SPD Overlooks Johns Who Patronize Teen Prostitutes
Last winter, King County prosecutors decided to get tough on a prostitute—who had been repeatedly pulled off the street and cited by police—and sought an unprecedented yearlong sentence for the young woman. Months later, while the woman sat in jail, police got hold of her black book. According to court documents, the book contained a list of names and phone numbers, which appear to be the woman's johns.
Despite a new law that puts the emphasis on busting johns, police don't appear to have followed up on the information. Normally, this wouldn't come as much of a surprise—but in this case, the prostitute was 15 years old. It follows that these men were not only guilty of soliciting a prostitute, but also of having sex with a minor.
Traditionally, law enforcement has not focused on arresting johns. However, Senate Bill 5718, sponsored by Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36), redefined underage prostitution by addressing the fact that young girls involved in prostitution are victims, rather than criminals. The bill redefines "promoting juvenile prostitution" as "commercial sexual exploitation of a minor," and increased penalties for johns who patronize underage prostitutes. The new law can add an additional year on to a john's sentence if prosecutors elect to add a charge of "rape of a child." The bill took effect in July.
The Seattle Police Department claims there is an "open and active investigation" into the teen girl's case. However, several of the men on the list who were contacted by The Stranger—who admitted to paying for sex with the teen—say the police have never contacted them. When The Stranger asked another officer at SPD about whether cases like the teen girl's are followed up on, the officer quipped, "Yeah, on TV."
Senator Kohl-Welles had harsh words for the police department. "There's no excuse for a police department not to [enforce] the law," she said. According to one officer at SPD, the department's vice unit—which handles citywide street-level prostitution—is overloaded, with only a half-dozen officers on staff. Still, Kohl-Welles isn't letting the cops off the hook. "They can say they don't have enough staff, but they have to determine how they're going to follow up."
Prosecutors did bust the girl's pimp after they uncovered creepy letters where he advised the teen on how to conduct herself. "Don't get in a car with tinted windows," he wrote from jail. "I need you to be my better half and continue to hold me down like you always have. We're Bonnie and Clyde now. It's me and you against the world."
The county filed charges against the pimp for "promoting prostitution," but again, it does not appear that SPD has contacted the men identified in the teen girl's diary. It wasn't hard for The Stranger to contact the men; all it took was one phone call.
A 43-year-old man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he paid for oral sex from the teenage girl after he met her at a Fred Meyer in Shoreline. The man says he was suspicious of how young she looked, and actually asked her to prove her age. Under the new "commercial sexual abuse of a minor" law, johns are expected to make a reasonable effort to determine a sex worker's age. In this case, the man says he asked for—and was shown—identification, which said the girl was over 18.
More than a year after he first met the teenage girl, the man says he remembers her well and seemed surprised when he was informed that she was 15. He recounts that he regularly saw her on Aurora Avenue, where she stood out from the other girls working the street. "You can't help but notice her," he said. "You go down Aurora Avenue and you see all these crack whores and these girls who are just out of it, then you see someone like that—a very attractive blond girl—and it's like, wow, what's going on there? She had a sweet disposition about her. You know, she just seemed like a good girl."
Another man on the list didn't remember the teenage girl as vividly, but he nervously admitted it was possible he'd picked her up. He said he couldn't imagine buying sex from a girl that young—although he later admitted it was possible he'd picked her up—and pointed out that he has two daughters of his own. Still, his name, work number, and office extension were listed in the 15-year-old's diary.
Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, who brought the idea for SB 5718 to Kohl-Welles, was shocked to hear about the 15-year-old's case. "That's horrible," he said. "How are we going to stop prostitution if we're not going after the johns? If you've got their names and phone numbers, it seems like fish in a barrel."