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Jack Sabatino Claims He Runs the Largest Escort Agency on the East Coast

Virginia Beach- The phones come to life after midnight. Weeknights can be quiet, but not this one. It’s a military payday, and thousands of checks have just hit bank accounts in Hampton Roads .

Inside an anonymous office suite toward the ocean end of Virginia Beach Boulevard, smoke curls from ashtrays as three bookers juggle the calls. Their eyes flicker between their paperwork and a wall-size dry-erase board. Its grid holds the latest working hours of Beauty, Honey, Star, Siren and nearly 50 other women who go by exotic-sounding names.

“Hello, may I help you?” a call begins. “OK, sweetie. What city are you in? What’s your name? Do you want one girl or two? OK, baby.”

The booker begins to rattle off the offerings: “I have Aries , she’s 18, Caucasian, 5 feet 6 inches, 115 pounds, 34C-25-34 with brown hair and brown eyes … or Jada, she’s Hispanic, 36 double D … or Danielle, she’s African American …”

This is the headquarters of Jack Sabatino’s operation. The 60-year-old ex-Navy man owns what he says is the largest escort agency on the East Coast. Sabatino runs $140,000 worth of Yellow Pages ads every year under names like Super Sexy Strippers, Strictly Confidential, Asians Only, Slick Chicks and 24/7.

His ads are sandwiched between dozens of others from similar companies. In Verizon’s latest phone book , escort listings run across nine-plus pages – a menu of seductive female images offering “one-on-ones,” the promise to “cure your hunger” and the invitation to “let your imagination run wild.”

Callers who ask the companies about sex are routinely told it’s not allowed, but several people in the business say it’s often part of the encounter.

In the past few months, some escort services have been linked to prostitution. Eliot Spitzer left his post as governor of New York in the wake of a $4,300 liaison with an escort, and the “D.C. Madam” – who recently killed herself – was convicted of running an escort service that supplied prostitutes to Washington’s political elite.

Closer to home, a Virginia Beach couple face up to two years behind bars for running a prostitution ring in Richmond under the name of Aphrodite Escort Services.

Ateba Crocker, a marketing professor at Old Dominion University, isn’t surprised. Crocker says she was an escort in Hampton Roads 12 years ago. She has written a book aimed at discouraging other women from doing the same.

“In one way or another,” she said, “every appointment was about sex.”

It’s difficult to say how many escort companies there are in Hampton Roads. Like Sabatino’s outfit , most operate under a host of suggestive names. He estimates that the local industry includes about 200 escorts working for eight or so companies. One of them, Penthouse V.I.P., was in the headlines last month when word surfaced that the business is owned by a teacher , who quickly resigned her position at Virginia Beach’s Kellam High School.

No one suggests that every escort is selling sex. Companies contacted for this article say they’re not fronts for prostitution, and indeed, who can say what happens behind closed doors? Company owners, however, point fingers at one another. None, except Sabatino, would talk on the record . Sabatino insists he tries to “run a clean business” but says some of his rivals are guilty of “full service,” as prostitution is known in the industry.

“Of course, I could have a few girls doing that and not know I have them,” Sabatino said.

One thing everyone agrees on: In the escort business , it’s rare that anyone ever gets escorted anywhere. Most of the time, the fee – usually around $100 in Hampton Roads – buys the services of a stripper for an hour.

In Sabatino’s phone room, one of the bookers tells a caller the basic deal: “You get a sexy striptease to the nude, a lap dance and a floor show. Are you in a home or a hotel? OK, baby. What’s the address? And will that be cash or credit?”

By 2 a.m., Sabatino’s staff has set 30 appointments and escorts have been dispatched to meet strangers across the region. Considering the past winter, it’s looking like a decent night. The Christmas holidays always sap business – what with presents to buy and sailors heading home – but this year, the slow economy kept customers away longer than usual.

Now, the industry is expecting a good spring. Wedding season spawns bachelor parties. Tourists return to the Oceanfront. This year includes an added bonus: the “economic stimulus” checks.

Soon, Sabatino figures, his lineup of “girls” will be covering about 300 bookings a week, answering calls from as far away as Richmond, the Outer Banks, Franklin and all the way up the Eastern Shore.

Sabatino has spent 15 years building his escort empire. In that time, he estimates, 800 to 900 young women have passed through his doors. For the most part, they’ve stayed well under the radar – so far under that few outsiders even notice the industry exists.

Sharon McDonald’s reaction was typical. As Norfolk’s commissioner of revenue, McDonald pays attention to businesses in Hampton Roads. She was one of numerous local officials who were surprised by the area’s escort listings.

“Do we actually have those here?” she asked just before flipping through the Yellow Pages. “Oh, my gosh! There’s tons of them! I had no idea!”

Discretion is vital in the escort business. Clients are often married – or at the very least, prefer their privacy.

Some communities, such as Wichita, Kan., have passed ordinances requiring agencies keep their appointment books open for police inspection. Business licenses are issued under a special “escort services” category to make it easier to track the companies.

None of that applies in Hampton Roads, where there is no special oversight. Most agencies are licensed as “entertainment,” where they’re lumped with birthday clowns and barbershop quartets. Escorts can ignore the city ordinances that tame public striptease acts. In private, an escort is legally allowed to take it all off in exchange for money.

Engaging in sex, however, crosses the line into prostitution – a misdemeanor in Virginia. Agency owners caught condoning or encouraging sex can face more serious charges traditionally used for pimps, such as felony pandering or money laundering. Not everyone thinks prostitution should be prosecuted. Last month, when Suffolk police arrested five women who were advertising their services on Craigslist, some people accused the department of wasting taxpayer money.

After all, sex has been sold since the dawn of civilization – a practice that’s been accepted in one century and frowned upon in the next. In modern times, prostitution has remained largely illegal – a fact that has done little to stop it. Roughly 25 percent of U.S. men have paid for sex at least once in their lives, according to Ron Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University.

Fascination with the trade permeates our culture. Millions tuned in to HBO’s “Cathouse” series – which aimed cameras inside the bedrooms of brothels in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in 10 counties.

Many communities turn a blind eye until related crimes trigger a crackdown. Prostitution is frequently associated with drug trafficking, robbery, assault and abuse of minors. Even then, enforcement usually focuses on streetwalkers; escorts are often ignored.

“Some of them are conducting a legal business,” said Margie Long, police spokeswoman for Virginia Beach, where most of the area’s escort agencies are based.

A “wink and a nod,” however, is common industry practice, said Tom McElvy, who for 12 years has published “Tidewater Blue,” a monthly magazine for locals interested in “swinging .” Escort ads help pay the rent.

“The industry is very competitive,” McElvy said. “Sex brings repeat business.”

Escort companies jockey for position in the phone book and lure one another’s women away. Most are “Always Selectively Hiring,” according to their ads. Female escorts are in the greatest demand, although most agencies try to field a few men. Web sites display a sampling of company rosters, along with photos and brief descriptions.

They also hawk discounts , like “Welcome Home” deals for the military – usually $20 off with an I D. The “Businessman’s Special” offers a price break from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. “Discreet billing” is offered, a promise that charges will appear on credit card bills under a smokescreen company name.

Some Web sites collect feedback and post testimonials from customers. Insider lingo refers to escorts as “providers” and customers as “hobbyists.” Acronyms abound, like “GFE,” or “Girlfriend Experience” – high praise for encounters that seem more personal than professional.

Bianca has worked for two escort companies in Hampton Roads. She’s 29, with caramel skin, overflowing curves and a smile framed by plenty of pink lipstick. She’s been in the business for eight years and says she has never had sex with a customer but knows other girls who have .

Still, Bianca doesn’t want her in-laws to know how she makes a living.

“This business has a bad reputation,” she said. “My husband is cool with it, though. It’s kind of hard to hide the income.” In a good week, the mother of two said, she’ll do 10 to 12 appointments and bring home $2,500. She doesn’t sleep much. Most calls come between dusk and dawn.

“When I get home, the kids are getting up,” she said.

Her clients range from teenage sailors to men in their 60s. Some are regulars; others are traveling businessmen, tourists or conventioneers. She says she has been booked by preachers and policemen: “I guess they’re all just human.”

Like most escorts, Bianca has an entertainer’s license and works as an independent contractor, responsible for her own taxes. “No health care, no vacation,” she said. “The work’s not bad, but I’ve got to say I enjoy the money more than the work.”

Fees are typically split 50-50 with the agency. Tips are where an escort makes her real living. Angling for those starts the moment she enters the door. Bianca said she earns her tips by giving extra lap dances.

“Customers get mad sometimes,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Is that all I’m going to get?’”

Many customers do get more – at least in Ateba Crocker’s experience. Petite and soft-spoken, Crocker, now 35, said she grew up in an abusive household and turned to the escort business as a single mother living in Newport News in 1994.

“I was trying to go to college, and I needed money,” she said. “I wasn’t naive, but I really was hoping that maybe, just maybe, I could just dance or go on a date.”

Crocker worked for an agency that’s no longer in business in Hampton Roads. She said they asked her to sign a contract in which she agreed not to perform any sexual acts: “They said it was to release them from any liability. Then they told me to pick out a name for myself and go buy some lingerie.”

Any illusions she still had vanished with her first appointment.

“They sent me to a house over off Newtown Road,” she said. “No one told me what to expect or what to do. They just said go. I was so nervous I started drinking before I got there. I sat on the couch, and we talked for a few minutes. Then he reached over, and I knew: This is why I’m here.”

Crocker said she drank heavily to get through the next two years.

“You go in, get your money and get it over with as fast as you can,” she said. “That’s the mindset of an escort.” Crocker said the company knew what her bookings entailed.

“They didn’t want you to talk about the details over the phone with them, but it was understood,” she said. “I remember a company meeting where they gave us advice on how not to get arrested.”

Crocker met her clients in hotels, in their homes, on their boats and at their offices after hours. One was a professor at Christopher Newport University, where Crocker was going to school.

“I saw his diploma hanging on the wall,” she said. “I was worried I might wind up in one of his classes.” Her last appointment was at the Sheraton in downtown Norfolk.

“It was some nasty, fat old man lying on top of me,” she said. “One tear rolled down my cheek, and that was it. I knew I was done.” She said her exit from the company was quite civil.

“They were very nice about it,” she said. “They just told me that if I ever changed my mind, I could always come back. It’s strange. It’s not like in the movies. This is a business. They really acted like we weren’t prostitutes.”

Walking away was tough financially.

“I went from making $400 an hour cash to $5.75,” she said. “I was in shock.”

Eventually, she found religion and worked her way through school, up the corporate ladder and into a teaching position at ODU. Once, she ran into a former customer at a mall.

“He hid behind a bush,” she said. “I was glad. I don’t want to see anyone from the old days.”

Crocker recently self- published an inspirational book for at-risk women and wants to warn college girls who might be as broke as she once was.

“I don’t care what you say,” she said, “these companies are exploiting women. It’s a dirty industry, and it needs to be exposed.”

Jack Sabatino says his company was the first to go fully nude in Hampton Roads . He says he does not think he takes advantage of the women who work for him.

“I’ve never thought I was talking any of them into doing something they didn’t want to do,” he said. ”We don’t even advertise for girls. We have to turn them away.”

Sabatino said he has held GED classes that his escorts could attend between bookings. He says he runs regular company meetings during which he reminds them of the law. If one gets caught having sex, he says, she’s fired . “I don’t want those problems, ” he said. “They’re bad for your longevity in this business.”

Sabatino said escorts should view their work as a job, not a career.

“It makes you a hard person,” he said. “We preach to the girls not to do it for more than two years. But most of them – you can’t get their attention. They come from troubled backgrounds. They usually have very low self-esteem. And that’s real hard to get rid of because now they’re doing a job that makes them have low self-esteem. I wouldn’t want my own daughter doing this.”

Drug problems are common in the industry – cocaine, crack, crystal meth and heroin, “the real backbreaker,” Sabatino said. Valid driver’s licenses are rare among escorts. Many girls hire drivers, whom they pay out of their proceeds. Some are even ferried to appointments by their husbands, who wait in the car – sometimes with the kids.

Experience has taught Sabatino which profiles are in demand.

“First girl out is a big chest and blond ,” he said. “Second is a brunette, also with a big chest – there’s hardly anybody that asks for a B cup compared to a D. Third will be Asians. We have the most – maybe eight or nine. The majority are from the Philippines.” Prime age range for an escort is 18 to about 25.

“They’re really sort of the exhibitionist type,” Sabatino said. “In their mind, this is like going to Hollywood and becoming an actress. It’s just a few levels from where their dreams are trying to take them.”

Cindy Saar, 32, spent a year working as a booker in the industry. Calls to an agency were routed to her cell phone, which allowed her to stay at home with her four kids. She was paid on commission – $10 to $15 for each appointment.

Saar said dependable escorts were hard to come by. So many would miss jobs that her company imposed fines. Customers would call complaining that a girl had fallen asleep or stolen money.

“They were some tough chicks,” she said. “Sometimes, I’d worry more about the clients than the girls.”

She said she remembers receiving occasional calls from men just looking for a date, but the escorts weren’t interested. “There aren’t enough tips in that,” she said. “The money’s in taking your clothes off.”

Saar said there were times when the escorts told her too much.

“They’d be telling me stuff and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to know. It’s just better if I don’t.’ One thing I can tell you: New York would laugh at us. Thousands of dollars for sex? You can get that for $500 down here.”

For even the cagiest escorts, Saar said, every booking comes with a risk. They knock on doors alone. Danger might be waiting on the other side.

“I’d try to screen on the phone but really, how much can you tell about a person? The girls call to check in when they first get to an appointment. We had code words, like ‘Red Bull.’ If I heard her say she needed a Red Bull, I’d try to distract the guy on the phone so she could get out of there.”

Sabatino said his girls have been “slapped or shoved, but none have ever gone to the hospital after a booking. We have had to call the police a time or two, although they’re not really crazy about our industry. In their mind, they’re not there to check up on strippers.”

Local police don’t pay much attention to the industry in general. They say stings are time-consuming and agencies tough to corner . When a girl is caught, the companies simply say she was acting on her own – true or not.

There hasn’t been a significant escort bust in Hampton Roads since the feds took down Virginia Beach-based Key West Entertainment in 1998. The company supplied prostitutes to 48 cities in 20 states.

These days, Virginia Beach detectives check out escort companies when they get a complaint, said Long, the department’s spokeswoman . The same goes for Chesapeake and Portsmouth. In Suffolk, enforcement efforts have focused mainly on Craigslist, a Web-based swap shop that has become popular with prostitutes.

In Norfolk, limited police resources keep escort services low on the priority list.

“There’s only so much we can do,” said Chris Amos, Norfolk police spokesman. In Richmond, authorities find that position frustrating.

“That’s a cop-out,” said Lt. Doug Perry, spokesman for Henrico County police. “We take a very proactive approach. We’re very committed to not having that sort of thing in our hotels.”

Henrico used a grand jury to make its case against Aphrodite Escort Services. For 10 years, Michael and Theresa Hope ran the company long-distance from their home in the Sherry Park neighborhood of Virginia Beach. Prosecutors offered the company’s escorts immunity in exchange for their testimony. At least some of the women said the Hopes had made it clear that sex was part of the job .

At the couple’s trial last month, relief swept the courtroom when the Hopes accepted a plea deal that allowed their customers to avoid the witness stand.

“No one was particularly anxious to testify,” said Michael Feinmel, the Henrico prosecutor who handled the case. Perry said a similar case is go ing to trial soon.

“We’ve busted several of these businesses over the years,” he said, “and it seems like a lot of them have ties back to the Beach.” Weitzer, the George Washington University professor, has edited an academic book about the sex industry. Weitzer said police departments reflect the priorities of the people they serve.

“Street prostitution is easy,” he said. “That clearly arouses opposition. But ‘indoor’ prostitution between consenting adults? There’s a real mix of opinion. Plenty of communities make virtually no effort against it.” Sabatino said it doesn’t

matter much in the long run anyway. Crackdowns and scandals “kill the business for a while, but it always comes back.” “It’s like this,” he said. “When is the world ever going to stop having girls? It’s like sliced bread. It’s here to stay.”


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