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Prostitution flourishes on Pulaski Highway

Wanda lifts a swollen hand to her face, scratches her nose and tells the eternal lie about quitting the heroin habit.

Her eyelids are at half-mast, and her voice is the low grumble of the junkie as she talks about life on the street in the white glow of the Marylander Motel sign on Pulaski Highway.

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"All these girls out here tricking are shooting dope or are crack heads," she says.

"I've OD'd in a phone booth, I've shot up in gas station bathrooms. I once would shoot as much dope as I could get my hands on. And for me, there's only one way to finance that trip. But I'm clean now. I am -- what are you looking at?"

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Wanda is always in a hurry. She starts walking down Pulaski Highway to her home in Highlandtown, weary from a long day of pleasing men for a price. But on this night, like the others, she'll -- out to any car whose driver stops to make an inquiry. Among the prostitutes of Pulaski Highway, the race goes to the swift.

While the highly orchestrated state police raid on the Block Jan. 14 gave politicians an opportunity to stake their claims as prostitution and drug fighters, police and community groups say the real bazaar for hookers and the retail narcotics dealers who follow them is a six-mile stretch of Pulaski Highway from Highland Avenue in the city to Rossville Boulevard in eastern Baltimore County.

Dotted with cheap motels, bars and clubs, it's an indoor and outdoor flesh market, well known to the suburban customers from three states who patronize it, the police who try to contain it, and the community activists who have been fighting the blight for years -- with varying results.

The highway has been a route for commerce of all sorts since it was built as part of U.S. 40 in 1938 and named for Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born Revolutionary War hero who raised his legion of horse soldiers and infantry in Baltimore.

"Prostitution goes back to when the main truck route was Route 40, before I-95 opened," said Capt. Jeffry Caslin, commander of Baltimore County's White Marsh precinct. "Prostitutes catered to the truckers at various truck stops and certain motels. But it was more discreet then."

It's not discreet any more.

"It snuck on us about seven years ago. Suddenly, you saw new faces. They would get arrested and skip town before their trial and go to Memphis or Florida or New York. Then you'd see them again six months later," said one longtime Armistead Gardens resident who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

"Some of them told me they rent motel rooms by the week. They go by all sorts of names like Tiffany, Star. They even had one hooker who was known as Tooth. She had one tooth, that was it."

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The communities along the highway are angry. Residents of Armistead Gardens in the city are fighting back with some success, working closely with a police department that has a "padlock law" it can use to shut down offending establishments.

In Baltimore County, however, community leaders in Rosedale complain that the administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden has ignored their pleas for extra help.

"When the city puts the heat on, they stream into the county

and, when warm weather comes, the girls are out there like it's a convention," said Jerry Hersl, a longtime Rosedale activist. "The police do a good job, but they just don't have enough officers. The county has the resources, but the commitment doesn't come from the top of the government."

Mr. Hayden twice refused a reporter's request to comment on the prostitution issue, referring all questions to the Police Department.

"We're really upset about Mr. Hayden not taking a position on this issue," said Darryl Buhrman, president of the Rosedale Community Association. "I just fail to understand why the leader of the county is playing cat and mouse with us, with a community."

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'A sad place'

City and county police say 80 to 100 known prostitutes work the strip's streets and motels during the warmer months, maybe half that many in cold weather. They come from all parts of the country. As many as 25 percent are transvestites, and their brazen hitchhiking solicitations surprise even police veterans.

"It can sometimes look like a Third World country, a sad place where women are walking around outside in their underwear," said Maj. Bert Shirey, commander of the city's Northeastern District.

In the county, Captain Caslin says he's still amazed by the variety of hookers -- and their desperation.

"Our officers have arrested one woman who was a grandmother, one seven months pregnant and two sisters and their mother," he said. "During an eight-month period, we arrested 58 prostitutes, but how do you continue to do that with the jails packed with major violators?"

Captain Caslin said his precinct is understaffed and is short at least 30 officers.

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A prostitute named Jackie says she and her colleagues are well aware of that. "In the county, things are bumping," she said, referring to better business there. "When things get too hot here in the city side, we flip over across the county line. You can even get a better price in the county."

Once in the county, prostitutes sometimes solicit the customers of legitimate merchants like Nancy Siedel, owner of Crumbs Galore Bakery in 7900 block of Pulaski Highway.

"My customers will be going to their cars and get solicited," said Ms. Siedel, who has operated the business for 13 years. "Other times, the girls come into my place, and they are so messed up they can hardly stand on their feet. One walked out of my bakery into the middle of the highway and was almost hit by several cars."

Violent downside

While prostitution is often characterized as a "victimless crime," and some cities, like San Francisco, are considering legalization, prostitution has its dark and violent downside. Some recent examples:

* On Oct. 31, Baltimore County Police Officer James E. Beck was shot three times and critically wounded when he walked up to a truck he had stopped in the 8500 block of Pulaski Highway. Mark P. French, 29, of Essex, and Heather Lynn Kendell, 17, of Dundalk, were charged in the shooting.

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Police said Officer Beck stopped the pair because a man reported he had been robbed after he picked up a woman he thought was a prostitute for a "date."

Police say the two were operating a scam. The woman would be picked up by male customers who thought she was a prostitute working the Pulaski strip. They would drive to a church parking lot off Chesaco Avenue, where the woman's customers were robbed at gunpoint by her accomplice, who waited in hiding.

* On Dec. 8, two men were wounded, one seriously, during a gunbattle at the El-Rich Motel in the 8200 block of Pulaski Highway.

Sgt. Charles Moore, a detective in charge of the White Marsh selective enforcement unit, said the shooting erupted after two rival crack cocaine groups set up shop in the El-Rich several rooms apart to serve the prostitutes and their customers. A territorial dispute erupted, Sergeant Moore said, and the men started shooting at each other.

Supporting drug habits

The majority of the prostitutes are addicted to heroin or crack. Many tell police after their arrests that they're human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-positive. Most support their habits by turning tricks for prices ranging from $20 to several hundred dollars, depending on what the customer has in mind.

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"In one day last week, I made $535, from 11 in the morning to 6 o'clock," boasted a prostitute from Portland, Ore., who calls herself Jasmine. "I don't deal in specifics until I know the john isn't a cop. Then I find out what he wants, and we go to a place on the highway where a room rents for $11.30 -- tax included."

Other days are not so productive. The recent record freezing temperatures and ice were bad for business.

"I went out there to work but I thought I had frostbite on my toes," Jasmine recalled. "A couple of other girls who were working in miniskirts nearly froze."

Legislation not enough

Efforts to deal with the problem through legislation, such as a bill before the General Assembly that would allow police to seize vehicles of people who solicit prostitutes, have come under fire on constitutional grounds, and there are indications that the courts will no longer uphold them.

Baltimore County Councilman Donald Mason, a Democrat whose District includes the Pulaski strip, said he nonetheless favors a vehicle seizure law, as well as a county padlock law.

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"They've gotten tougher in the city, and we're seeing the spillage in the county, and we just have to make it more uncomfortable for the people who profit from prostitution and the ones who come out looking for sex," he said.

But some judges, including G. Darryl Russell Jr. of Essex District Court, say the government can't legislate prostitution away.

"It certainly is a nuisance to a community, and nearly a traffic hazard, the way some of the violators act on the street," Judge Russell said. Even so, he said, he never imposes the maximum term on the prostitutes who appear in his courtroom.

"Most of these women are on drugs, supporting their habits. I start seeing the same faces, I know them by their first names," he said. "They lack education and jobs. We have to explore other alternatives to solving this problem because this eats up a lot of manpower for the police. . . . We're just putting out brush fires while the forest is blazing."

'Padlock law' hearings

Today, according to police, residents and prostitutes, activities revolve around two motels in the city and several on the county side. The women usually pick up their clients by hitchhiking and direct them to a room -- at extra cost to the customer.

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The city is attempting to close down the Marylander Motel and the Drake Motel on North Point Road through enforcement of its so-called "padlock law." A hearing before an administrative law judge is scheduled for Wednesday.

Under that law, a business can be closed for up to a year if there are two or more convictions for crimes involving violence, prostitution, drug dealing, gambling or receiving stolen goods on or near the premises within 24 months.

"In the past, these motels have operated as brothels," said Sgt. Gary May, an assistant city solicitor in the Police Department's legal affairs division. "It got so bad around the Marylander that area female residents were getting solicited by men driving in their neighborhood."

Between January 1992 and November 1993, city police received 730 calls at the Marylander, at 6401 Pulaski Highway, and made 176 arrests for prostitution-related crimes and assorted cuttings, assaults and drug offenses, police said.

In one case, a Northeastern District officer was bitten by an HIV-positive woman when he tried to remove her from her room. The officer has not tested positive for the virus.

During the same period, police responded to 544 calls for assistance at or near the Drake Motel at 819 North Point Road. They made 158 arrests.

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Maj. Harry Koffenberger, the Southeastern District commander whose territory includes the Drake, said the attempt to close the motels came after a joint effort by police and the community.

"There has been lots of support from the community and our returning that support," he said. Police even provided buses to take Armistead Gardens residents and some Rosedale residents hearings and meetings about the prostitution problem.

Michael Meisel, an attorney for Meisel and Cohen Properties, which owns the the Drake Motel site, concedes that the case against the motel is strong.

"But it's a shame to put a guy out of business. . . . [The owner] wanted to bring back the Drake to what it was in the past, a nice little motel in East Baltimore," Mr. Meisel said. "And if they close it down for a year, you'll have an unattended building. Will the prostitutes break into the place and have rooms for free then?"

Several attempts to reach attorneys for the Marylander Motel were unsuccessful.

Clients from all walks

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City police Officers Marvin Taylor and Lorie Wallace have arrested scores of prostitutes and their customers while working undercover. The women, they said, come from all parts of the country. Their clients are mostly residents of Baltimore's suburbs, with a sprinkling of city residents, Pennsylvanians and Virginians.

"Most of the prostitutes were sexually abused as children. Most of them have dope habits, and the majority have children of their own," Officer Taylor said. "The men who run them also run narcotics operations and, unlike in the past, they offer them very little, if any, protection."

Officer Wallace, who has arrested dozens of men while posing as a prostitute along Pulaski Highway, said, "The guys tell me after they are arrested that they just can't get a girlfriend, or their wives won't play a little kinky stuff. But even in the age of AIDS [acquired immune deficiency syndrome], some of them are willing to pay prostitutes more money for sex without a condom."

Officer Sheryl Cindric, a Baltimore County police officer who patrols Pulaski Highway in uniform and occasionally works as a plainclothes decoy, said the men she's arrested have ranged from clergymen and teachers to laborers who want to have quick sex.

"After you look underneath of it all, it's very sad, very pathetic," she said.

She arrested 10 men while she posed as a prostitute in a two-day decoy operation in December. Among them was a minister.

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"When we announced we were police after he propositioned me and money was exchanged, he told me and the other officers he was just trying to spread the word of the Lord," she said.



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