For 33 years, at least two generations of Seattle and King County vice cops have carried on a house-to-house search for suspected madam Rose Marie Williams, 59. The durable former beauty queen has been convicted just once in six arrests for prostitution-related crimes dating back to 1966, eight years after the curvy 5-foot-7 brunette had been crowned Miss Washington-USA 1958 (she listed her hobbies as skiing, sewing, and swimming).
The most recent arrest came four months ago, when, police say, her hobbies included giving illegal sexual massages and running an escort/prostitution service out of her two handsome, split-level family homes on the Eastside.
But Williams' reign may now be ending. Prosecutors are trying a new tact: They have filed a civil forfeiture claim and seized her property, including the two Inglewood homes. With a dash of irony, officials intend to put the longtime alleged work-at-home madam out onto the street.
Williams, who recently told me, "I made my money in restaurants," is, as usual, fighting back. She is considered a legend in the business, expertly insulating her operations and screening customers to ferret out undercover officers, police say. She has operated out of hotels, apartments, parlors, and her home, and more recently out of a residence she owns across the street in a bucolic tree-shrouded grade-school neighborhood off Juanita Drive, court documents assert. Among items discovered in a search of the homes, police say, were three phone-answering machines, four caller-ID boxes, and an assortment of sex toys, condoms, dildos, a whip, and a riding crop. Prosecutors claim this is evidence that Williams ran at least two houses of prostitution, attracting a steady parade of $200-an-hour male clients.
"That's not true," Williams responded in one of several recent phone interviews—including one on her cell phone while she was busy grocery shopping. "They claim to have taken down all these license numbers of men going in and out of the house. Those were my son's teen friends, visiting, nothing else. The police were outside watching, writing down license numbers!"(and video-taping from a van).
Williams attracted some of her clients by advertising in the dependable classified pages of Seattle Weekly, according to documents presented to King County Superior Court. Her in-call and out-call businesses included Karen's Personal Services, Touch of Magic, and Ambiance Massage/Escort Service. The latter allegedly was run out of a third residence Williams apparently has an interest in, but which is owned by her alleged partner, Avette Avery, 33. That house in Seattle—on Woodland Park Avenue North near Green Lake—is also located in a residential neighborhood, but has one feature other nearby homes lack: white wrought-iron security bars covering all doors and windows. There is also an array of security lights, and the address is posted on the front and back of the house three times.
Avery, through her attorney, says the prosecutor's claim that she ran a house of prostitution is an outright "fabrication."
It was at the Seattle home, court papers allege, that sex workers attended a class (watched over by police outside) on how not to get caught—for example, upon arriving on an out-call at a hotel, searching for a john's true identity by looking "for medicine prescriptions, business cards, luggage tags, [or] airline tickets" that will satisfy her that the customer is not a police officer or a 'bad trick,'" a search warrant reveals. Workers (who got to keep half of a $200 trick) and customers also sometimes talked in code—"Dessert" for intercourse, or "tea and crumpets" for masturbation, police say. Any knowledgeable Anglophile was thus a regular, not a cop.
In the last seven years, police have increasingly focused on Williams' businesses, arresting and turning some of her alleged female prostitution workers into criminal informants, and sending in male undercover cops willing to get naked in the line of duty. Police say no officers actually had sex—if you don't define sex as getting your penis rubbed with oil, as one cop's was. But at least two civilian police informants involved in the case did have illegal sex, one of them repeatedly for almost a year, documents show; police have not disclosed details or said whether taxpayers paid the informants for their hard work.
Despite the cops' decades of trying, Williams has been convicted of prostitution only in 1971, for running a call-girl ring. It was a headlines-grabbing case after police found her little black book of customers. Known then by her maiden name of Rose Marie Nielsen, her customer list was rumored to include some of Seattle's leading judges, politicians, and corporate execs. But following her guilty plea, the book was sealed in a court file—by a judge—where it remains today.
Police got another black book of sorts in the recent December bust, rumored to contain names mostly of out-of-town businessmen. "They took my Rolodex," Williams says. "Nothing in that but my friends and associates."
Williams walked away with probation for the 1971 conviction and now, almost five months since her latest arrest, remains uncharged with any new crime.
At least some alleged customers have been contacted by police, and financial records are being reviewed. But evidence may be mostly circumstantial and dated—it was back in 1996, for example, that police say they sat outside the Woodland Avenue home watching the girls arrive for sex school.
But even if she's not charged, the circuitous civil action could leave Williams with few assets. Using a property forfeiture law most often employed against drug dealers, prosecutors have seized all three alleged houses of prostitution, valued at nearly $700,000, calling them the ill-gotten gains of crime. The confiscation order, finding there was probable cause that Williams' two homes and Avery's Seattle residence "were acquired in whole or in part with proceeds traceable to or derived from . . . promoting prostitution," was quietly issued a month ago in King County Superior Court.
Doug Honig of the ACLU, among others, worries about such use of forfeiture laws—in this and any other case. "In general," he says, "their enforcement violates basic constitutional rights in several ways." Seizures carry excessive punishments, lack due process, and are often abusively applied, he says. "Civil forfeiture actions have been one of the worst features of the 'war on drugs,'" Honig notes, "and many of the personal stories are truly appalling. [Forfeiture] is an example of what defense lawyers call 'the Drug Exception' to the Bill of Rights."
The homes are still occupied, and prosecutors will have to prove their claims of crimes by Williams and Avery at the civil court hearing. Both are resisting the action.
"They didn't find anything incriminating in the house because there wasn't anything there," Williams says, referring to December's raid. "I haven't done anything wrong. I can say that honestly," says the woman who once made it to the Miss Universe semifinals.
No date has been set for the forfeiture hearing.