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Back on the Block 

Why last month’s spa raids may put more prostitutes on the street

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It begins with a phone call. Jillian knows it’s coming, but that doesn’t make the high-pitched ring any more welcome.

She answers. They agree on terms. He’ll be over soon. She pushes a small, silver needle under the skin near her elbow. She starts to feel numb.

She takes a shower and tugs on some sort of lingerie. It doesn’t matter if he likes it.

She covers her bed with a sheet or blanket. She doesn’t want anything of him left there after he’s gone.

Jillian is one of hundreds of Spokane women who sell sex for a living, and she’s one who wishes she could be doing anything else.

“I don’t like them,” Jillian says of the men she sees. “I hate them.”

Prostitution has long hidden in plain sight in Spokane and in many cities around the nation. The women are on Backpage.com and on East Sprague Avenue. Some have addictions to feed, or kids, or both. Some say they’re ashamed; others say it could be worse.

Generally, the world’s oldest profession goes unnoticed, or ignored, until it’s thrust into the spotlight by scandal. Recently, it was the Secret Service in Colombia. Before that, there was Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York.

Last month in the Inland Northwest, it was “Operation Red Light,” the dramatic raid of dark-windowed spas, captured live on local television. Eleven different agencies, from Airway Heights Police to Homeland Security, were on-hand as officers arrested the owners of eight spas that allegedly operated as prostitution fronts.

They also arrested Tod A. Russell, who they say ran Spokaneboard.com, a website where local prostitutes and customers connected. Police have seized about $100,000 in money and property from the suspects. Authorities say the spa owners, who have been released from jail, will face charges of promoting prostitution and money laundering. Russell was arrested on a felony weapons charge, but police say he could face promoting prostitution charges for running the site.

Police Chief Lee Bennett, whose Airway Heights department led the investigation, says the arrests have made the community safer.

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“This business as a whole is unsafe,” Bennett says. “Residents wouldn’t appreciate officers turning a blind eye. It’s a crime.”

But public-health advocates argue that the busts force more women to go online or, worse, onto the streets and into the cars of strangers to make a living. Indeed, local prostitutes say traffic on East Sprague — the hardscrabble neighborhood east of downtown frequented by sex workers — has picked up since the raid.

“I very much appreciated that they did not arrest the women who worked there [at the spas],” says Lynn Everson, the Spokane Regional Health District’s needle exchange coordinator, who also does sex-health outreach for area prostitutes.

“But,” Everson adds, “it put between 200 and 250 women in a position where they either had to work on the streets or on Backpage or on Craigslist, where they are much more vulnerable.”

‘HOOKED ON THIS STUFF’

Jillian is 47, but it takes her a few seconds to remember that. In her online ads, she says she’s 37.

“I know my fake age,” she says. “I don’t know my real one.”

Jillian isn’t her real name either, just a street name she’s used, and she’s speaking to The Inlander on the condition her full name isn’t printed. In white capris and a purple tank top, she is sitting in Everson’s office at the Health District, where Jillian comes often to get clean needles.

A decade ago, Jillian hadn’t even smoked marijuana. She’d never spent a night in jail. She says she caught a boyfriend shooting heroin and, when she started packing a bag to leave him, he held her down and shot her up. The next day she resisted a little less, and by the end of that week, she asked him to inject her first. One day, about a month later, he put a needle in her arm, then in his, and then died in front of her, she says.

“I was hooked on this stuff, and I didn’t know how to get it. I didn’t know how to do it,” she says.

Eventually she replaced heroin with meth. She started stealing to buy it. She went to jail; she lost her regular job.

Three years ago, with no way to pay rent or buy food, she asked a friend to help her post an ad on Backpage.com, a classified ad site that has come under fire after it was discovered underage girls were selling sex on it. (See “Selling Online.”)

When Jillian responded to her first johns, it was a sharp learning curve.

“It wasn’t great,” she says, holding back tears. “I got robbed a couple times. I got beat up.”

Today, she runs a handful of online background checks on johns, or “tricks,” before she meets them. She has a friend stand outside her door when a man comes over and has someone take her to “out-calls,” usually at a hotel or the john’s home.

She’s learned not to put trust in people.

One night, a john told her he wanted to make the evening all about her. He gave her a shoulder rub and made her a grilled cheese sandwich. They watched TV for a few hours, and she left without him ever demanding sex. He continued paying for time with her, and she started to fall for him.

Then one night, when he told her over the phone that he was in Coeur d’Alene, she found him parked across the street from her Spokane apartment building, watching her. He kept calling, and watching, for months. That was one of the last times she ever had a regular.

Now she has a different name and description in her ads. She doesn’t want to see men more than once, or for longer than their allotted time.

“I don’t want anything personal,” she says. “I don’t want to know them.”

She gets through her work with emotional detachment and with drugs. She hides inside an alternate personality — a woman with a different name and a different story; someone who’s married and has three kids and doesn’t hate to hear the phone ring.

“I just keep myself separate,” she says. “She does that. I don’t. So, I’m not really there.”

COSTS VS. BENEFITS

The spa case started 14 months ago after officials at Northern Quest Resort & Casino complained about prostitution to the Airway Heights Police Department, according to Chief Bennett. Officers then heard about the website Spokaneboard.com, where women advertised their services, and on that site police found ads about the spas. They spent the next year surveilling the spa owners and sending confidential informants and undercover officers inside the businesses.

The 14-officer police department assigned its only detective, Kelly Justice, full-time and two other officers half-time — about $120,000 in wages — to the project. Bennett says the department could spend as much as $40,000 more and another four months to wrap up the case. Prosecutors still have yet to formally charge the spa owners. The Spokane Police Department and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office sent officers to help in the July 10 raid, but aren’t taking the lead in the investigation.

From the onset, the case has caused a community stir — including among those who doubt the value of such a lengthy investigation in an era of budget cutbacks.

Spokane attorney David Miller, who initially represented one of the spa owners (she’s since found a different lawyer), thinks the case is a waste of time and money.

“Police officers have a finite amount of resources,” Miller says, “and they need to spend those resources in a way that most benefits the community, not necessarily in a way that always makes headlines.

“This particular type of activity has been going on as long as there have been things to trade. Although I wouldn’t necessarily want my daughters involved, I think the people involved in [prostitution] are having a bad enough time. The last thing they need are police getting involved and making things even more difficult.”

But Bennett and Justice say it’s not something they could have ignored or handled more casually.

“It was something we had to do because we came across it,” Bennett says. “We can’t turn away from a crime that’s being committed. That isn’t what we do.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says prostitution isn’t a priority for area law enforcement and won’t be any time soon.

“This is one agency’s case that everyone helped out with for two days,” Knezovich says.

“Prostitution is bad and it really does undermine the fabric of a society. Will it ever be stopped? Only when society changes itself, and that’s not something law enforcement is going to be able to do for society.”

BAD TRICKS

A full moon looms over East Sprague as Lynn Everson pops the Health District’s big, white passenger van into park. She recognizes two women walking on the sidewalk. She thinks they’re working, so she stops and opens the door to them. They smile and sigh, relieved they haven’t missed her this week.

“I thought that was you,” Everson says.

Everson, with short gray hair and impeccable crimson lipstick, drives the van around East Sprague and its gritty cross streets every Wednesday night from around sunset until midnight. She’s blunt but compassionate. She offers clean needles to injection-drug users, and condoms and lube to the women. Everyone gets a cookie.

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Everson also hands the women her “bad trick” list. Folded like a brochure, its pages are filled with stories about men who’ve picked up prostitutes in this area and then tried to assault them in some way. Some have refused to pay; some have taken women to dark, secluded areas, tied them up and raped them. One tried to take a woman home, saying he wanted to put her in his freezer.

At one point in the night, someone says, “This thing just keeps getting thicker and thicker, doesn’t it?”

Lexi, who’s 26 and worked at one of the illicit spas before returning to the street, says the men on Everson’s list aren’t myths. She sees them. One night a few years ago, as the cold of winter was just starting to grip Spokane, she was walking on Sprague. It was late, and she figured she was done for the night. But a light blue Toyota truck kept circling her. The big guy driving — he was 250 or 300 pounds, she thinks, at least double her weight — was begging her for oral sex. He didn’t have enough money, but he kept asking and asking.

“I just felt bad,” she says. “So I did it.”

Once she was in the truck, he starting pulling her hair and trying to force his hands down her pants. Suddenly he was on top of her in the passenger seat, choking her, licking her face and demanding she have sex with him. She was crying and shaking, begging him to stop and trying to shove him away. She finally told him she’d do it if he would just get off of her.

As he did, she used one hand to unlock the door and the other to get the pepper spray she kept in her left pocket. She pushed the door open, rolled out onto the street and ran.

“There are some guys that make you feel really bad about what you’re doing. There are ones that make you hate it,” she says. “Some make you wish you’d just die right there, so you’d be out of the situation.”

Everson’s heard Lexi’s story before, and many others like it. It’s why she keeps the list, why she zigzags the big van through the East Sprague neighborhood at midnight, why she gets so angry when the public debate about prostitution is so far removed from reality.

“There are women who have barely escaped death out there. They have been raped, they have been robbed, they have been beaten, and because they live day to day, they have no choice but to go back out,” Everson says. “[They] are not a separate part of this community. They are part of the whole community.”

LEARNING THE ROPES

June used to be more careful. But then money got tight and she couldn’t afford to advertise online anymore, so she started walking up and down East Sprague. She’s cautious — she carries a knife and always tells someone where she’s going for a date — but she’s not detached from the men she meets. She likes regular customers; they make her feel safe. One pays her phone bill each month, with no expectation of anything in return.

“You get kind of almost a sugar daddy relationship with each other,” she says. “You know they’re just using you and you’re just using them and there’s no real concern or care on either side, but you do kind of develop this relationship.”

Yet the 26-year-old, in a gray tank top and short jean shorts, isn’t naive about her work. One man she met on the street last month got angry when she had to leave him to go to work. He was acting possessive, she says, like he was her boyfriend. Then he stole her German shepherd and when she confronted him, he stabbed the dog in front of her. She says it made her realize how she’s never really safe.

“You think about that every time you get into a car,” she says. “Is this going to be the last car I step into? Am I going to get out of this?”

But the fear is not enough. She’s been addicted to heroin since she ran away from her abusive father when she was 12, and she says she’s done pretty much everything to pay for it. She’s worked “normal” jobs, she’s held a cardboard sign on street corners, and she’s stolen things to trade for drugs. Working as a prostitute feels better, even when it feels degrading, she says.

“I don’t like to have to hurt somebody. I don’t like to have to ruin somebody’s day to get what I need,” she says. “A lot of times I feel like I’m almost actually helping people.”

June and other local prostitutes talk about the precautions they take, how they learn from others or from their own mistakes.

Some continue to advertise online. Others walk the street or have enough regulars to make a living. There’s more money to be made advertising online — about $200 an hour, compared with $50 or $60 on the street, they say — but posting the ads costs a fee and requires reliable Internet access.

Most women say they use condoms for every act, even when men offer them as much as five times more money to have unprotected sex. They say they try to text or talk on the phone as they’re waiting to be picked up, so it’s clear there’s someone out there who will notice if they go missing.

They have secret lingo they can use to make sure a john isn’t a cop. To avoid getting caught, some of them will start with a disclaimer like, “The money you’re giving me has nothing to do with what we may or may not do tonight. It’s just my birthday present. That’s why I’m here, to get my birthday present. And if I happen to throw myself at you, well, so be it.”

If the man doesn’t understand, or asks for clarification, the decision is simple.

“You have a good day, officer,” Jillian says.

A CHANGE IN THINKING

Police and advocates agree prostituted women are some of the community’s most vulnerable. But still, year after year, it seems that no one has found a way to fully protect them.

Of Nevada’s 17 counties, 12 allow some form of prostitution. Most of those counties are rural; none of them include Las Vegas or Reno.

Storey County is a small county where the gruff, straight-talking Sheriff Gerald Antinoro says brothels give women a safer place to work. And his county gets about $200,000 a year in licensing fees and taxes from two brothels.

But even with a few hours’ drive between the state’s major cities and its brothels, street prostitution and sexual assault plague Nevada just like any other state, says Antinoro, who’s worked in several Nevada law enforcement agencies for 18 years.

In the United Kingdom and Canada, prostitution itself isn’t illegal, but most forms of soliciting it on the street are. In Sweden, selling sex is legal, but buying it isn’t, putting the emphasis on johns instead of prostitutes.

In Amsterdam, perhaps with the world’s best-known example of legalized prostitution, city officials have struggled to clean up the legendary red-light district, which has become a hotbed for human trafficking. The Dutch government is currently looking at stricter prostitution regulations and trying to find ways to attract other businesses to the area.

Meanwhile, police agencies and law experts say a slow, ideological change is happening across America. Police are beginning to see prostitutes as victims, arresting them less and focusing instead on the men who buy them.

Michael Scott, a University of Wisconsin law professor, is director of a nonprofit focused on problem-oriented policing. The group studies issues that commonly plague police departments and makes suggestions on how to address them.

For a Justice Department-sponsored report on street-level prostitution, Scott says his analysts examined research on prostitution from Rutgers University and mined their own experiences in law enforcement. They found a flaw in philosophy.

“The prostitutes were arrested over and over and over, in the belief that eventually prostitutes would be deterred from committing this crime,” Scott says. “We’ve come to realize that really isn’t a very accurate understanding of the problem.”

Sgt. Steve Wohl, who oversees the Spokane Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, says the change in thinking is happening on the streets of Spokane. Since serial killer Robert Lee Yates terrorized the city in the ’90s — he targeted prostitutes, killing 13 women in the state — Wohl’s officers have been trying to gain the trust of area prostitutes to help catch the people who hurt them. Patrol officers treat the women as victims with information about criminals, instead of as criminals themselves, he says.

“We’re out here to help these people. We don’t see them as suspects of this criminal activity that was perpetrated against them,” Wohl says. “I think we’re building that trust.”

But it’s a slow climb. Jillian and June both say they’ve never felt like they could go to the cops when johns have been violent with them.

Jillian laughs at the idea.

“Oh yeah,” she says, “that’d go over great.”

THE IDEA OF CHOICES

The debate over how to talk about and address prostitution is complicated by the fact these women are adults and they can’t simply be lumped into a single, unified category. At least some, it turns out, say they actually enjoy their work.

Ethel only recently stopped working as a prostitute and dominatrix, in which customers paid her to role-play in various bondage and submission scenarios, or BDSM.

The 32-year-old wife and mother says she started as a stripper when she was 20 and became a prostitute soon after, but never felt threatened or objectified by the work. She insists it wasn’t awkward, even in her early days, to trade her body for money. She says she quit because of a stubborn back injury she sustained before she went into the sex industry.

“Most people have an emotional interaction when they have sex. Even I have an emotional interaction, but I think that my level of emotional interaction during sex is less than most people’s. It’s just the way I am,” she says.

“Escorting,” she adds, “was a means of freedom for me, freedom from having to show up every day for work and slave for someone else for crappy wages.”

Women on each side of the industry — those trying to numb themselves and those enjoying their work — say they are the majority.

Sophie Hirschfeld, who runs the fledgling Eastern Washington Sex Workers Outreach Project, says women in desperate situations are more visible, so that’s what the general public thinks of prostitution. Hirschfeld recently started the project, a local leg of a national organization, and says she is trying to build a network of women in the sex industry in Spokane so eventually they can advocate for more rights or legalization.

Hirschfeld, a dominatrix, believes that the majority of women in the industry are more like Ethel — happy and proud of their profession.

Everson doesn’t buy it. After 23 years at the Health District, she thinks very few of the estimated 300-500 local prostitutes do it by choice. Instead, she says, prostitution is about a lack of choices, and it will only be solved with big societal reform — more jobs, more resources, more drug treatment.

“It’s a soul-sucking job,” Everson says, “and if women had other choices that they could access, they would.”

COUNTING DOWN

As the now-shuttered spa buildings sit empty around town and detectives catalog the computers and security cameras they carted out of them, Jillian, the 47-year-old prostitute, is counting the days since she posted her last ad on Backpage.

She tries to post as infrequently as she can, but then again, she has to make rent soon.

She remembers when she was sure she’d never know anyone addicted to drugs and working in prostitution. Now, she says, she doesn’t know anyone who’s not.

“I always thought it’d be hard to get out of something like this because you have a pimp or something, and they wouldn’t let you, but it’s just as hard to get out for other reasons,” she says.

“After a while it’s the only thing that you do have. You have to give that up before you can try to get anything else back. That means you have nothing for a while, and that’s kind of scary.”

But it’s only a matter of time until Jillian’s phone rings again.


SELLING ONLINE

A popular website for prostitutes and johns nationwide is under fire for allowing posts offering sex with underage girls. Backpage.com, a Craigslist-like hub for everything from furniture to real estate, has been widely criticized for not ensuring that people whose services are sold in its “adult” section are, in fact, adults.

In April of this year, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill into law that made the state the first in the country to require sites within the state to obtain documentation proving that escorts advertised are at least 18. The law, which was set to take effect in June, allows criminal prosecution of anyone who knowingly publishes or causes the publication of sex-related ads featuring children, unless they can prove they made a good-faith effort to ensure the person wasn’t underage.

Advocates called it a step in the right direction for slowing child sex trafficking. Others saw it as a well-intentioned law that could have serious free-speech ramifications for any site that might encounter adult content.

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the law from taking effect until a lawsuit against it can be heard. The pushback is led by Village Voice Media Holdings, the New-York-based company that owns Backpage.

— HEIDI GROOVER

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