clean since 2001 and hasn’t had a drink since 1992. Prostitution is an addiction that he hasn’t kicked yet.
“When the police entered the motel room, I thought, ‘Here it is,’” he says.
He calls his wife a “damn good woman” and says his arrest won’t surprise her. He is worried about his picture in the paper and what he will tell his son who is 33 and “a good Christian man.”
“They don’t write a book about what to do when you are 60 and your wife becomes your best friend,” he says. “She no longer wants to have sex, but I still have sexual desires. I thought this was the safest way to take care of that.”
4:45 p.m. — One of the final calls of the day is the first case of sex trafficking caught in a sting in Mobile. The victim is in one motel room and her boyfriend and 8-year-old daughter are in the room next door. While she is arrested for prostitution, her boyfriend escapes through a window and her daughter runs away in the rain. The child is found hours later and placed in the custody of DHR.
The victim has cigarette burns on her arms and says her boyfriend posted her ads on the escort pages. An officer, trained to know that sex trafficking is engaging in commercial sex by force, fraud or coercion, even if it is by a boyfriend or family member, recognizes this could be more than prostitution. Crystal Yarbrough, executive director of the Rose Center drop-in shelter for victims of sex trafficking, is called in for the first time to help interview a victim and take her to the shelter for assistance, rest and recovery.
Barber said the Mobile Police Department is “learning as they go” about sex trafficking and that this was a big step.
“It helps to get some of the right resources like the Rose Center in place as we start looking at why these women are doing what they are doing instead of just treating them as prostitutes and locking them away for a few days,” he said. “We need the social component and support from community organizations. We have a long way to go.”
Law enforcement says sex trafficking is hard to find and prove in South Alabama and some choose not to talk about it. The FBI’s human-trafficking task force investigates these cases and removes victims from sex trafficking in Mobile and Baldwin counties, but declined to answer emailed questions or requests for interviews. The Mobile Police Department originally put interview requests about sex trafficking on hold because “the commander is trying to determine if an interview is necessary, being the low number of incidents, and is considering if it is an issue for our area.”
Sex trafficking is an issue in our area, according to the Polaris Project heat map that tracks calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Most calls in Alabama come from the major cities located along the interstates and highways, and Mobile is a red hotspot.
“The majority of calls are for sex trafficking, and there are plenty of them from southern Alabama,” said Theresa Collier, intelligence analyst at the Alabama Fusion Center. Collier receives and vets all Polaris tips for the state.
“I get requests from around Alabama to assist local and federal law enforcement with intelligence for cases, but there have been no requests from Mobile and Baldwin counties,” she said. “We have done training there, but we only work on cases where we have been asked to assist.”
“Awareness and action for sex trafficking in South Alabama are where domestic violence was 40 years ago,” said Donna Armstrong, executive director of Hope Haven shelter in Baldwin County for victims of sex trafficking. “The problem has always been here, but it has been arrested and prosecuted as something else, missing the underlying human-trafficking crime.”
Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Edmond Naman said he suspects sex trafficking is an issue for some youth who come through his courtroom at Strickland Youth Center, but there has been no training or education in the judicial system for what to look for or how to respond.
“We need protocol and a plan between youth court, DHR and the Child Advocacy Center, so we can work together,” he said. “When that Band-Aid is ripped off, we had better know how we are going to help these kids.”
Alabama has some of the strongest human-trafficking laws in the country and the state legislature just passed one more in June. Shared Hope International rated Alabama with an A for its laws in 2018. There will soon be statewide protocols in human trafficking cases, according to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, but sex trafficking is still a frustration for prosecutors.
“A sex trafficking case hasn’t come through the Southern District yet,” U.S. Attorney Richard Moore said. “Law enforcement may suspect sex trafficking, but goes after guns, drugs or other crimes because the case can be proven and tried with a high probability of conviction. The perpetrator will get the same amount of time, if not more, and will be off the street. That is still a win.”
Moore said sex trafficking is complicated to prove because most victims are uncooperative witnesses. They have been through trauma and want to avoid the examination and judgment of a trial. The trafficker often threatens to kill her or a family member if she talks. Some victims are dependent on the trafficker and see him as a boyfriend or family member.
He said the average citizen does not understand the manipulation or that sex trafficking is sexual slavery, not prostitution.
“The jury does not believe her and the defense attorney goes after everything in her past,” Moore said. “She is victimized all over again.
“We spend a lot of money, get a ‘not guilty’ verdict, and the trafficker is back on the street. The victim is even worse off, and it will be even harder for women to come forward the next time. We must have an educated public before we can bring sex trafficking cases to trial.”
Former strippers and prostitutes say a change in public perception is unlikely.
“Prostitution has been around since the founding of Mobile, and some of the most prominent men are still the biggest customers,” Diane said. She owned a salon and made $2,000 a week doing hair and makeup for the girls working for Executive Escorts in the 1990s to “keep the drug money flowing.”
Diane became a dominatrix, the dominant role in sadomasochistic sexual activities, for the escort service, making $250 an hour. High on meth to numb the pain, she was “12-feet tall and bulletproof,” she said. Her best customers were a judge and several lawyers who are all still practicing in Mobile, according to her.
Her aunt Rosie Lee was a prostitute in Mobile in the 1930s. Rosie Lee saved her prostitution money, married the sea captain who was her best customer and opened a bakery on Canal Street.
“That does not happen today,” Diane said. “Girls come in already abused and no one cares about them. I was molested my whole life and thought I might as well get paid for it.”
Traci danced for 14 years, from 1996 to 2010, in strip clubs in Mobile and quickly learned that dressing and acting like a young girl was the best way to get paid.
“I danced with a girl in her 20s who was 4’11” and the mother of two children,” Traci said. “She was tiny like a child with red hair, freckles and no boobs. The men flocked to her stage and she made more money than the rest of us. I started dressing like a schoolgirl with barrettes and bobbysocks and sprayed on the drug store Baby Soft perfume that a young girl would wear. The men loved it.
“The desire for younger girls is about power, control and ownership. These men didn’t see children as people and felt no repercussions. The younger and dumber I acted, the more money I made.”
Working private parties was also part of the job for dancers. Traci said the girls were hired to walk naked around golf courses serving drinks to men. They were also hired to strip in private rooms at Mardi Gras balls, for crew members only.
“There was no bouncer at the Mardi Gras parties and the guys were all over us,” she said. “They had hookers in the corners giving blow jobs.”
Traci worked for three days on a dare at a topless car wash where she says some girls did more than wash cars. She turned down a receptionist job at a tanning salon when she realized the job was making appointments for men to meet girls in lingerie in back rooms, not get a tan. There were some private parties she still won’t talk about.
“Twenty years ago, there were parties, escort ads in the newspaper and hidden places for men to find sex in Mobile,” Traci said. “The internet made it cheaper and easier to pick a girl from an online menu and have her delivered to you.”
When the clubs became a free-for-all, with men paying less and dancers doing more, Traci realized she was more than a stripper and got out. She married a good man, got a good job, raised her kids and pulled her life together.
“At the end of that dark tunnel, I found a beautiful life,” Traci said. “We need more understanding and compassion for those who are victims or selling themselves to get by. I am no better than the girl walking Old Pascagoula Road looking for her next trick or the man with the sign on the corner begging for money.
“No one deserves to be treated as less than human — an item to be ordered, used and tossed aside,” she said. “God put all of us here to shine.”
If you suspect human trafficking or need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888 or text “help” to 233733 (BE FREE).
This is the fourth part of a six-part series on human trafficking in South Alabama.
In the next issue of Lagniappe, “It Can Happen to Anyone.” And the final installment, “A Vision of Hope,” will be in the July 10 issue.
Lynn Oldshue is a Lagniappe contributing writer, who lives in Fairhope. She was recently awarded the 2019 Alabama Press Association Award for Best Feature Coverage for her 2018 Lagniappe series “From Hell to Hope,” on domestic violence.
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