They exchanged more than 1,000 text messages in four months. Police said she was selling sex around the District’s Logan and Thomas circles. They said he was her pimp.
She complained that her feet and back hurt and that she wasn’t earning enough. He worried that he was losing control over her.
“U did so much to prove u a real ho that u couldn’t ever turn back,” one of his texts said. “I built my name mainly on how well I pimped on u. . . . All this is off of The work me and u put in on our rise to the top.”
This message is part of numerous exchanges contained in a criminal complaint filed in federal court in the District charging Terrell “Supreme” Armstead, 27, in a human-trafficking case. He is one of three men the FBI has targeted since April in a new effort to combat what authorities describe as organized prostitution in some of the District’s trendiest neighborhoods.
What at first glance appears to be freelance sex workers hustling the streets often is, according to authorities, the more visible end of a shadowy array of competing criminal enterprises linked to drugs and guns. The activity stretches from Shaw to Dupont Circle, centered roughly in the dozen square blocks bounded by 11th and 13th and K and O streets.
The area is so notorious it is referred to as “the Blade” or “the Track,” according to court documents. Of the 110 prostitution arrests made by police last year in a patrol area from Columbia Heights to Thomas Circle, 62 were on a single block — 12th Street between L and M streets, bisected by Massachusetts Avenue.
Court documents say the alleged pimps control commerce with ruthless discipline, branding women with tattoos, tracking their every step through GPS and fining them for being late, being unproductive or getting arrested.
In raw conversations intercepted by investigators, the suspected pimps bragged that the street work was the low end of bigger business ventures with ties to strip clubs and other adult-entertainment venues. One boasted of investing proceeds from sex work in his own clothing line.
“I mean, here’s my thing. I’m a company,” authorities said Rashaun “Ivy League” Parks told a woman posing for the FBI as a teenager from Arizona trying to break into the sex industry. Parks detailed his “business model,” according to the criminal complaint, explaining that he took in $300,000 a year from prostitution in the District.
The court documents say Parks, 33, told the woman she could be promoted from walking Logan Circle to working upscale strip clubs to being a “sugar queen” to a rich “sugar daddy.”
“It’s not just what you see in front of you,” Parks told the woman, according to the complaint. “The game is way bigger than that.”
The streets around Logan and Thomas circles staggered to life around 5 a.m. on a recent weekday.
A woman wearing tight pants leaned to the passenger side window of an SUV. She opened the door and climbed in. Another woman in a red top and short skirt shared a curb with a female jogger, both waiting for the light. Residents emerged from their homes to take out the trash or get a jump on the morning rush.
This uneasy coexistence has grown commonplace since the time neighborhood leaders think the street walkers moved into residential neighborhoods as their old stomping ground of 14th Street was transformed with upscale bistros and desirable apartments. Police say the activity continues into daybreak.
“You’d think it was rush hour out here at 5 in the morning,” said John Fanning, who has lived in the Logan Circle area for three decades and chairs the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Residents already complained about discarded condoms, people having sex in parked vehicles and noisy arguments. Now, said Fanning, “we have women in bikinis and G-strings encountering women with children.”
Police Cmdr. Stuart Emerman, who runs the 3rd District station, said his officers try to target men in undercover stings “so they don’t come back.” He said women from across the country cycle through the area as fast as they are arrested. “It really is a sad situation,” Emerman said. “Some of these girls are forced into it. You really want to help them. But we also have to help the community.”
While police struggle to disrupt the trade, the FBI is also going after the men who they say run the operations.
“We are targeting very aggressive individuals that are controlling the girls — predators who are looking to take women under their command,” said Robert Bornstein, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office. “What the public is seeing is more or less the females and the johns. We’re trying to go above that level.”
The federal task force, which includes D.C. police, raided a home linked to one suspect in Prince George’s County where they said women lived. Police said they found a semiautomatic rifle inside. Police in April arrested a man after the manager of a hotel at 11th and K streets NW found a 17-year-old girl from Cleveland crying and trying to escape her suspected pimp, whose vehicle was parked on the same block.
Bradley Myles, the chief executive of Polaris, a nonprofit that helps women caught in sex trafficking, said there is less prostitution in the Logan Circle area than there was 15 years ago.
But he warned that the streets are no less dangerous for the women being trafficked.
“Understand this for what it is,” Myles said. “Women out there are experiencing violence and are scared and living in terror.”
He credited law enforcement with having a better understanding that their targets should be customers who drive the market and traffickers who control the women.
“It’s a major paradigm shift,” he said.
On social media, Rashaun Parks calls himself “Milton Bradley,” an entrepreneur. He posted pictures of himself in Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando and Chicago.
The criminal complaint filed by the FBI cites Parks’s Instagram page, saying he used it to recruit women. Parks appears a throwback to an era of fedoras and top hats, loud suits, gaudy jewelry and oversize sunglasses. There are pictures of him attending “pimp balls” decked out in royal regalia, holding staffs and customized chalices called “pimp cups.”
Police said Parks drove a white Cadillac that he parked on K Street NW at Franklin Square, where police arrested him May 1, charging him with racketeering and facilitation of prostitution. His attorney declined to comment.
Parks has been around Logan Circle for years, according to court documents. The FBI began investigating him in November, secretly recording the comings and goings of suspected prostitutes at his home in Riverdale Park, Md., and using the undercover agent.
“If you’re dating, I’m not going to tell you how much to charge for a date, that’s all up to you,” Parks told the agent, according to the criminal complaint. “What I’m going to tell you is how much I want from you every day.”
He allegedly told her his business plan was “modeled for the game.”
“Money will come, I’m not really worried about the money,” Parks told the undercover agent, according to court documents. “I’m more so worried about you learning your craft and becoming good at it and becoming independent at it. That way you’ll be a better, for the lack of a better word, tool.”
On the day police took Parks into custody, they also arrested Armstead, of Clinton, Md., and charged him with sex trafficking of children and sex trafficking by force. In a separate case, Armstead faces charges of trafficking guns into the District, and court documents contain pictures of him posing with a rifle. His attorney declined to comment.
Armstead had been advertising on social media during what is called “the choosing season,” when, authorities say, pimps seek recruits or try to persuade women already working for other traffickers to defect. His pitch was “choose up if you want to move up,” and he persuaded a young woman from Cleveland to meet him in the District, according to the complaint.
The FBI says she was paired with one of Armstead’s regulars, a 23-year-old woman who had started when she was 16.
The complaint says they worked strip clubs in the District, Baltimore and New York, carrying handbags by Gucci and Fendi, and soliciting men to meet a $1,000-a-day quota. But when the 23-year-old failed to earn enough and was kicked out of clubs in Baltimore, the complaint says, she was demoted to the District’s Logan Circle — an area she described to authorities as “a church, a park and four statues” — where a “date” commanded $40 to $100, a fraction of what can be made at the clubs.
She told Armstead in the text exchanges that her toes were numb and her back hurt. “I been trying every day,” she wrote.
Armstead responded: “See how our lifestyles are lit now. . . . don’t u want to live happily ever after?”
The young woman answered, “Not like that daddy.”