Lester Gesey, a little on the chunky side with some gray hair, fits the bill for the average John -- he is middle-aged, white and married. And he knows how to pick up prostitutes around Patterson Park.
"You try to make eye contact at first," he explains. "Strangers won't make that eye contact. Odds are if they give you the eye, and maybe a little smile, they're out there working."
The only catch is: Lester Gesey is Sgt. Lester Gesey, and he works for the Baltimore Police Department. Solicit him or anyone on his undercover team and you spend the night in jail.
Thursday night, as part of a wide crime sweep in the Patterson Place and Baltimore-Linwood neighborhoods, Sergeant Gesey's squad of 17 undercover officers made 14 arrests for solicitation and lewd behavior. Ten of those arrested were men who attempted to solicit sex from undercover policewomen. The others were women.
The prostitution arrests culminated a six-week undercover operation as officers roamed the streets around Patterson Park, buying cocaine and fingering suspected felons.
During the past five days, at least 36 people were arrested as police responded to community complaints about crime.
Officers targeted a wide variety of crime, from burglaries to assault to drug distribution. They raided four suspected drug stash houses and identified a suspect who allegedly shot a 17-year-old youth eight times in what is believed to be a drug-related assault.
"It's a very stable neighborhood," said Maj. John Gavrilis, commander of the Southeastern District. "We've seen an increase in drug activity and prostitution activity. We wanted to get a handle on it."
And community leaders, who fought long battles with the problem of prostitution in the area, applauded the police action.
"If it's the way it sounds, boy it's what we needed," said Ed Rutkowski, project coordinator for the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative, a city-funded revitalization project. "If the police keep it up, it's incredibly good news."
But the biggest problem remains prostitution. One community association started a "pooch-patrol" last year, in which residents walk their dogs to discourage the illicit activity.
At night, the streets bordering the northern boundary of Patterson Park become a skid row of sorts with tired, haggard-looking women looking to sell their bodies.
"Just trying to pay my $20 phone bill," says one.
"I don't have any hard feelings for them," the sergeant said. "Many are homeless, have drug problems, and sorry lives."
Many of the men arrested have families, said Sergeant Gesey, who often poses as a real estate salesman. "That's the sad part," he said. "Most of the guys we lock up are working-class types -- painters, sheet-rock finishers, electricians. But we've also had a few vice presidents, lawyers, and last month, we even got a biochemist."
Shirly Lloyd, chairwoman of the crime program for the Baltimore-Linwood Association, which represents 2,500 homes, said that, although prostitution still poses a problem, it isn't as bad as it once was. "I think they have been arrested so often that they either are giving up or moving to another area."
Police are concerned that prostitution and other crime enjoy strong ties. Drug addicts sell sex to support their habits, inviting drug dealers to set up shop. That in turn, breeds violence.
"This is new to all of us," Ms. Lloyd said. "A lot of people are afraid to get involved. We want to do something now. We're getting there, little by little. But when you hear of a shooting or a drug bust, it unsettles some people."
Most unsettling was the shooting three weeks ago that left a 17-year-old teen recovering from eight bullet wounds.
The youth, who was carrying two handguns, was shot in the 100 block of N. Rose St. A suspect was identified during this operation, but as of yesterday, there have been no arrests.
At a three-story rowhouse in the same block that the shooting occurred, police said they found evidence of an extensive drug distribution center where cocaine was packaged in the basement and hero in was prepared on the third floor.
Police said they found work stations with name tags, a headrest for the third-floor lookout and a syringe loaded with heroin wrapped in Christmas paper with a card that read, "Merry Christmas, my love."
Nine people were arrested when the four suspected drug houses were raided.
At the one in the 200 block of N. Milton St., Sgt. Ron Cooper said four people were inside the living room when officers burst through the door. "They were lighting up as we hit the door, just having a sweet little party," he said.
L Police said they were not after major dealers in the sweeps.
"So far, we have gotten small quantities of drugs," Sergeant Cooper said. "We are targeting street-level dealers who were basically a nuisance to the community. We weren't expecting large seizures. So far, we are pleased with what we've got."