The 'Johns' and the law


Staff writer

It was gray and drizzly the December morning two female Federal Way Police officers and a female detective compared the prostitute disguises they’d picked up at Goodwill the day before.

Stacy told Tanith she’d paid $5 for the frayed, gray sweatshirt and blue vest she’d planned to wear that day to catch johns. She didn’t wash them first, she said, because she didn’t want her outfit to lose its authenticity.

In the detectives’ office, the officers who’d soon be participating in an undercover sting to arrest johns –– the term for prostitutes’ customers –– joked around about how appropriate the girls look for the job at hand: Their eyeliner and mascara smeared, their hair ratty and unwashed.

“She looks good. She dirtied up,” one of the officers said, referring to Heather, who walked in unwrapping a blue Blow-Pop sucker. She, too, had smeared eye makeup and tatty clothes.

There isn’t a trick to landing a “date,” Tanith said. All it takes is a woman standing or walking along Pacific Highway South, looking like she has nowhere in particular to go.

There’s a common misconception of the “Pretty Woman” prostitute in the mini-skirt and halter top, with thigh-high boots or stiletto heels and lots of makeup, who walks the streets in the middle of the night soliciting patrons from passing motorists.

Tanith said the myth falls short of reality.

“So many people think it’s these pretty girls or slutty girls in nice clothes, and it’s not,” she said. “It’s the woman in sweat pants walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the day.”

Most of the prostitutes police contact range in age from 13 to 50, and most have drug problems. “The two go hand in hand,” Tanith said, adding she doesn’t think she’s ever come into contact with a prostitute who didn’t also have a drug problem.

For the undercover sting, four marked police cars, a van for transporting the arrested, and three unmarked cars caravaned to a section of Pacific Highway, where some prostitutes mistakenly believe Federal Way Police can’t arrest them because it’s King County’s jurisdiction.

There weren’t any prostitutes out that day, but the police weren’t out to find them, anyway. They were looking for the johns.

Lt. Steve Arbuthnot, head of the Police Department’s special investigations unit, said in-city prostitution dropped off about a year ago, when word got out the police were actively pursuing and arresting prostitutes.

About 11 a.m., a male undercover officer dropped Stacy off near an apartment complex to walk a 30-yard stretch of sidewalk. She sauntered in the drizzling rain and looked over her shoulder at passing motorists. About 10 minutes later, a gold Ford Focus stopped.

Stacy (the Mirror isn’t publishing the undercover officers’ names in order to help protect their identity) walked to the passenger side door and talked for a few minutes. The deal was made and a price agreed to, and she directed the driver to meet her behind an abandoned building a block north.

As he pulled back into traffic, blinker flashing to turn into the lot, she gave the signal to arrest him.

When the driver pulled around the rear corner of the building, four police cars and a transport van were waiting with their lights on. The man was arrested for patronizing a prostitute, a misdemeanor offense that involves being taken to the police station, photographed, fingerprinted, cited and released to await a court appearance. The arrested men have to figure out how to get back to their cars.

Patronizing a prostitute is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail.

Many johns are businessmen stepping out during their lunch breaks, Tanith said.

“It’s so unsafe all the way around. It’s unsafe for the guys — they don’t know what diseases they’re bringing home. And it’s unsafe for the women,” she said. “The most upsetting thing is these men go home to their wives and families.”

Usually, once a john is busted, he’ll either learn what he can and can’t do, or he’ll just go somewhere else to pick up prostitutes, police said. Because Federal Way Police have made a point of cracking down on prostitution, most johns pick up prostitutes in neighboring towns.

Prostitutes, on the other hand, are usually repeat offenders who, once released from jail, hit the streets almost immediately for the money, Tanith said.

If a sexual act goes for $40 and takes about 20 minutes, and a prostitute pulls two tricks an hour, she’s making $80 an hour, with no taxes, withholdings, bosses or schedules.

And while it’s illegal, there’s a healthy market for prostitution that allows the women and some men to make a lot of money fast. It’s good enough pay that some prostitutes are willing to forego personal safety for the money.

Several of Green River Killer Gary Ridgway’s victims asked him if he was the killer before dating him, Ridgway told detectives on the Green River Task Force during his confessions that led last year to his sentencing. When he said no, they got into his car, according to police reports.

“With people like Ridgway out there, it makes you wonder how (prostitution) survives,” Arbuthnot said. “It must be the supply and demand.”

City prosecutor Aaron Walls charged nine men with patronizing a prostitute in Federal Way in 2003, though all nine came from two undercover stings — the one conducted last December and another conducted a few weeks prior. Walls charged six women with prostitution in 2003.

Tanith said many of the prostitutes she’s arrested are unemotional about the work they’re doing. “They think it’s a victimless crime, or that it shouldn’t be a crime,” she said.

On the street last December, police pulled Tanith, who didn’t get any stops during a 35-minute stint in the rain, and rotated in Heather, a first-timer.

There wasn’t a lot of traffic 10 minutes after noon, even for being near a fast-food restaurant. It had been almost an hour without a hit. Stacy’s bust began to look like a fluke.

“I like action, but I’m also glad there’s not people pulling over left and right like the first time,” Arbuthnot said, referring to the last undercover sting. “I don’t want that many people looking for prostitutes in our city.”

Finally, an older, blue station wagon with an elderly driver pulled off to the side of the road and Heather sauntered to his passenger window. They talked for a few minutes and the man drove away. Heather didn’t give the arrest signal. He’d only offered her a ride, she said later.

She continued walking up and down the sidewalk, sucking her Blow-Pop in the rain.

A maroon minivan stopped and the driver rolled down the passenger window. Heather, her tongue and teeth blue from the sucker, walked over to talk to him and the deal was made. She gave the arrest signal and the officers pulled into traffic to follow him to the arrest. They found out later he was a 68-year-old ex-military widower.

The officers decided to put Stacy out one more time before breaking to book the offenders and have some lunch.

In less than a minute, a black pickup truck swerved to the side of the road. Stacy walked to the window and they talked. As the driver pulled away to the pre-arranged meeting area, she gave the signal. The undercover officers convened with the arresting officers and, with the three men in the transport van, drove back to the station to book them.

Police said most of the arrested johns head straight for the exit after they’re booked, concocting the stories they’re going to tell their wives. Those stories usually involve something about how he just stopped to talk to the woman or just wanted to see if she needed help or a ride, they said.

But police chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who herself went undercover as a prostitute a couple years ago, said the law makes it clear that in order to arrest someone, there has to be a clear offer and acceptance, and there has to be a clear understanding it’s for sex. “Otherwise,” she said, “there isn’t probable cause and they can’t arrest.”

Tanith was the first back out on the street after lunch. It was raining a little harder and was colder than earlier in the day.

She strolled up and down the sidewalk, bouncing on her feet when she started to get bored or frustrated by the lack of traffic. A blue van pulled in alongside a parked white van and Tanith walked toward it, but the driver got out, apparently to see if the white van was for sale. She kept walking until a maroon pickup pulled. She and the driver talked and she gave the signal.

As daylight began to wane, detectives put Stacy out one more time. Within 10 minutes, a white pickup with a canopy pulled up to her. The truck drove away and she gave the signal.

Tanith, parked nearby, rolled down her window to tell Arbuthnot the truck’s driver was the same man who, the week before, had pulled up to her with his jeans around his knees. Sitting in the cab of his truck in just his green briefs, he told her to prove she wasn’t a cop by “touching it.”

He got away that time. But this time, he didn’t feel compelled to make Stacy prove anything, and police arrested him.

During a search of his vehicle during his arrest, a police dog alerted on the glove box, where police found marijuana and a pipe. Also, the truck’s license plates were canceled.

The officers broke their record for arrests that day, nabbing five johns in one day, but Arbuthnot said he knows there will always be more.

“That’s where some of the frustration comes from,” he said. “There’s so much out there.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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