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Vice detectives chase prosties across city borders

Huntington Beach- – You’re not a cop, are you?”

Sgt. Jim McLean, like vice detectives everywhere, has heard the question countless times. Despite what the pimps and street dealers of the world seem to think, the police are not, in fact, required by any court decision or law to fess up, the Huntington Beach police officer said.

Recently, one of McLean’s vice detectives set up a meeting at a downtown restaurant with a prostitution suspect he’d found online.

“You’re not a cop are, you,” the woman asked. “Because it would be kind of cheesy to arrest me next door to the police substation.”

Cheesy or not, the woman soon found herself under arrest and being marched next door for booking. The arrest was the eleventh that Huntington Beach police had made in three months, as part of an ongoing crackdown on online prostitution.

Police forces across the county and the country are seeing the prostitution racket move from the streets to the Internet. The streets are cleaner, police say, but the burgeoning online sex market raises new questions.

Is someone offering a GFE on craigslist.com a hooker? And when this GFE takes place, will that place be in the cop’s city or on the far side of the county?

Of those 11 suspects Huntington Beach police arrested, only one was from Huntington Beach.

Police say that many prostitutes work on a regional circuit, and that once they face charges in one city, they’ll simply move on to another city or state, figuring that officials won’t take the time and expense to extradite them for a misdemeanor.

Nevertheless, the Huntington Beach Police Department has five people who work at least part-time on online sex crimes: McLean, detectives Brian Smith and Alan Caouette in the field, and Det. Dave McCain and civilian employee Chris Curran in the department’s computer forensics lab.

McLean acknowledged that their efforts often lead to other cities.

“We try to focus on stuff that has some type of Huntington Beach connection, but our effort is to prevent people from becoming victims, especially children,” McLean said.

Twenty years ago, stretches of Harbor Boulevard looked like Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, said Lt. Don Klein, who heads up Anaheim’s vice operations. Now “our prostitution problem is very, very low,” he said.

Klein credits aggressive enforcement by Anaheim patrol officers and vice detectives working with hotel managers and other agencies, but acknowledges that many sex workers have simply moved their business online.

“If they can hide behind doors and not be sought out, it’s a better business for them,” Klein said.

A year ago, there were nearly 7,000 “erotic services” postings on craigslist.com listed in Anaheim; now there are less than 1,000.

“It’s like going fishing out on a lake,” Klein said. “If it’s hot in one area, everyone goes there. And when it dries up, they move on.”

Since prostitutes working online aren’t tied to one place, the city named in the listing says more about the market for services and enforcement efforts in that city than it does about the number of prostitutes working there, police said.

“A lot of the postings that are on there, they’re not from someone that’s actually laid up in a room here,” Klein said. “They might be in L.A. or San Diego… But if they’ve got a fish on the line, they’ll come down and do their thing.”

Even for departments with a broad jurisdiction, seeking out online prostitutes from Los Angeles to San Diego isn’t always the best use of limited resources.

Sheriff’s Department investigators monitor the 20-plus new postings that go up every day on one popular site, but the department hasn’t filed an online prostitution case recently, department spokesman John McDonald said.

“There are a number that are under investigation – the ones that are persistent and pretty blatant,” McDonald said. But investigators “aren’t going to do a case that’s a misdemeanor, spend two weeks making a case against a suspect that’s going to spend two hours in jail,” he said.

Police will spend that kind of time on cases that involve minors.

In May, Huntington Beach arrested four people for attempted molestation or attempted sex with a minor, one of whom was lured to a meeting place through text messages from a detective posing as a juvenile.

In March they arrested a 22-year-old from Portland on suspicion of pimping a 17-year-old girl, the case McLean is proudest of.

“I think by getting her out of the life, we may have made a difference in her life,” McLean said. The girl was put into a foster home, but struggled to adjust and ran away after a month. She was found and went back willingly, he said.

McLean’s last turn on the vice squad ended in 1995, so for him, the differences between then and now are stark.

The world isn’t getting more depraved, McLean said, but “everything’s more prevalent because it’s easier. It’s easier for people to get involved in some of this stuff, especially juveniles. When you go to a place like craigslist, they have no clue who you are. The only thing you have to do is provide a phone number. It makes it easier for people who weren’t involved before to get involved.”

Most of those people getting involved don’t fit the stereotype of the drug-addicted hooker.

“They’re college students and professional businesspeople,” McLean said. “Most of them don’t show up under the influence or have prior drug convictions.”

If technology makes it easier to get involved in prostitution, it’s also making it easier to find, bust and convict prostitutes, McLean said.

In the early ’90s, prostitutes were shielded from police by escort services that would screen prospective clients.

“They’d call and check to see you’re who you say you are, check your work, check your hotel,” McLean said.

Police would have to set up elaborate ruses involving fake airline tickets and fake checkbooks. Even once they set up the date, the case could fall apart if the detective’s wire didn’t work. Now, online solicitations, e-mails and text messages leave a paper trail for an effective criminal case.

“We can put men on the moon but we can’t record someone in the next room,” McLean said. “Now we just print everything out. There’s no dispute about what the conversation is.”

With that paper trail, when the suspect shows up at a meet location, detectives have enough for an arrest, “without having officers in a situation where they’re in a room alone with a prostitute who wants them to show they’re not a cop by taking off their clothes,” McLean said.

That paper trail is often in code, with sex acts mentioned by acronym. The code is easy to break with a quick search of the term at urbandictionary.com, McLean said.

Is that woman offering a GFE a hooker? Probably, but the act itself isn’t illegal. GFE stands for girlfriend experience, which means, McLean said, “they’ll act like they actually care.”

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