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Sex and the City

It's easy to sell your body in Richmond. But police are more determined than ever to stop you.


Editor’s note: For this investigation, the reporter accompanied the Richmond Police vice unit on several operations during a yearlong period. Style agreed to change the names of undercover officers. We also agreed to not reveal certain police investigative methods and tactics, such as internal communication. Because it is not crucial to the story, we have omitted the names of the men and women charged, and in some cases convicted, of prostitution or solicitation in the incidents described.

Feb. 20

Parking lot, vice unit headquarters

7:10 p.m.

“You got your thug stuff on?” one officer calls to another. They check their pockets and make sure each has a few $20 bills.

The vice unit is heading out. “You’re about to see Richmond raw on a Thursday night,” one says.

For safety reasons, officers rarely work alone. Tonight, they go out in pairs, in separate, unmarked cars, keeping track of each other via radio.

Vice detectives Nick and Will cruise slowly up Jefferson Davis Highway, called it the Pike by some. The cars pass neon signs and abandoned shops, small motels and bus stops. The radio crackles; Will says he’s found one. Nick veers off the street and stops in a dim lot.

“That’s where he’s going to try to take her, right at that corner right there,” he says. He waits in the shadows off a quiet intersection, near a small church with a neon cross.

But it’s a no-go, Will says on the radio. She’s approaching a pickup truck. Time to move on.

A few more circuits and Will has another target. A few words exchanged, the young woman steps into his car and they drive off.

Will drives the car slowly down a narrow residential street. Nick tails him at a distance. He parallel parks on the side as soon as Will does, a short distance behind. Lights off, Nick waits for the signal. “There he goes,” he says.

In a second, Nick pulls out, speeds down the street, stops his car and races to the passenger side of Will’s vehicle. The girl is cornered.

“You got anything illegal on you? Got an ID on you? How old are you?” Will asks. The answers: No. Yes. 24.

“What are you doing?” Nick asks.

“I need money,” she says, face set. A pale center part divides her long brown hair, pulled back with a white band. She stares at the dashboard through wire-rim glasses. She looks young enough to be in high school. And she has mace in her pocket. “She’s prepared,” says Nick. “She could spray somebody. She says it’s for dogs.”

Vice officers never know what to expect when they make an arrest. Sometimes, police say prostitutes thank them for catching them. “I’m tired of being out on the street,” they say. Sometimes they ask if they can stop by McDonald’s on the way to jail. Sometimes they’re so exhausted, they fall asleep in the police car.

But other times, they fight back. “They will cut us fast,” says Samuel, a sergeant in the vice division. A few years back, one detective was badly slashed by a woman with a knife. Some prostitutes lure customers — or undercover police officers — to rooms where armed cohorts are waiting in ambush to rob them.

Prostitutes have other tricks up their sleeves too — officers recount dozens of stories about women who bite, spit, urinate or intentionally pass gas in the police car. One infamous prostitute in the north side of Richmond threw her colostomy bag at an arresting officer. Some women are unwashed, sometimes reeking; often, detectives say, the cars they use must be thoroughly scrubbed before they can be driven again.

Transvestites can be the most dangerous. Large and strong, they carry small knives, steak knives, sometimes guns. Nick remembers the time he picked up a 19-year-old man in women’s clothes whose purse was stuffed with four bricks, ready to swing.

And the transvestites are the most cunning of all the prostitutes on the city streets, officers say. They tend to band together in groups of three to six, and police suspect they maintain a cell-phone network to warn each other when the cops are out.

Drug-addicted women, on the other hand, are less savvy and more desperate. “They want that money so bad, they’re willing to get in the car,” Nick says. That means they’re at the mercy of their customers. When a prostitute disappears, MacKnight says, her colleagues assume she’s been arrested, although a sexual predator may have taken her instead. No guardian angels on the streets, he says.

And drugs cloud prostitutes’ minds. A woman Nick had arrested once got into his car a second time and said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Yeah, he said — “I think I picked you up once before.”

Her face lighted up. “Haven’t seen you in a long time! Where you been?” she exclaimed. High as a kite, the woman thought he’d been a previous customer. When he arrested her again she said, dejected, “I knew I knew you.”

Feb. 20

Police headquarters, Grace Street

8 p.m.

The young woman sits slumped in the passenger seat while Will disappears with her battered driver’s license for a quick record check. Nick stays and chats with her while they wait.

She tells him another woman told her to avoid the police by watching for a particular license plate. Amused, he asks what the number was. “I forget now,” she says. “2183, maybe?” It’s not the right one.

“Why you don’t have a job?” he inquires.

“I don’t know,” she answers.

“You too pretty to be out here,” he says, kindly.

She has no reply.

Will returns and flashes a quick Polaroid shot of her through the open window of the car, for police files. She doesn’t smile. She lights a cigarette. “Remember, blow out the window,” he says. She does.

Again, Will asks her about her record, and her voice grows shrill. “I said, I’ve never been arrested for drugs or prostitution!” He holds out the sheaf of pages the police computer summoned up, a list of charges from her past. “It’s not that bad,” she amends. But it means she’s headed to city jail tonight.

It is 8:30 when the cars pull up to the rear entrance of the jail annex at 501 N. Ninth St., lighted by wan streetlights and a revolving yellow beacon. Sheriff’s deputies greet the officers and raise the chain-link gate.

The officers instruct their charge, now wearing silver handcuffs, to sit on a solitary wooden chair. No tobacco products allowed, a sign says. Will takes a pack of cigarettes out of the woman’s small, stained, white JanSport and upends it over a trashcan. She watches them fall one by one, like thin tan darts.

Through a heavy door, sticky with years of handprints, is a cramped blue room crammed with forms in every pastel hue. Here the magistrate takes depositions via closed-circuit television. While they wait for the magistrate, Nick riffles through the backpack, looking for anything illegal. He pulls out a large multipack of K.Y. lubricant and chuckles.

Watching him, the woman utters a single harsh, loud laugh. “It’s not funny,” she says. “It’s not.”

The magistrate’s face flashes on the television, and Will stands at attention while he delivers his account of what happened that night. Then it’s her turn.

“All true?” the magistrate inquires. “Yes ma’am,” she says. “I’ve only been out there for two weeks. I just want to go home.”

The magistrate asks the woman where she lives. With her mom, she replies. “She would die if she knew.” On the television screen, the young woman is a small forlorn figure in a pixellated box, under the magistrate’s stern gaze. Her thin frame is all angles in a dark sweatshirt and pale jeans. Her eyes are large, her complexion pale and pitted.

“May I please go on my own recognance[sic], ma’am?” For the first time, she seems on the verge of tears. She’s not going anywhere tonight.

When the magistrate is finished, the screen goes dark. The woman asks if she can make a phone call and Will tells her she can. “Didn’t I give you my word?” he asks. “I like to be told I play fair. … Feels good to hear that sometimes.” He fishes out a scrap of paper scrawled with numbers from her bag and gives it to her.

The printer in the blue room goes zit zit zit as it prints out a form. Nick finds a silver cigarette case in the bag and shakes its contents, too, into the trash.

The woman stands, holding the paper scrap with her thumbs behind her back. She kicks her feet. Will scrubs his hands at the small sink outside and shoots his crumpled paper towel at the trashcan. Perfect shot.

They take her into the booking room, where deputies on the late shift laugh and joke over the whir of the fingerprint machine. Will wears latex gloves as he goes through the rest of the contents of her backpack. He finds gloves and a hairbrush. Condoms. A small bottle of beige foundation. A change purse. Lip gloss. Healing Garden perfume. A prescription-labeled plastic bottle, but no drugs. The young woman says she’s clean.

And he finds two weapons — a small folding pocketknife printed with a Confederate flag and a wickedly honed triangle in a leather sheath. “She’s got a whole world in there,” Nick says.

They leave the young woman there, where she will be held until she is taken to the main jail on Fairfield Way. The heavy metal gate falls behind the officers as they go.

That heavy gate often seems to police like a speedily revolving door. Not long ago, Nick arrested a woman for prostitution on the Pike at 5 p.m. He found she’d been released from jail two hours before. Last year, MacKnight relates, a transvestite out on bond for a conviction he was appealing was caught a second time for prostitution. He posted bail for that charge, was released and then arrested again.

“You’d be flabbergasted at how we see the same faces over and over again,” MacKnight says. Johns, on the other hand, are rarely caught twice. They get off lightly the first time, he explains, but a second arrest for solicitation almost always means a hefty fine and jail time. Disappearing for three or 30 days is hard to explain to your wife and kids.

Why, after the shame and the punishment of getting caught, don’t prostitutes stop? The answer is simple: Police estimate 98 percent to 100 percent of female prostitutes and male hustlers are addicted to drugs. (The transvestites are professionals, and not all have a drug problem.) Few prostitutes have anything on them when caught, however, only residue in pipes or a fine dusting of powder in empty bags. Instead, they bear the ravages of drugs: hollow eyes, rotten teeth, wasted limbs punctuated with track marks. Some, especially heroin addicts, have sores on their faces and hands.

No matter how down-and-out, “We treat them with dignity,” MacKnight says. “When you treat someone like that, they generally respond in kind.” Many of the officers on the vice team try to talk with the women sitting cuffed in the car beside them. “Why are you out here?” they ask. “How old are you? Does your mother know you’re out here?”

In Nick’s experience, few have completed high school. One he met only went as far as eighth grade. Many desperately need money, whether for drugs or mere survival, and believe “selling their bodies is the only thing they can do,” he says. He picked up one woman who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. “She done had her baby. She’s back out here.”

The vice squad knows one prostitute who has been working 15 of her 35 years. One 22-year-old woman told Nick she started on the Pike at age 11, coerced by her aunts and cousins. “I think about my niece that’s 11,” the officer says. He grows silent.

The women (and men) grow accustomed to the life. It is an easy way to make money for a drug habit — although in Richmond, you won’t get rich. The going rate for oral sex from women or hustlers these days, is $10 to $20. Sex costs $20 to $40, or an equivalent amount of drugs in trade. Transvestites, Richmond’s prostitution elite, charge $40 and up for their services.

The officers laugh about a pair of women they arrested who were charging $500. They were younger and prettier than most, but $500? Turns out they had just gotten off the bus from New York, where business was slow, and were hoping to make some money in Richmond. A tough economy spares no one.

One of the lowest quotes MacKnight ever heard was $7, offered to a police decoy. “We were all howling,” he relates. “These poor guys. He was in such need and he didn’t have the money.” And “one girl, she just wanted me to buy her some Church’s Chicken,” says Nick. Hard to believe, but true. And tragic, MacKnight says. “It shows just how deep in despair they are.”

Feb. 20

Vice Unit headquarters

9 p.m.

The officers regroup in the boxy brick building on South Side, laughing and joking. Tousled wigs and slinky, extra-large dresses hang in several of the tiny offices — accessories for when male cops impersonate transvestites.

Samuel goes over the night’s plan: Working together to target male hustlers and transvestites. “These guys will hurt you, and they’re smooth,” he warns.

Male hustlers are the hardest to spot, for the inexperienced. “They’re just kind of lurking in the shadows, sitting on the walls,” MacKnight says. They dress like regular guys, in jerseys or sweatshirts. They signal their availability by subtle hand signals, or by standing outside gay bars and clubs downtown, or in city parks. Mostly, they cater to gay men wanting quick oral sex.

Drug-addicted and desperate, they’re not hard to catch. Officers frequently spot them soliciting across the street from the new police headquarters on Grace Street. Once, they arrested one under the entranceway arch that says “POLICE.” “It’s amazing,” says Nick, shaking his head at their stupidity. “But they’re still out there.”

At the briefing, the officers pass around a black three-ring binder, a photo album of transvestites sleek and stubbly, plump and skinny, impeccably made up and wild-haired. Some look like attractive women, while some couldn’t pass as female even in the darkest corners of Grace Street. Some pout, some stare defiantly into the camera, some look as if they’re blocks past caring.

At the end of the briefing, one officer says, “Let’s go get ’em!” The others chorus, “Aight,” and into the night they go.

It’s 9:30. Car engines start in the parking lot. Hip-hop pounds from a minivan.

Teresa, a female detective, is running backup tonight, which means concealing her car and then running to assist when an arrest is being made. With her is a young German woman who’s in training to become a police officer in her country. Is prostitution a big problem in Germany? “It’s legal,” she says with a bemused smile.

Teresa drives east toward downtown, passing a flurry of lighted, siren-screeching patrol cars parked at Broad and Belvidere streets. They’re arresting an armed robber and searching for the stolen handbag he threw over the construction fence on the corner, the radio reports. Teresa slips by, anonymous in her unmarked sedan. This is not her territory.

“I got a prospect at Fourth and Grace,” an officer drawls over the radio. Another reports in: “First and Grace…. go shut it down.”

“Oooh, right there,” Teresa says, spotting her fellow officer’s car. She pulls into a parking lot off Grace Street. “643. I’m also here,” she says into the radio. She turns off her lights, reclines in the seat and pulls her hood over her face.

Everything is quiet in this dim corner of the city. The streetlights cast a faint glow on the asphalt. Suddenly, the radio crackles: “Signal’s given. Signal’s given.” Five cars leap from their hiding places, seeming to appear from nowhere, and pull up behind a car in a nearby alley. Teresa flings open the car door and races to join them.

A crowd of police officers gathers around the suspect, a man with a cigarette tucked in his blue knit hat. He stands quietly, looking a little dazed, as his pockets are searched. The police find a small bottle of Scope and a crack pipe, with a wad of copper scrubbing material to use as a filter.

“What’s this for?” one officer asks. It’s a rhetorical question. “We gonna throw this away,” he jokes, as he confiscates it for evidence.

The man is driven back to police headquarters for booking. The police resume their positions.

A few minutes later, it starts all over again. They nab a 43-year-old man stylishly attired in Fubu shorts and a Phat Farm shirt. He mutters something under his breath, prompting an officer to say, “Tell it to the judge.” He, too, is taken away.

And then it starts again. And again, until it is just before 11 p.m. and the police seem to have cleared the area. “Nobody else out. I think we got ’em all,” Sharon comments.

They move on toward the Fan. Teresa will be out hunting until 3 a.m.

What happens to prostitutes after they’re arrested? Not enough to deter them, many officers believe. But now, it looks like that’s changing.

In Richmond, prostitution and soliciting are misdemeanors, carrying a penalty of up to 12 months jail time and a $1,000 fine. Statistics compiled by the city show that of the 332 people arrested for prostitution or soliciting between July 1, 2001, and June 30, 2002, two-thirds of them served no jail time. Eleven percent didn’t show up in court. (Many prostitutes are transient, explains MacKnight — when they get arrested in Richmond, they move out to the county and escape going to court). “That’s the word on the street, that you can go out and prostitute in Richmond and just get a summons,” Nick says.

Not necessarily, says city criminal justice planner Joyce Davis, who compiled the statistics. She points out that although the majority of jail sentences in that time were partially or entirely suspended (only 4 percent served a full sentence), few people really got off scot-free. Police look just at the 10 percent of cases that were dismissed or withdrawn, she says, and feel their work is being undone. They look at the 5 percent given a fine who walk free, she says, and although the sentence is still a conviction, “they think nothing happened.”

After years of arresting prostitutes for the sixth, 10th or 12th time, MacKnight says, last year he “raised hell” with the city and the courts to enforce tougher penalties for those caught. They listened, he says.

MacKnight picks up a sheaf of papers from his desk, judgments from the last 60 days, and reads them off with satisfaction. Several prostitutes with four, six and seven prior convictions were given nine months to serve of a 12-month sentence. Two others, one with nine priors and another with 12, each has to serve the full year. “I’m real happy with what we’re seeing right now,” MacKnight says. This is a change he credits to the involvement of community groups, judges, prosecutors and Shannon Dion, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who has championed the cause.

But there’s still the problem of addiction that jail time rarely cures. Convicted prostitutes given suspended sentences are often turned over to the Richmond Office of Community Corrections to undergo a rehabilitation sequence. The program includes AIDS education and monitoring, “general lifestyle counseling” and any community service ordered by the judge, ROCC Manager Michael Raynor says. “So it’s sort of a holistic approach.”

All clients are required to come in at least once per month, he says, and may be told to come in twice weekly if they need counseling for a drug problem. Yet state law says “we’re not supposed to keep them longer than six months” for a misdemeanor offense, Raynor says.

Most prostitutes don’t finish the course, Nick says. And the prospect of undergoing the program scares no one. He says one girl, defiant when caught, said to him, “All they going to do is give me the ROCC program.”

Raynor disagrees. “Actually, they really want the help,” he says. “A lot of them don’t want their family members to know.” Most of those convicted for prostitution are secretive, but compliant with the program, he says. And although he has no data on recidivism rates, he says the ROCC program has a 70 percent success rate for its 2,500 clients annually (about 40 to 50 are prostitutes).

ROCC refers those who need addiction treatment, not just counseling, to the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority. There, the problem is the wait. “If you are not one of the priority populations, a pregnant woman, for example, it’s probably going to be about four or five months” before treatment can begin, says Karen Redford of the health authority. Most addicts can’t wait that long. They may decide to get clean one day, but that resolve almost never lasts weeks or months, according to local agencies who work with the drug-addicted and homeless.

Other prostitutes, when convicted, are sentenced to 30 days in jail to be served on the weekends. “They get so high, you know they don’t report to jail on the weekend,” Nick says. And for those who do, jail is often a place to learn to be a more streetwise streetwalker. “They talk,” he says. “They tell the secrets.”

And even those who spend a year or more in jail emerge into the same environment and repeat the same behavior, MacKnight says. “Can’t do nothin’ with ’em,” he concludes.

Jan. 28

Chamberlayne Avenue

9 p.m.

It is a brilliant blue Tuesday afternoon, the kind of day for jogging, maybe, or flying a kite. Or standing on a street corner, following cars with your eyes.

MacKnight and more than a dozen other officers, some borrowed from the main police force, are targeting customers today in an initiative urged by the city. Judges are more willing to issue harsh sentences for johns, and “disrupting the market just makes sense,” says Councilman Pantele. So police are emphasizing these “reversals” to see what happens.

MacKnight leans back in his parked car, wearing a Redskins baseball cap and dark sunglasses, watching the undercover female detective outside the motel across the street. The radio at his side crackles and spits out reports of what’s happening.

The supply of potential customers is infinite. Day and night they come. On foot, in cars, even on bikes. Whenever the urge hits, MacKnight says.

The decoy paces slowly back and forth, purposefully aimless. She is the lure cast into the current of cars, lingering in the cold, strutting back and forth, waiting and watching. She may catch a Porsche or a pickup, a suburbanite or city dweller.

No one knows police are watching this spot carefully — very, very carefully.

“Probably got a dozen officers covering over one decoy,” MacKnight says. Her safety is paramount. Invisible filaments of sight run from each officer hidden on the street to the lone small figure on the corner. A backup crew stands in the motel room next door, watching the A-Team while they wait. Yet no one ever notices their presence, MacKnight says.

A white woman with long brown hair, tight jeans and a fringed leather jacket is pacing too, walking slowly up and down the sidewalk. As she turns, she reveals a wind-chapped nose and a defiant expression. “I think she’s working,” a voice says on the radio, but the officers leave her alone. “She’ll be around tomorrow, and the day after that,” MacKnight says.

The last time they were here, MacKnight says, they made eight arrests, three with drug charges. A productive afternoon. Not long before that, on a bitter cold day, they netted 16.

Another man has stopped to talk to the police decoy. They converse a little bit, their words fading into static on MacKnight’s receiver. “Five dollars’ what he has,” the lieutenant translates. “She says she’d work with him.” But the man ends up walking away.

In Virginia, conversation alone isn’t sufficient grounds to convict anyone. The police must prove furtherance, any activity that would convince a judge the john intended to follow through on the deal.

The next fish takes the bait. He pulls up, confers with the decoy and tells her he’s going across the street to the convenience store ATM. He’ll buy condoms, too, if he’s smart. “Or maybe some mouthwash, so he can be pretty,” MacKnight scoffs.

The radio reports the man’s gray-green sedan making a U-turn and heading back toward the motel. “All right. He’s in the lot now,” the radio says. MacKnight is not afraid the john will turn back. He says he’s always amazed how “men get into that mode — when they’re going to make a deal, they have a huge amount of tunnel vision.”

The man walks into the motel room with the decoy. He doesn’t come out for about 15 minutes — and then, he’s holding a court summons.

“There he goes,” MacKnight says. “We should be back in business.” The car creeps slowly, gingerly out of the lot as the deceived john slinks home.

The next decoy takes her place. Barely has she begun the stroll when a gray Chevy van stops at the corner. A voice on the scanner recognizes the personalized license plate.

“Oh s—t,” MacKnight says. It’s a name they know, he explains, a man they’ve heard will pick up prostitutes, then flash a badge he obtained as a security guard and tell them he’s a police officer. Some prostitutes say he then takes their money, rapes and beats them, MacKnight says. Police have been looking for him since midsummer 2002.

“All right, arrest team,” the voice on the radio says. “He’s walking into the room. We’ve got a case.” They find no gun on him, but at last the man’s badge is confiscated. He’s charged with solicitation and impersonating a police officer.

Not bad. Could be better. Last week, MacKnight says, a john offered an undercover officer a rock of crack. Police searched his car and found $10,000 worth of cocaine and marijuana. That’s the kind of bust they hope for.

While the officers handle the cop-mimicking john, the white woman in the leather jacket gets into a gray-and-blue Ford at a stop sign up the street, which then drives away. Her trek is over, for a time.

By 4:20, the police have made six arrests. Pleased with their work, they head home.

The consequences:

On March 12, the 24-year-old woman arrested Feb. 20 is convicted of prostitution. She is sentenced to 12 months with 11 months suspended and three years probation. That’s about right, MacKnight says.

On March 5, the second male hustler arrested Feb. 20 is convicted of prostitution/solicitation. He is given a $100 fine and sentenced to 90 days in jail, 30 days suspended. “Thirty days is plenty,” MacKnight says. Enough to send a message.

On June 4, the man with the personalized plates on his van is convicted of soliciting and impersonating an officer. For the first offense, he is fined $500 and given 90 days in jail, all but three suspended. For the second, he is given 90 days suspended. “We were disappointed,” MacKnight says. But the police may encounter him again.

Overall, the lieutenant’s optimistic that prostitution will fade from Richmond’s main streets and neighborhoods. The number of prostitutes and customers out on the streets drops sharply every time city or county police conduct a sting operation, he says. Community associations are calling more regularly to report prostitutes’ activity and favorite hangouts, which the police say helps immeasurably.

MacKnight believes prostitutes now realize their opposition is getting serious. “At some point,” he says, “they’re either going to go away, or people will call to say where they are.” But hiding places abound, and the oldest profession will die hard. S