Dark world of prostitution turns to the day


A female officer, in character, watches for approaching clients in her motel room as Prince Georges police run a sting operation to nab prostitutes and johns on November, 30, 2012 in College Park, MD. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)
December 19, 2012

She hadn’t been in the motel room an hour when her cellphone rang. Perhaps this client would take the risk.

“This is Lushous,” she said in a soft, seductive voice. “You want to come see me today?”

The client had found her on backpage.com, where she promoted herself as a busty woman in College Park eager for company. Strutting the streets in southern Prince George’s late at night was too old-school, too dangerous. All she needed was an Internet connection and a motel room key to adapt to the changed mores of the world’s oldest profession.

“For half an hour, it’s just $40, baby. Tell me what you want to do.”

Lushous wanted to use handcuffs. She was actually an undercover Prince George’s cop. If the man on the phone actually came to Room 241, he’d be walking right into the department’s latest sting operation in one of College Park’s motels.

It was the third in three months. Facilitated by Web ads, sex trafficking is now more common in daylight, a change that has forced the department to reimagine how it combats prostitution.

For police officials, prostitution is not victimless crime, said Kevin Davis, the county’s assisant police chief. Sex workers are prone to being raped and robbed. Some are victims of sex trafficking. The men who visit them are sometimes assaulted but are too embarrassed to report the attacks to police. And when an area becomes known for prostitution, local officials fear the reputation will hinder economic growth and redevelopment.

The need to deal with those issues has become so great that county police plan to establish a vice squad in 2013, in which officers such as Lushous would be dedicated to this sort of police work.

Today, detectives are more likely to troll the Web than stroll through the shadows. And cautious customers are more comfortable seeking a rendezvous during lunch or right after work.

“There’s been a shift,” Davis said. “There are far, far less street workers and overt signs that we tend to associate with prostitution.”

In the past five years or so, College Park has become a popular hub for prostitution, safer than most other hot spots, easily accessible from highways and with a cluster of low-rent motels along Baltimore Avenue. The City Council knows what’s going on and is working with motel owners in an effort to tighten regulations, such as prohibiting charging by the hour.

But on this day in November, Lushous and other officers were trying to deter men from ever paying for sex again.

Sharing Room 241 with her was another undercover officer with a nickname, a square-jawed, blue-eyed cop known as Pretty Boy. He pored through a stack of printed Web ads for women offering their services. He called each one.

“Are you doing out-calls today, sweetie?”

They had arranged the room so it would seem like they were just lonely travelers. Pretty Boy hung a crushed black suit on the rod and placed a used bar of Old Spice deodorant near the sink. He ditched his uniform for a T-shirt and blue jeans but kept on his wedding ring.

Lushous ruffled the sheets on the queen-size bed. She had lozenges to keep her voice smooth. She placed a package of condoms on the side table.

Unlike her partner, Lushous had coveted undercover work since being inspired by the ’80s cop show “21 Jump Street.”

Lushous’s phone rang again. It was 10:45 a.m.

“Here’s another guy!”

The setup

The police had rented five rooms in a motel on Baltimore Avenue. The room on the first floor was used to hold suspects who had been arrested. On the second floor, they rented two pairs of adjoining rooms.

Lushous and Pretty Boy were stationed in Room 241. In 242, about six officers were on hand to help with arrests and the paperwork.

In 247, there were two female officers to attract men looking for a woman not of Lushous’s type. Lushous is curvy and black; the two other female officers are white and thin.

In 248, a detective posted $10 ads in the adult-services section of backpage.com, the most popular Web site for “adult” listings.

“Hello, my name is . . .” he began typing, trying to dream up a seductive name for the colleague next door. He then tapped out, “B-R-A-N-D-I.”

He spoke in language vague enough to avoid being censored by the Web site. From a computer file named “back page pics,” he attached faceless photos of women. He added familiar fractions, indicating the payment required.

Ten minutes later, Brandi’s phone started to ring.

“Yeah, in College Park. Am I busy? No. . . . Yes, those are my pictures.”

After she hung up, the man texted her, “Are you affiliated with law enforcement?”

She rolled her eyes. Every caller asked this question, under the common delusion, perhaps, that a cop was legally obligated to say yes. “No,’’ she texted back. “Are you?”

‘Hands on the wall’

At 11:28 a.m., the officers next to Brandi’s room peeked through the curtains as a man in his 30s got out of a car. Wearing a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans, he approached Brandi’s room. He had negotiated over the phone to pay $80 for an hour of sex, she said.

“He’s here!”

Two officers sneaked into the bathroom.

“I’m just going to go freshen up,” she told the man as he entered.

That was the signal. The officers walked out of the bathroom.

“County police. Hands on the wall.”

They placed plastic cuffs on his wrists and walked him to an adjoining room. He sat stoically. He shook his head, muttering, “How stupid am I?”

Over the next 10 minutes, five more men were handcuffed after coming to visit Brandi.

Someone would eventually post on backpage.com: “Alert. There are police. Do not go there.” Visitors came anyway. They were as young as 21 and as old as 76, construction workers and company men, residents and travelers.

At 1 p.m., back in Room 241, Lushous was trying to seduce her 17th man.

“No, I’m not affiliated with law enforcement. You wanna come over see me?”

Caller No. 17 was a 26-year-old headed to North Carolina. When he realized that he had walked into a sting, he began to cry.

“I just don’t want this to ruin my life,’’ he sniffled as the cops cuffed him. “I work in New York. I’m an investment banker. Oh, my God, am I going to jail for this?”

The solicitation charge was a misdemeanor offense, and he’d most likely be placed on probation if found guilty. Many have the charge wiped off their record after three years. “I’m never doing this again,’’ he cried.

Wary women

By 1:30, the two rooms had received at least 31 phone calls from men. They had arrested more than a dozen customers. But Pretty Boy had called 40 women without persuading one prostitute to visit.

Asia and Holly didn’t pick up. After being asked to hold when he called the number for Angela, a woman who sounded like an operator assured him that “she would not travel there.”

Fearful of their safety, prostitutes often stay away from clients who won’t go to them, especially if the client calls from a motel charging only $79.95 a night.

He tried a 23-year-old woman who posted: “5’8, model build.”

“Are you doing out-calls, sweetie?” he asked. “College Park. How are you doing?”

Pretty Boy had previously arrested sex workers who came from as far away as California. This woman was closer.

“Oh, you’re at the [motel], too? What are you doing right now? Come to my room,” Pretty Boy said. “I got the cash.”

Lushous rushed out of the room to avoid being seen.

“No one go inside the bathroom!” he yelled. “She’ll look to see if anyone’s in there.”

A woman with her teeth in braces and a hairstyle like Rihanna’s walked into the room. Later, Pretty Boy would describe the event: She did, in fact, check the bathroom. She told him about the many police stings in recent months.

He played dumb and lifted up his T-shirt; she lifted up her dress. But he was wearing a second T-shirt; she wore nothing except her underwear. That was enough to make the arrest.

Pretty Boy quietly told her that two men were coming to handcuff her. He said he’d be willing to help her find a program to help her transition from being a woman of the afternoon.

“Why are you doing this?” an officer asked her.

She had resorted to this work after being laid off from her job at a marketing company.

“I have four kids,’’ she said, “and I’m actually pregnant right now.”

37 arrests

A little after 5 p.m., the after-work rush began. There was a man whose pants were unbuttoned by the time police handcuffed him but who insisted that he came only to talk. Another had a military ID. One was a dollar short. One told the officers that he was a graduate student at American University, studying politics.

By 6 p.m., the sting had yielded the arrest of 29 men on solicitation charges, six women on prostitution charges, one charge of human trafficking and one charge of hindering. Thirty-seven people.

These sting operations have led to 227 arrests this year, mostly in the College Park area, with some in Oxon Hill. Since tackling the issue head-on in 2010, police have made 691 arrests in the same area.

Even as the officers packed up, women continued posting ads mentioning College Park. And one more man called Lushous, trying to get lucky.

“Just come over,’’ she said as she walked to her car. By the time he got there, she’d be gone. He’d be the luckiest customer of them all.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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