No one was answering the phone last week at A Personal Touch Escorts service—most likely because the manager and two employees had just been arrested by King County Sheriff's deputies for prostitution. A woman who answered at another service said she didn't want to talk about her escort business because "things are getting too hot"—legally. Meanwhile, Tacoma police were busting a series of alleged sex services, arresting 20 people, and in recent months at least four other Seattle and King County escort or massage operations were shut down by law enforcement.
It's not officially an all-out assault on the proliferating escort and massage business, say police, who consider many of the operations fronts for prostitution. But aided by some newer trends in the business, such as the explosion of sexually suggestive advertising on the Internet and in newspapers such as Seattle Weekly, police have little problem picking out likely targets. (In Tacoma, police turned that trend into a sting, placing their own newspaper ad and then arresting customers who took the bait.) Since December, raids at six locations spanning three counties have resulted in 30 prostitution and money-laundering arrests.
And thanks to another newer business practice—storing customer names in computer files or on telephone recording devices—police are going after the sexual consumer as well.
"Yes, customers should be worried," says King County Sheriff's Officer John Urquhart. "Our detectives plan on contacting as many of the customers as they can find."
County vice officers raided a home in Monroe, in Snohomish County, from where they say the manager dispatched escorts via phone to customers at residences or hotels in King County. The female employees charged $175 an hour for illegal sex, the sheriff's department says, and the business reputedly grossed $16,000 a month.
"Supposedly," says Urquhart, "the business was confidential, or at least that was what they told their customers. But in reality these people need a way of qualifying the men who call in, to make sure they aren't the police, or to identify weirdos. The computer and other business records seized included more than 300 customers names, most with at least phone numbers and many included addresses as well."
TACOMA POLICE say they, too, have names of customers from a newly confiscated computer list, and Seattle and King County vice detectives were already checking out names on a list confiscated in a December raid on the alleged longtime massage/escort services of former Miss Washington-USA Rose Marie Williams ("Madam Washington," SW, 4/8).
Word of the local john inquiry has already hit the Internet, leading to chat-room strategy discussions such as this recent exchange on Dejanews.com:
"Tell the cops, 'Hmmm . . . I have no idea how my name could have gotten on that list,' What . . . can they do? I mean the escort would have to remember you and actually testify what happened. . . ."
"I talked to an agency owner about six months ago who operated in a city that is prone to stings. He said he 'seeded' his customer list with names picked at random from the phone book just in case his list was taken by LE [law enforcement] and the names on it were called. Here is a perfect reason to play dumb and say, 'I don't know how my name got on that list.' Let them prove it!!!!!"
"In my case, I could care less if I got exposed. The worst that could happen is my wife would leave me. The best that could happen is that my wife would leave me."
Rumors on the Net say that the Personal Touch raid was a sting resulting from police planting ads in Seattle Weekly and other papers, but Urquhart says that's not so. "No, we are not placing ads as part of a sting operation, or for any other reason," he says. But like both Seattle and Tacoma police departments in their recent escort/massage service busts, King County vice cops scan the classifieds of free weeklies as well as cruise the Internet and peruse the Yellow Pages for prospective targets, Urquhart says.
He thinks maybe the agencies were all separately reading the same ads recently, leading to the appearance of a coordinated series of raids. "In [some] instances, we do coordinate our operations," he says, such as in the SPD/KCSO arrest of the 59-year-old Williams in Inglewood and her alleged partner, Avette Avery, 32, accused of operating a house of prostitution in Seattle. "I don't believe this was necessary with the Personal Touch operation, however."
As part of their escort sting operation, though, Tacoma police bought four newspaper ads in Tacoma's News-Tribune touting their phony escort service. Undercover female officers responded to client calls and, when male customers offered and agreed to sex acts, busted the unwitting buyers for solicitation.
Tacoma police and other agencies may follow the lead of King County using property confiscation laws against such operations. King County prosecutors have moved to confiscate as much as $700,000 in property—including three homes—from the Williams/Avery raids under civil forfeiture laws, more commonly used to seize property taken in narcotics cases.
The ACLU calls the civil property-confiscation law unconstitutional and merely a way to skirt harder-to-prove criminal law. But a Seattle detective familiar with the process says it's the wave of the future. "You can't get the madams, because it's tough to prove prostitution was going on. With the civil law, the madam has to prove there wasn't prostitution going on.
"By our count, there are more than 80 of these services around," he adds. "These cases are just the beginning."