Anne Arundel County officials are increasing enforcement efforts in the Laurel area in hopes of curbing prostitution and sex trafficking. The announcement of the crackdown comes after two arrests this week of men suspected of peddling teenagers for sex while holding them against their will at Laurel hotels.
Officials said they hope the effort — dubbed "Operation Escape," which seeks cooperation from hotel and motel operators, with the threat of other county agencies descending on them if they won't help — will net results.
"We are going to continue to ratchet it up," said police spokesman Justin Mulcahy, saying officers are conducting increased patrols as well as talking to hotel operators.
"We are educating them on signs of human trafficking," he said. "We want them to contact us if they notice something."
This week, the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force removed a 12-year-old girl from one Laurel hotel and three women, including a 16-year-old, from another motel less than half a mile away. Two men have been charged with sex trafficking in the apparently unrelated cases. Police believe the tip about the second incident stemmed directly from publicity about the first case.
County Executive John R. Leopold said Friday that county police are working closely with other member agencies of the state task force, which includes federal law enforcement agencies, state and local police, and victims' organizations.
Hotel operators will be told "that if they are abetting certain criminal activity they can be charged," Leopold said.
The crackdown includes a not-so-veiled threat that hotels may be checked for other violations if they do not cooperate. They are subject to regulations of other county offices, such as health and land use, he said.
Police have visited the hotels before, leaving lists of signs to look out for, such as customers who pay in cash and refuse to allow the room to be cleaned by hotel employees, and are going back.
The longtime manager of the Knights Inn on Route 198 in Laurel, where this week's first arrest took place, said he cooperates with police. But there's generally no way to know what a guest's purpose for a stay is.
"You cannot ask this question, 'Are you a prostitute, are you a drug dealer?' " said Mike Patel, Knights Inn manager since 1994.
Laurel, midway between Washington and Baltimore, has long been known for prostitution, including local street-level crime as well as pimps holding women at hotels while ferrying them to work the streets in Washington and elsewhere. The newer challenge for police is the advertising of prostitution services online, making it less obvious than street crime, police said.
"Laurel is kind of a spot for that. It's always been the case," said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. And though the Laurel racetrack is hardly the attraction it once was, the area retains the bars and motels, he said. "When you have an attraction, you frequently have ancillary activities that go on around the attraction."
The Laurel area spans three counties. Howard County police routinely conduct stings and other arrests connected to prostitution in Laurel's U.S. 1 corridor. Anne Arundel County police have done crackdowns and offered help to prostitutes. Weathersbee said prostitutes who are drug users often are offered drug court through his office, with its related services, to get a fresh start.
Greg Shipley, spokesman for the Maryland State Police, one of the agencies in the Human Trafficking Task Force, said troopers welcome more help in Anne Arundel County.
"The more attention we believe is given to this issue, the more people will come forward with information," he said.
Twice this week, authorities have charged a man at a Laurel hotel with human trafficking, alleging that each man forced at least one woman to act as a prostitute for his gain.
Members of the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force removed three women, including two teenagers, Wednesday night and early Thursday morning from the Garden Inn in Laurel, near the inn where authorities found a 12-year-old girl on Monday who officials say was being trafficked as a prostitute in Atlantic City, N.J., and Washington. In both cases, police said they were tipped off by people aware of the women's circumstances.
Gabriel "Echo" Dreke-Hernandez, 23, of the 8800 block of Berkshire Drive in Hyattsville was arrested Thursday when he arrived at the Garden Inn, Anne Arundel County police said. He has been charged with multiple counts of human trafficking, including human trafficking of a minor, first- and second-degree assault, kidnapping and related charges. According to court records, he was initially jailed in lieu of $4 million bail, but a judge ordered him held Friday without bail.
Police said that in the Garden Inn case, they were alerted by a family member who was contacted by a friend of a 19-year-old Glenville woman who said she had been abducted and forced into prostitution. They arranged to meet the 19-year-old at the hotel about 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, and took her from there.
When questioned, she told them there were two other women there — a 16-year-old from Adelphi and a 23-year-old from Hyattsville, they said.
The 19-year-old told police she had been at a party in April in Prince George's County, where she met a man who took her elsewhere, police said.
"She went to another location, believing it was another party or something," Mulcahy said.
The man took her to a hotel, where she was threatened, assaulted and forced into prostitution, police said. Police said they have no indication that she had engaged in prostitution before that. At the hotel, they said, Dreke-Hernandez choked her and banged her head against the wall repeatedly before placing a knife to her throat and demanding that she follow his orders, police said. She told police that he kept all of the money that was collected. At one point, when she said she would not prostitute any longer, he pulled her into a bathroom and threatened her with a knife, police said. They said she also feared him because of his constant physical assaults and threats to harm her and her family.