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Trolling for Hookers in N’awlins

Nrw Orleans- It was not quite midnight in late June, humid and hot as it had been at noon. Two New Orleans cops, friends since grade school, stood in the parking lot of a motel on Chef Menteur Highway, wrestling with a woman they just busted for trying to turn a cheap trick.

She had made a deal with an undercover vice squad cop: $25 and a beer for oral and vaginal sex. The haggard, street-worn woman was a far cry from the exotic courtesans of Storyville, the fabled red-light district that clinched the city’s reputation for high-class whoredom a century ago. Needle tracks ran down her arms from her inner elbows to her wrists. “Many people in this lifestyle don’t have a really long lifespan,” said Sgt. Pat Jones, leader of the New Orleans Police Department’s seven-member vice squad. “And you see so much of it you get a jaundiced view of the world. This changes you.”

The woman pleaded her innocence as her feet were shackled and her cheetah-print dress wound its way up her thighs to her waist. “No sir, no sir, no sir! I didn’t proposition nobody,” she pleaded, wrenching her back and crumbling to the ground as officers pushed then dragged her into the back of a police cruiser.

“You have no right to take me to jail,” she yelled, kicking.

“Calm down, ma’am, stop resisting arrest,” said Jones’ boyhood buddy and current commander, Capt. Tim Bayard, the officer who presides over both the vice squad and the NOPD’s narcotics unit.

Her screams faded, then died as the squad car drove into the darkness. Another night, another bust.

“All this over a bulls- – – whore case,” Bayard said, shaking his head. He admits he has grown weary of and numb to the prostitutes’ sob stories. With three decades in the NOPD, Bayard said, he’s heard the same excuses regurgitated over and over, every time a “working girl” or her male counterpart gets caught with pants down.

Many prostitutes don’t take getting arrested too seriously. Prostitution in Louisiana and the rest of the nation, excluding Nevada where it is legal, is a misdemeanor. Even though Bayard said he sees Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan seeking more prison time for habitual offenders, most are hit with a court date, a fine and then redirected to a drug-treatment program. Then they find their way back to the streets and back to their old tricks, Bayard said.

Jones said some of the prostitutes busted by the vice squad are neglected housewives yearning for attention or women whose boyfriends or husbands work the graveyard shift or are long-distance truckers. Others are broke, down on their luck or just unemployed. Many male prostitutes are more focused on robbery than sex.

But most prostitutes, of both sexes, he said, are junkies.

“You’re not going to find Halle Berry out here,” Jones said. “This is rock bottom.”

For cops working vice in a city such as New Orleans there are three rules: Never blow a case by making a suspect an offer before she or he has propositioned you, never compromise your integrity, and never ever take the war stories home to the wife and kids.

Because at the end of the day, all the officers have is the oath they swore to uphold, the brotherhood they share with the unit, and their families — and you don’t break those bonds for anything, members of the elite unit said. The officers of the squad asked not to be identified for this story.

“My guys got to be untouchable,” Bayard said. “They got to be beyond reproach. Your credibility is worth more than anything; you lose your credibility, and you might as well quit.”

With pockets full of cash, vice cops enter a sad, sometimes sinister underworld of sex and drug addiction on a daily basis. Corrupt cops before them have walked the thin line between roguishness and righteousness — and fallen hard.

During the summer of 1988, the city’s vice unit was merged with the narcotics unit. It was resurrected in 1992, and within a year, three officers, including the unit’s commander, were indicted by a grand jury, accused of shaking down strip clubs in the French Quarter. Amid a brewing storm of allegations of corruption, the unit was shut down in February 1993. At least two officers were sentenced to jail.

“In the early to mid-1990s, the department of internal affairs was dysfunctional,” said Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, an independent police watchdog group. “The good ol’ boys tended to rule, and the department closed its eyes to problems.”

“The temptations out there are far beyond imagination. You have to have a solid commander, good rank, and you have to take the best guys you can find on the NOPD,” Radosti said. He lauded Bayard and his officers for turning the once-corrupt organization into a sound, productive unit.

“Capt. Timmy Bayard is one of the best that the department has, and he runs a tight ship,” Radosti said. “He doesn’t allow or tolerate his officers misbehaving. . . . And Sgt. Jones is a good, solid guy.”

Radosti said the MCC has never received a complaint about the vice unit under Bayard’s nearly five-year watch.

Police Chief Eddie Compass said he expects the vice squad, like any other unit in the department, to keep clean. “A vice unit officer is no different from any other officer in the NOPD,” Compass said. “We have to ensure, for the people we serve, that our officers are operating and maintaining at the highest levels of integrity.”

In its current seven-member manifestation, the unit operates at only half the size it once was and is still budgeted to be.

In a city with an abundance of crime, no one pretends that prostitution is a plague comparable to murder. But police don’t accept the argument that it is “victimless.” Besides the degradation it inflicts on the men and women caught up in the life, Jones said prostitution is one of many cogs in the economic engine that drives the drug trade. And the drug trade is widely considered to be at the heart of the city’s epidemic of violence and death.

That still leaves open to question whether vice squad measures to counter prostitution are having much of an effect. Squad members find themselves arresting some of the same prostitutes again and again. And, for every prostitute taken off the streets, temporarily or for good, another seems to pop up to take his or her place. In 2003, the vice unit made 895 arrests, including for prostitution, drugs and gambling. In 2004, it made 673. This year it has made about 350 for vice-related crimes in the city, according to police records.

“This is our nation’s silent epidemic,” said Anne Bissell, 42, a former prostitute and founder of Sex Industry Survivors, a nationwide network of support groups helping prostitutes get off the streets. “People think it’s glamorous,” Bissell said. They think of Heidi Fleiss, the so-called Hollywood madam, or the movie “Pretty Woman.” The reality, Bissell said, is that “it’s a very violent, ugly and depressing lifestyle.”

Without continuing vigilance, Jones said, prostitution would be ubiquitous. “The problem would grow out of control, and there would be working guys and girls on each block, saturating some parts of the city.”

Sometimes things fall apart, Jones said, and that’s usually when officers get “that feeling in your gut.”

Prostitutes get it too, he said. But the prospect of quick cash usually cloaks their fears, he said, or at least dulls their senses long enough for the vice squad to swoop in and make an arrest before they realize what’s happening.

“A lot of them see (mixing it up) with us as the price of doing business,” Jones said, cruising down Tulane Avenue in an unmarked car with tinted windows. Jones’ car is one of the squad’s four unmarked NOPD vehicles that — always with a marked patrol car in close proximity — roll through the city streets hunting hookers.

When a streetwalker and an undercover officer make eye contact, the prostitute will wave down the officer, Jones said. Once he or she is in the car, the officer waits for the prostitute to make a specific sexual offer and set a price. An officer can never initiate the deal, Jones said — that would be entrapment. There are no wires or hidden cameras, just an officer’s integrity to keep the situation on the up and up, Bayard said. After a prostitute makes a deal, an officer secretly signals the squad, and the members converge on the scene.

“The (prostitutes) usually have no idea what’s going on,” Jones said.

But sometimes the signal doesn’t come quickly enough, and a vice cop, without his gun, is alone with someone considered to be desperate at best, violent at worst. In the 1970s, police also had to worry about the pimps who ran the show, police said. They were glitzy and ruthless, and they put the burden of the sex trade squarely on the backs of their prostitutes while they collected the cash.

Bayard and Jones agreed that things have changed. The pimps are largely gone, along with their big hats and Cadillacs, minks and pinkie rings.

“The girls in the street are more independent now,” Bayard said. “For the most part, they’re making their own money.” With the prostitutes mostly out for themselves, they guard their freedom with a feisty will, sometimes augmented by a weapon. It makes life more risky for the vice squad.

“These guys are picking up men and picking up women, each time putting their lives on the line,” Jones said.

On some nights, the squad uses female police officers from outside the squad to arrest men who solicit them for sex. During the operation last week, the squad arrested four men for solicitation of prostitution, including one juvenile.

Jones told about a 5-foot-10-inch, 230-pound drag-queen prostitute whom officers picked up one night who was all man underneath his outfit — and all business. After asking if the undercover was a cop, “he looked the officer square in the eye and warned him that if he was a cop there was going to be serious trouble,” Jones said. A deal was brokered, and the undercover officer made the signal. During the arrest, officers found a loaded 9 mm pistol in the transvestite’s purse, Jones said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he would’ve used it,” Jones said.

Many male prostitutes are more dangerous than their female counterparts. Some are common thugs who would rather “rob you than perform a sex act on you,” Jones said. Officers in the unit said some of the men they’ve arrested for prostitution have rap sheets filled with armed robbery, narcotics and assault charges. They strut through the city’s public housing complexes acting like thugs, Jones said, but when the johns come calling, they’re in and out of cars performing sex acts for money.

When the sex trade and the law collide, it’s usually disturbing, pathetic, heart-wrenching, or all three, officers on the vice beat said.

“Some of the guys make fun of me because I actually feel bad for some of the ones we arrest,” a vice officer said, sporting a chin-straplike beard and an oversize polo shirt. “It’s the bottom of the line for them; you have guys your father’s age willing to (have oral sex) with another man for a piece of crack.”

“I’ve made deals with women to have sex for chicken platters, fish platters, even Chinese food,” another officer said, moments after a takedown on Baronne Street.

“It’s kind of foul, but you get used to it,” another undercover officer chimed in. “It’s the dance we do. That’s the game you have to play with them.”

Except Jones, who has served 30 years with the NOPD, the other members of the squad are relatively young, in their late 20s and 30s, and look more like a motley bunch of fraternity guys playing cops and robbers than real officers. Jones calls them the “youngsters,” the “kids,” though all are married with children and armed with enough street smarts and experience to know that working vice is anything but child’s play.

It takes a certain kind of cop to work the beat, but members of the vice crew said their participation in the unit is neither a beginning nor an end in their career, simply an exclamation point. The squad has basically stayed intact for the past four years. The only time officers leave the group is when they are promoted, land an easier job in the department or take a job with another law enforcement agency, Jones said.

“A lot of officers might not be able to handle doing what we do or want to do what we do,” a vice officer said. “But I could do this forever.”

Jones said each of the men in the unit was handpicked, has a proven record in plainclothes district work and a clean record with the feds and their district commanders.

“We’re a small unit but we’re tight,” one of the guys said. “We’re like brothers.”

“Nothing is more important to me or any of these guys than going home to your family at night,” Jones said. “That’s why when you go home, you leave this stuff out here. You don’t ever bring the job home with you. You don’t ever bring home the war stories.

“It’s enough for a wife to know that you’re going to work every day and putting your life on the line” without her having to hear the stuff that goes on in the streets, he said.

It was 11:15 p.m., and a woman was standing almost naked in a plush hotel room in the French Quarter. Dark trails of mascara streaked her pale, freckled face. An hour earlier, an undercover cop posing as an out-of-town business executive in the city for a “safety engineers convention,” had called an escort service and ordered a thin, busty blonde. Instead, he got Jennifer, a 29-year-old redhead with a chunky midsection and years of hard living written in wrinkles, stretch marks and cellulite on her breasts, thighs and behind.

“I just give massages,” she said, shielding her heavy breasts with crossed forearms. Her green-satin thong panties were pulled awkwardly above her naval.

“And what were you going to do with this condom?” Bayard asked. His men masked their smirks by asking the woman’s age, name and address. “What were you going to do? Put it on your hand and massage the lubricant into his back?” Bayard asked, glancing at the officer lying on the bed wearing a pair of droopy white boxer briefs.

Jennifer grabbed a bustier from the floor, then a pair of tight black pants, and went into the bathroom.

Jones said that for such services, a john calls an escort service and pays it a $75 finder’s fee. The agency gives the call girl the client information, and she calls the john to arrange the “date.” The girl or guy — whichever the john ordered — gets a “tip,” usually $200 to $400. The agency stays just far enough outside of the deal to avoid legal repercussions if its “contractors” get busted for prostitution. Convenient ignorance, Jones called it.

Jennifer emerged from the bathroom moments later and sat down on the edge of the bed closest to the door.

“I didn’t plan on doing this long,” she said, smearing mascara into a black puddle on her right cheek as she wiped away the tears.

She said she got into the business 10 years ago at the urging of a man she was dating. She was a teenager then, childless and nurturing a drug habit that she said grew more demanding each day. Now, she has three children — 12, 4, and 4 months old — and lives with her mother, who thinks she’s “just dancing.” With the help of the escort service, Jennifer said, she lands about two tricks a night at $300 each.

“It never ceases to amaze me how they’ll just get in a car or go to a hotel room with a stranger,” said the officer who made the case against Jennifer. “One of these guys could just kill you and stuff you in the closet and disappear.”

Later that night, another escort, who called herself Kim, lamented that “this isn’t how my life was supposed to be.” But after a 12-year marriage and a rough divorce a year ago, Kim said, she began working for the service to make ends meet. “I just wasn’t making it on my own,” she said. Kim fared better than Jennifer did that night; police were unable to build a case against her — she was free to go.

“She just wouldn’t talk,” the undercover officer reported to Bayard. She was probably tipped off after Jennifer’s arrest less than 45 minutes earlier, Bayard said.

The undercover officer said Kim received a call on her cell phone not long after she arrived. She responded to a voice on the other end with a suspicious “yes, OK, yes,” the officer said. But Kim stayed in the hotel with the stranger nonetheless, as though pondering whether to take a chance on him being a cop, Bayard said.

Jones said many of the escort services with listed numbers are simply fronts for a common business operating under a string of different names, with calls forwarded from the different numbers to a conjoined set of phone lines. When a woman gets arrested, word spreads quickly, and the others close down until the coast is clear, Jones said.

Walking from the hotel and down the block, Kim, with her seemingly swollen lips and exaggerated pout, maintained that she was there only to perform a massage — a nude, $400-an-hour massage. She said she performs the service a few times a week to support her 8-year-old daughter and the note on the late model Ford Escalade she had parked around the corner. The money is the best part, she said. The constant fear is the worst.

Later, back in the hotel room, the undercover officer got dressed, pulled a chair up to a desk and began dialing.

“Yeah, I’d like some company for the evening,” he said into the phone. “Yes, I would. A brunette.”

Deep within the dark, crowded adult bookstore on Chef Menteur Highway, men gather for indiscriminate, often unprotected sex. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week haven, and though the sex is consensual and free, the acts are illegal because they’re being done in a public place, officers said.

One afternoon last month, all seven undercover vice officers descended on the store, entering two at a time. They walked to a glass counter, paid a $5.50 cover charge and strolled to a corridor in the back. Pushing through a swinging saloon-style door, the officers entered a dark theater and an adjoining maze of booths.

At least a dozen men were sitting watching sex scenes on a large, wall-mounted television screen. Many were masturbating or fondling the man next to them. They were black, white, young and old, some with the look of executives, others disheveled.

After the officers’ eyes adjusted to the darkness, they split up. A couple of them stood against the wall of the theater. Others moseyed through the maze of booths, peeking over slight wooden doors. The booths had benches, small televisions with Plexiglas covers playing X-rated videos and an orange-size “glory hole” drilled in the walls dividing booth from booth.

Police said when a man wants “action” he’ll swipe his hand across the hole. If the person in the neighboring booth is interested, he’ll offer himself to the stranger.

A constant stream of patrons lurched in and out of booths and chairs. As the vice unit members crept through, they remembered faces and illegal acts. Soon the officers pulled out their badges and marched those engaged in “lewd” behavior out of the store. A line of eight to 10 men stood calmly against the store’s orange siding with their heads down, as a light rain danced from the building’s roof.

The officers handed out summonses that would cost the men a few hundred dollars each.

One middle-age customer with a salt-and-pepper beard said he was “hoping to meet a couple to play with.” His wife and two teenage children have no idea that he likes to have sex with men, he said. One clean-cut, executive-looking customer with rosy, pockmarked cheeks, signed his summons and sped off in a late model Cadillac CTS. Another, dressed in khaki shorts and chocolate-brown loafers, passed the lineup nonchalantly and strolled from the club to his pickup truck.

“I think it’s the anonymity they like,” an officer said, squeezing a bottle of hand sanitizer into his palm. “That they don’t know who’s in the booth next to them.”

“You saw it in there,” Jones said. “Like they were zombies, like ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ”

Hookers on Bourbon Street are a different breed of streetwalker, the squad members said. They tend to charge a few hundred dollars more than a Chef Highway “crack whore” and are more discriminating, they said. Some will avoid black johns and focus their attentions on the white men who look like they might be from out of town, Bayard said.

“Y’all looking for a good time?” a slender, smooth-skinned 20-year-old asked Bayard at about 2:15 a.m. “Yes, we are,” he said. “My friend here is from New Jersey. We’re safety engineers in town for the convention.” After a few blocks of walking together, she asked whether Bayard had a hotel room. He said yes, told her where and hailed a cab from the corner.

“Two hundred dollars each,” she said. “Y’all got that, right?” she asked with a grin before hopping inside.

Smiling, she suggested that Bayard stop at one of the adult video stores and pick up one of the movies in which she said she’d performed. She said she originally was from Wisconsin and that after a stint in California, she had flown into New Orleans a few days earlier to work awhile in the French Quarter.

After cooing to one of the men that she couldn’t wait to have sex with him, she paused to ask if he was sure he wasn’t a cop.

Moments later, the purr faded from the young woman’s voice and the dollar signs vanished from her wide, brown eyes as Bayard told the cabby their destination. A local hotel? Not tonight. He ordered the driver to proceed directly to the 8th District police station.

Inside the French Quarter station, an officer led the young woman to a bench and sat her down alongside another prostitute arrested that morning. Before Bayard walked out of the station, she looked over and silently mouthed a question: “Why? Why did you do this to me?”

Those are the breaks, he said, strolling back out onto the streets.

 

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