Former NV madam helps prostitutes

RENO, Nev.—from – Sharnel Silvey rides around downtown several times a month with the Reno Police Department’s Regional Street Enforcement Team, eager to talk to the women who will get trapped in a sting operation while soliciting for prostitution.

She approaches a tall, thin woman who stands handcuffed next to an unmarked car, and lets her know she’s not a police officer. She tells her she’s there to assist her and offers her a free HIV test.

“I’m not here to tell them to stop. I am about walking the process out with them,” Silvey said. “It’s hard for a woman that’s in the industry to be able to talk to just anybody about the industry. It’s different. It’s a whole other world.”

Silvey knows and cares about women in the sex industry because she worked for 13 years at Mustang Ranch, first as the “right-hand woman” for former brothel boss Joe Conforte and later as its madam.

In 2007, she founded A Scarlet Covering, a nonprofit organization that offers recovery, counseling, education and development for current and former members of the sex industry who want a new life.

Since then, she’s visited several brothels and strip clubs in northern Nevada. When visiting a brothel, she gives a dozen roses to each working woman.

“Then, we go back to any establishment that we’ve been to during that year at Christmastime and bring baked goods and gifts for the girls,” Silvey said. “Let them know, ‘Hey, we’re still here. We still love you.'”

Last month she finalized arrangements with Washoe County Municipal Court for a specialty court for prostitution. Members of A Scarlet Covering will help assess the needs of the men, women and children who come before the court.

“This is just the beginning for what we want to see in our state,” Silvey said. “We want to set the precedent for other states to follow to better assist women in the sex industry.”

In April, Silvey met with Sgt. Mac Venzon, who heads the Regional Street Enforcement Team and proposed going out on sting operations with the undercover team. Her goal was to inform the prostitutes about her organization and get them tested for HIV.

Venzon was reluctant at first. Although he knew the current system was broken because of the continuous cycle of arrest, incarceration, release, he said he was concerned about having a civilian along, slowing officers down.

But he also knew street prostitution was a big problem in Reno and he didn’t have concrete solutions.

“What a great opportunity to change the method that we’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years,” he said. “If I can call them (the prostitutes) out by name, obviously it’s an issue. Obviously, it doesn’t work. They’re still there.”

Silvey designed a plan, and Venzon said he agreed to try it.

Silvey would ride along during a sting and talk to the women while the police officers were preparing post-arrest paperwork. If the women agreed to being tested for HIV/AIDS, an officer would take them to police headquarters where one of Silvey’s associates would be waiting in a trailer with someone from Northern Nevada HOPES, a local nonprofit that works with those affected with HIV/AIDS.

“It’s been terrific,” Venzon said. “I really see a difference. When she gets the girls to talk, that’s a huge change. When she gets them to cry, they’ve reached their moment of clarity.”

Since July, they have gone out on seven stings, six to catch prostitutes and one to snatch johns, the men who purchase sexual favors.

They have averaged around 10 arrests per sting operation.

“The girls know what the track is,” Venzon said of the area where prostitutes and johns hang out. “They communicate. They walk the track, as they call it. That is what the johns know, too.”

Reno’s 24-hour lifestyle promotes a party attitude, which Venzon said supports the sex industry.

“I would say we have a probably higher-than-the-average for our size of city,” he said of the city’s sex industry.

In addition to street prostitution and brothels, the sex industry includes pornography, nude dancing, telephone sex, Internet prostitution and computer pornography.

Although two consenting adults having sex in exchange for money is a misdemeanor crime by Nevada statute, Venzon said he is more concerned about drug trafficking, violence and robberies that accompany the sex industry.

And then there are the pimps or panderers, who are the ones who arrange a sex act for money for somebody else, a felony.

“We know the pimps exist,” Venzon said. “It’s hard to make the arrest of the panderer if they (the prostitutes) don’t want to talk about their pimp.”

The pimps also move their “girls” from city to city and across state lines, which is called a circuit. Reno is part of a circuit in which girls travel from the Bay Area to Sacramento, then Reno, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

“Ten percent are under the age of 18,” he said. “Those are the true victims for us. The ones that we need to get out of that lifestyle.”

It is too early to measure the impact of Silvey’s participation, Venzon said. But he has goals.

“If she could take one girl from every operation and that girl didn’t come back, that’s a success. I look at it as an opportunity to really make the community better. If I can make our community a little bit better place to live, then I know I can go to bed at night.”

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