Friday, March 20, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Letters of sorrow and need (12-7-2008)
- Hawking erotic services? Craigslist now has your number (11-29-2008)
- 'John School' teaches men the uglier facts of life (1-6-2008)
- Hands tied on prostitution (9-15-07)
- Mutual misery when daughters disappear (9-24-2006)
Thousands of prostitutes are arrested in Clark County every year. Their mug shots flip past like school portraits from the Mean Streets Academy, a few smiles but more slack stares, asleep with eyes open.
They’re criminals, but they’re also victims because, vice detectives will tell you, behind every prostitute is a pimp. These relationships are by nature coercive, and these coercions are often cemented with violence. Women who try to secrete their own earnings, who try to leave, who violate some rule of the game, are broken with beatings. Detectives sometimes catch prostitutes like this, injured but hustling, afraid to get help.
In February, when news broke about Metro’s plan to arrest the county’s most prolific prostitutes, the department was alternately extolled and attacked. Some people called for sex worker roundups, others said Metro was wasting money, and many people questioned whether it was fair for media outlets to publish mug shots of prolific prostitutes.
Meanwhile, vice Lt. Karen Hughes kept quiet. To her, the complaints sounded like squealing over mice in a lions den.
Hughes and her detectives have been on to bigger game for months. They are far more interested in arresting pimps than prostitutes. In fact, Metro’s entire vice section has been reorganized to focus on pimps: Detectives have been reassigned, investigative teams have been formed and alleged pimps are being arrested, one by one.
This is a sea change for Metro, a step forward that forces a look back. By focusing on pimps, the department tacitly acknowledges that previous priorities were out of order, that the days of catch-and-release prostitution arrests were, while plentiful, not getting close enough to the root of the problem. Yes, Metro detectives have arrested pimps before. The difference is now they’re hunting them.
But these are complicated cases. Some take months of investigation, weeks spent penetrating an underworld, convincing inhabitants you jailed yesterday to trust you today, persuading prostitutes to turn on the pimps who got into their heads first, who already sold them on selling themselves.
This is part of pandering’s perverse genius: The girls get put behind bars over and over again, before anyone can trace them back to the source.
A pit bull in a spike collar, snarling — this is the Pimp Investigation Team logo.
PIT, as police call the team of detectives, was formed last summer, and since then the detectives have identified and investigated more than 50 alleged pimps, believed to be among the valley’s most violent. And this group of 50 is not exhaustive. Vice detectives have actually arrested more than 130 people for pandering since 2008, at least 80 of whom they allege are pimps.
The people on the PIT list are just getting special attention from detectives who consider them the worst of a lousy crowd.
To do this job, PIT detectives are usually undercover. They work all hours, using every tool they have: interviews, surveillance, search warrants. When they meet to strategize, it’s in a small room in an undisclosed location around a white board they take over with tactical scribbles.
There are three main felony crimes directly aimed at pimping: Living off the earnings of a prostitute, furnishing transportation to a prostitute and pandering.
Of the three, however, it’s pandering that usually survives the legal wrangling between arrest and sentencing. Defined as a person who “induces, persuades, encourages, inveigles, entices or compels a person to become a prostitute or to continue to engage in prostitution,” pandering is broad enough to envelop a world of behaviors, and this is what makes it stick.
Of course, this is also what makes it hard to prove.
So Lt. Hughes requires the PIT detectives to pile up a mountain of evidence that will avalanche anyone who tries to knock it down. So much of prostitution is private, and what happens behind closed doors is open season for the high-priced defense attorneys pimps can afford.
In the past, this has meant that detectives had to persuade prostitutes to testify against their pimps. In fact, prosecutors have been loath to proceed without that testimony — even though prostitutes are often horrible witnesses. They’re criminals, for starters, so defense attorneys can eviscerate their credibility — if they testify.
Many are too scared. Others want to protect the pimp they love and have children with. All of them are difficult to keep track of. They’re marginalized and, because of that, nomadic. Or they’re ashamed and hiding. Or they’re back on the streets, not sure how to do anything besides work for someone else.
Clark County Assistant District Attorney Theresa Lowry, who specializes in juvenile cases, tells junior attorneys they should plan for prostitute witnesses to recant, to crumble on the stand. This is another part of pandering’s perverse genius — the dynamic between pimps and prostitutes is so deeply manipulative that prosecutors, not confident they can count on key witnesses, will sometimes plea bargain pimps’ cases down to blips on a criminal record.
So here’s another sign that things are shifting at Metro: PIT detectives are submitting pandering cases to the district attorney with enough evidence to eliminate prostitute witnesses, and those cases are being successfully prosecuted.
Kristen had a nightly quota: $1,200. She worked the Strip six days a week, Tuesday through Sunday. Her best night was $15,000. When she handed it over the next morning, her pimp shrugged. Or maybe he smiled. She couldn’t see that well — he wouldn’t buy her glasses. She was 19.
“He found your complexes and he would use them against you. He found your weaknesses. He told me, ‘We’re your family.’ ”
Pimps acquire prostitutes systematically. There is strategy involved. It takes cunning to persuade a woman to not only become a prostitute but to hand over all the money she makes.
Finding vulnerable women is part of it. But so is being an expert juggler, playing women off each other and themselves, and doing it carefully enough so the prostitution starts to seem natural, and the rest of the world, a mirage.
Kristen was first approached by a woman who said her guy friend could help Kristen make money. She called, and he took her out to dinner. He drove a nice car. He wore big jewelry. He told her he could manage her money, that she wouldn’t need to sleep with anybody, that this was temporary, that they could retire together. He brought her back to one of his houses. He gave her a bedroom, a hug, a kiss. He quickly became her first boyfriend.
Two days later, with $1,240 in her purse, she walked out of a hotel room laughing.
Within a month, the beatings began. Once, he hit her so hard her eardrum burst. Another time, he made her stand for three days straight, she said. Once he held a pillow over her face, waited until she felt too faint to fight, then stopped to shove a gun in her mouth. When she realized it was just his fingers, that his gun was still in his pocket, she went numb and he said, “You really thought I would do that to you?”
Telling this story in a quiet corner of an expensive restaurant makes Kristen seize up and cry into her chocolate cake, just in time for a waiter to float up and froth, “How’s dessert?”
She shifts gears instantly, pretending with race car precision that nothing is wrong and chirps, “It’s fantastic!” Her hollow enthusiasm echoes with ache.
A jury deliberated for 52 minutes before convicting David Smith of pandering in November. Smith, while behind bars on different charges, was caught instructing a prostitute who worked for him to turn tricks on Boulder Highway so he could use the money to pay his attorney. His lawyers argued that since Smith never came out and directly told the prostitute “I want you to have sex for money,” it was impossible to know what he wanted. He could have been telling her to panhandle, defense attorneys said, or considering his history of drug arrests, telling her to sell drugs. But even Smith’s grandmother, when interviewed by PIT detectives, said he had been pimping different women for years.
Other PIT targets, such as Anthony Smith (no relation to David), are pleading guilty out of the gate. This second Smith beat a prostitute so badly with a baseball bat that she called police, who tipped off PIT detectives, who persuaded her to talk. Police served a search warrant on one of Smith’s two houses and walked out with roughly $64,000 in cash and $40,000 in jewelry.
There are more PIT cases working their way through the courts now, and though Lt. Hughes won’t comment on them, she does say criminal charges are only half the story. It’s the civil cases — asset forfeiture — that may be her most powerful tool.
Acquisition, not just of women, but of cars, jewelry goods and cash, is the motivation for pandering — more women, more money, more control. Metro vice detectives, and a growing number of agencies across the country, are now trying to cripple pimps by taking their toys. Anything purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity, or used in the commission of a crime, is up for grabs.
PIT detectives have seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in merchandise and money. But this is more than petty punishment. The emphasis on asset forfeiture is an indication of how weak criminal sentences can be. The maximum penalty for a pimp convicted of pandering an adult prostitute with force is five years. Pandering without force draws a maximum sentence of four years. To really put a pimp away, to make all that detective work worth it, PIT must bolster pandering cases with charges for crimes that coincide: Kidnapping, sexual assault, battery, the conspiracy to these crimes, and others.
Vice detectives are thrilled whenever a pimp is sentenced to 48 months behind bars for pandering.
PIT was formed, in part, because of an upswing in pimp violence last year. It got so bad that prostitutes were actually coming to Metro for help, which was otherwise unheard of. Nobody can say exactly where the violence came from, but there are theories. Other criminals are getting into pimping because it’s easier to get away with. Drug dealers and gang members are bringing their own style of street enforcement into a world historically run by men who pride themselves on savvy psychological control before brute force.
Or it’s the economy. Fewer clients with money to spend means more pressure on prostitutes, who must be persuaded to work harder to make their quotas.
Or maybe it’s because a police department approaching prostitution a little differently will, in return, be approached a little differently too.
If we don’t know the cause, we do know at least one effect: Kristen got out of the game. When vice detectives arrested her for the last time a few months ago, she had just been beaten by her pimp, who also shaved her head as punishment for getting drunk while working. When she slipped and solicited a detective, she decided her pimp would kill her either way — for getting arrested, or for turning him in. She gave in and told PIT detectives everything.
“I felt that throughout all the beatings, I kept a part of myself,” she said. “Because of that, I could leave. But the next girl can’t. None of them can. You get to a point of no return, and you give up.”
Her pimp confessed to pandering four different women, and Hughes has no intention of making Kristen, now 20, testify.
She’s in college now, anyway. You’ll walk past her at the mall and never know it.