By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Spotsylvania County's practice of allowing detectives to receive sexual services in prostitution cases has exploded across the nation, fueled by snickering bloggers and talk radio shows, and the county's top official has asked the sheriff to stop using the investigative technique.
Chairman Henry "Hap" Connors Jr. said the seven-member Board of Supervisors is "very disturbed" that investigators had sexual contact with employees of massage parlors suspected of being fronts for prostitution. Connors said he has asked Sheriff Howard D. Smith to cease the practice.
"He told me as sheriff he would pursue his policies, and I respect that," Connors said yesterday. The board has no power over the Sheriff's Office beyond its budget. "We'll let the public dictate whether or not they want us to continue these practices," Connors said.
Smith, an elected official, did not return several calls yesterday. In a joint news release Monday, the day the practice was reported in The Washington Post, Smith and the county's chief prosecutor, Commonwealth's Attorney William F. Neely, defended the tactic. They said detectives needed to go beyond striking verbal deals of sex for money because the "masseuses," whom they called "illegal aliens," spoke little English and Virginia's prostitution laws require more than "mere touching" to make a case. Neely also did not return calls yesterday.
According to court documents, Spotsylvania detectives paid three visits to the Moon Spa in January and received massages, baths and sex acts on four occasions. Smith previously told The Post it was not the first time his agency has employed the full-contact method, which he said is essential because many prostitutes avoid verbally incriminating themselves. Several legal and law enforcement experts said the practice is rarely used, if ever, and might amount to breaking the law.
In their news release, Smith and Neely said that undercover officers often purchase illegal drugs to build cases against dealers and that the "same lawful investigative technique" was used in the prostitution cases. A Virginia law banning drug possession exempts law-enforcement officers who possess narcotics as part of their job duties. The prostitution statute makes no such exception.
Connors said he has received dozens of e-mails since Monday -- from Ohio, Iowa and beyond. About 10 percent have been supportive of the investigations, "but the overwhelming response has been one of disgust, shock and embarrassment," he said.
"He is making us the laughingstock of the country," one constituent wrote in an e-mail, referring to Smith. "I have a friend who works for the O'Reilly factor and he called me to verify the story. . . . .My dad read it on Drudge and sent me the link. He lives in Montana. This is absolutely horrible. What do I tell my kids?" Other e-mails called the investigation "asinine," "abhorrent" and "not normal!"
Yesterday, an account of the investigations was the most popular story on officer.com, a Web site for law enforcement, before being briefly nudged out by news that Lou Ferrigno, star of "The Incredible Hulk," was to be sworn in last night as a Los Angeles County reserve sheriff's deputy. Later, the Spotsylvania story was back on top.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh weighed in Monday, assuring listeners that he was "not making this up."
"I know it's a dirty job, somebody's gotta do it, can you imagine the waiting list?" Limbaugh said. "I bet there's no unemployment in Spotsylvania, Virginia."
Supervisor Gary Jackson (R-Salem) said he learned about the investigation from The Post story and "literally dropped my coffee. . . . I could not believe that this was going on down the street from where I live." He said constituent response -- all critical of the sexual contact -- is mounting.
"And appropriately so," Jackson said. "We do things our own way in Spotsylvania County, and I don't think this is quite the way that we want to handle these problems."
Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Fredericksburg), whose district includes part of Spotsylvania, said that he is disappointed detectives have been accepting sexual acts and that he told Smith as much. "I don't expect them to repeat this in the future," he said.
Del. Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (R-Caroline) said it's strictly a local matter.
Supervisor Vince Onorato (I-Lee Hill) said he doesn't get involved in the sheriff's business.
The practice has been employed by suburban Maryland police in recent years, but not successfully. After Howard County detectives accepted sexual services from masseuses in 1995, prosecutors dismissed most charges to avoid revealing the tactic in court. When Montgomery County police sent informants to have sex with female massage parlor employees, prosecutors there halted the practice and dismissed charges against the women.
Staff writer Chris Jenkins contributed to this report.