Seattle police and other law-enforcement agencies are increasing the
number of online stings aimed at catching men who pay for sex. The
undercover operations are part of a larger, countywide effort to hold
men accountable for fueling the demand side of prostitution.
DES MOINES —
In a trio of musty-smelling motel rooms on Pacific Highway South, a
group of cops made four arrests in quick succession — two businessmen in
button-down shirts, a college student who swung by after class and a
man in his 50s who paid double to “party longer” with a woman he thought
was a prostitute.
Then a lull: For nearly an hour and a half, the cellphones of two
undercover Seattle officers, in body-hugging clothing and heavy makeup,
Finally, one of the officers, wearing five-inch heels and a
cleavage-revealing shirt-and-skirt combo, stepped into the bathroom to
take a call. “Someone’s here,” she called out to her fellow officers a
few minutes later.
A 40-year-old Auburn man walked into her shabby motel room and handed
over $80. He then shrugged out of his jacket, skinned off his T-shirt
and popped open his pants. Moments later, he was in handcuffs.
The man, a level 3 sex offender who had served prison time for
attacking two prostitutes, would end up being their biggest catch of
Last month, the group of Seattle cops — a couple of sergeants, a
handful of detectives and the two undercover officers, or UCs — headed
south to teach seven Des Moines officers how to run a “hotel op,” an
Internet sting designed to catch men who buy sex. Nine men were arrested
Since June, Seattle police and six other King County law-enforcement
agencies have been conducting similar stings as part of a program
Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is to publicly announce on Wednesday morning.
The grant-funded, national program called “The CEASE Network” is aimed
at holding men accountable for fueling the demand side of the sex trade —
and at deterring them by increasing their risk of getting caught.
CEASE, an acronym for Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation,
got its official start in Boston, Denver and Seattle earlier this year,
with seven more cities — including Portland, Chicago and Phoenix — set
to launch their own initiatives later this month.
Increased stings — the bulk of them online — are part of the effort,
known locally as the “Buyer Beware” program, which has an overall goal
of decreasing local demand for prostitution by 20 percent in two years.
Another aspect of the effort includes using online ads that pop up
when certain keywords for paid sex are entered into search engines,
linking to information about prostitution-related penalties and about
services for men who need help to stop buying sex.
“The Internet has caused an explosion” in sex buying, said Lina
Nealon, the founding director of the Massachusetts-based Demand
Abolition, which is providing the $80,000 in funding each year of the
two-year initiative in King County.
“The Internet has really made it risk-free to buyers … It’s created a
market that wasn’t there before, men who wouldn’t go on the street to
encounter someone who was prostituting,” Satterberg said. “They’re
comfortable on the computer, and with a couple clicks of a mouse, they
can order someone up for sex.”
105 arrests in 3 months
The recent road trip to Des Moines by members of the Seattle Police
Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit is part of that larger
effort to punish men responsible for financing a seedy system that
exploits women and girls already on society’s fringes.
The Seattle Times agreed not to identify any of the SPD detectives,
who all work undercover, or publish information on police tactics that
could help sex buyers avoid arrest.
Historically, women and girls involved in prostitution were arrested
up to 10 times more often than sex buyers, and were three to four times
more likely to face prosecution, said Val Richey, the King County senior
deputy prosecutor who handles most of the office’s prostitution-related
But with an estimated 3.5?percent of Seattle’s adult male population
soliciting sex online — 8,806 of them on a single website in a recent
24-hour period alone, according to researchers from Arizona State
University — most sex buyers never get caught, Richey said. If they are
arrested, he said, it’s usually after they’ve already purchased sex,
sometimes dozens or hundreds of times.
With the number of men looking to buy sex so much greater than the
number of women selling sex, police and prosecutors, in concert with
city attorneys across the county, are already working to flip arrest and
prosecution numbers around:
Over three months this summer, for instance, seven police agencies
arrested 80 men for patronizing an adult prostitute — a number that
equals 75?percent of the men arrested for the same crime in 25 cities
across the county in all of 2013, Richey said. An additional 25 men were
busted this summer for trying to buy sex with juveniles, he said.
But more than coming down hard on sex buyers, Richey said, police,
King County prosecutors, city attorneys and local social-service
providers are working together to create “an atmosphere of risk” for
prospective johns while doing all they can to get girls and women who
are involved in prostitution out of a dark, dangerous life.
On a recent Thursday night, SPD’s vice unit organized a double sting
operation on Aurora Avenue North: Three men were arrested for
patronizing a prostitute after soliciting sex with undercover officers,
and a suspected pimp was arrested after trying to convince one of the
UCs to work for him. Meanwhile, a team of male detectives picked up 12
women and one 16-year-old girl who were working as prostitutes.
The men were all booked into jail, but the women were driven downtown
to meet with social-service providers. Three accepted the help being
offered and checked into rehab that night, said Seattle police Sgt. Tom
Umporowicz, known as “Umpy” to his squad of detectives.
“People think (sex buyers) are just some poor schmoes looking for
sex. A lot of people forget how much risk these girls endure — and they
do get robbed and raped and beaten on a regular basis,” Umporowicz said.
Perhaps most ambitiously, the local “Buyer Beware” program is also
aimed at attacking the ambivalence many people feel about prostitution
and the harms caused by the sex trade.
“This is not a crime because it involves sex. It’s a crime because it
involves the exploitation of vulnerable victims,” Satterberg said.
As part of the effort to get men to understand that, those convicted
in cities across King County of patronizing an adult prostitute will be
required to complete a 10-week course similar to a batterers’
intervention program for domestic-violence offenders.
“It’s a deep dive into what they’re doing out there, the impact on
their lives and where it came from,” said Peter Qualliotine of the
course. He is the co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution
Survivors (OPS), a Seattle nonprofit that helps connect prostituted
women with social services.
“A living hell”
The new, 10-week course — which will include two in-depth interviews
and weekly group counseling sessions — will cost offenders $900, with
the first men expected to begin the countywide program by the end of the
Men who are charged with attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor
after going online to arrange sex with underage girls face far tougher
penalties and more time behind bars than men who patronize adult
“There are no happy hookers,” said a veteran Seattle detective who
has spent more than half of his 45-year career working prostitution
During hotel ops, he is responsible for creating and posting the
Internet ads, which promise to make male fantasies come true.
“There are more victims in this crime than any other I’ve
investigated ... Their lives are a living hell,” the detective said.
“The johns abuse them, the pimps victimize them, the drug dealers
victimize them, and the normal people look down on them. They’re the
true victims of what people call a victimless crime.”
Men who pay for sex all have one thing in common, said another
detective. “All of these guys who participate in this look at a woman
as a commodity. And if I pay you, you have to do exactly what I say.”
New tactics needed
The Seattle detectives have already done training sessions with a
number of police agencies in the county, and have made trips to
Eastern Washington to either train officers or arrest perps there. In
addition, the King County Sheriff’s Office is collaborating with Renton
and SeaTac cops to conduct similar online stings, according to Richey.
“Pacific Highway historically has been an area that’s always had
prostitution, but with the Internet ... it’s a necessity to change up
our tactics to match what’s going on out on the highway,” said Des
Moines police Detective Sgt. Dave Mohr, who contacted Umporowicz for
help to set up the hotel op.
“This is something new to us and we’re fortunate to have a partner like Seattle to make sure things go perfectly,” Mohr said.
Some of the men who responded to the police-posted online ads
during the recent sting in Des Moines were trying to elicit free phone
sex. Others set up “dates,” then either got spooked or lost their nerve.
Nine men were arrested for patronizing a prostitute, a misdemeanor
charge. One of them was a 39-year-old who was released from prison last
year after serving time for robbery and is considered a high risk to
commit another violent offense by the state Department of Corrections.
Also arrested was the level?3 sex offender from Auburn: Samuel
Rutherford III. He was convicted almost 20 years ago of raping a
prostitute, trying to rape another and bashing both women over the head —
one with a tire iron, the other with a flashlight, according to court
He spent a decade in prison and was considered for civil commitment
as a sexually violent predator, but the state dismissed its petition in
exchange for his guilty plea in a 2008 prostitution case, court records
“Level 3’s are always the most likely to reoffend, and if we can get a
guy like that off the street ...,” said another detective, his voice
trailing. “Man, there are so many girls who don’t know how lucky they
Seattle Times news researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this story. Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org