Web site vice stings

The Baltimore Sun

With their seductive pitches and colorful language, the ads in the "erotic services" section of Craigslist.org seem out of place on a Web site generally associated with used cars, bicycles and lawn care products.

"Fabulous Asian Girl with 'Fabulous' Service," states one ad. "Give Spankings For Cash," says another. "I'll be on your mind all day. ... Let's make this happen."

The Web site that's rocketed to popularity for enabling users to post free ads for all sorts of goods and services has found a ready market in the sex trade.

That has attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies across the country who are using it to set up stings, often around airports where online-aided prostitution seems to cluster.

Anne Arundel County police, who have been focused on Craigslist ads and prostitution for more than a year, announced yesterday the arrest of four women accused of using the free Web site to set up paid sexual encounters, with men who turned out to be undercover police.

The women were the latest to be charged with engaging in prostitution at hotels around Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Anne Arundel.

County police said detectives found the women by reviewing postings on Craigslist.org. The detectives set up appointments and conducted prostitution stings this week.

Police said airports are magnets for such business because they permit traveling pimps and prostitutes to set up appointments with johns at nearby hotels, hop back on a plane and fly to other locations.

"We have come across traveling prostitutes, who travel three or four days and conduct as much business as they can," said Detective Mike Bazzell, a computer crimes detective with police in Alton, Ill., a city of 35,000 people near the St. Louis Regional Airport.

Bazzell led an investigation that charged 19 men with prostitution solicitation in June.

Three of the four women arrested this week were at hotels near BWI, police said.

"You've got a lot of people coming into Baltimore who are looking for companionship," said Sgt. Sara Schriver, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel police. "And you have a lot of girls sticking to that area [around BWI] because they know it's a transient area."

With relative ease and anonymity, prostitutes and johns can post and respond to free online ads, which are often written in suggestive - if poorly spelled - prose. The ads are sometimes filled with rudimentary code: Prices are quoted typically by the half-hour or hour, with "roses" or "kisses" substituted for the word "dollars." The ads will often indicate a specific geographic region for the encounter - in many cases, "BWI" is listed as a location for ads in the Baltimore area.

Some solicitors post photos of themselves or their body parts, occasionally with their faces obscured. The ads are ubiquitous in the "erotic services" section of cities and towns across the country with categories on Craigslist.org.

Bazzell said law enforcement agencies also are watching sites that rate and provide references for prostitutes who frequent Craigslist.org, so that johns will be assured that they are not police officers acting undercover.

"Those types of prostitutes get more business because they get rated, and johns feel more comfortable," Bazzell said, noting that women who solicit for sex online can charge up to $250 an hour, while non-Internet prostitutes will get far less money.

In recent months, law enforcement agencies in small and big towns and cities, from New Hampshire to California, have used stings to break up prostitution operations built on ads in Craigslist.org. Legal experts have said that the online company is operating within federal laws, which generally do not hold Internet companies liable for what their users post.

"Technically, there's nothing illegal about it," said Bazzell. "But as soon as they [prostitutes and johns] engage for some type of service, that's illegal."

Officials with Craigslist.org could not be reached for comment, and a spokeswoman for the company did not return messages.

Law enforcement officials said they pursue online prostitution because the industry may be connected to other crimes, such as drug trafficking. But the online market has boomed in recent years, and law enforcement agencies concede that they can't go after every violation.

Instead, police will prioritize cases and try to make an impact with targeted, high-profile stings that might force prostitutes, pimps and johns out of their jurisdictions.

Police also will prioritize and focus on instances where they believe minors are being used in the online sex trade, said Detective Thomas Stack, who works in the vice section for the Montgomery County Department of Police.

Stack said the Washington metropolitan area is a busy area for online prostitution, with pimps and prostitutes flying in from other parts of the country and staying in hotels in Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia.

Last week, he arrested two women from Oakland, Calif., and one from Wooster, Ohio, who is already back on Craigslist.org and advertising in Virginia. Typically, people charged with prostitution offenses are released on their own recognizance or on low bail while they await trial.

"Apparently, the money is good here," Stack said. "They go where the money is good. They go where people are paying top dollar. There's a lot of disposable income down here."

According to charging documents filed in the recent Anne Arundel County cases, police detectives scouted the online ads on Craigslist.org and approached the women by calling the telephone numbers they provided.

The women were identified as Catherine J. Chrysler, 24, of Lisle, N.Y.; Kristina Lee Jenkins, 23, of Laurel; Bridgett Lee Robinson, 23, of Lothian; and Candace Laine Conn, 22, of Baltimore. Police said all four face prostitution and related charges.

In one case, a woman told an undercover county detective to meet her at a Hilton Garden Inn in Linthicum, near BWI. When the detective arrived, the woman called and told him to meet her at a nearby Extended Stay America. In the moments before her arrest, the detective wrote in charging documents, the woman boasted of making $500,000 over the past two years in "sales" and recounted a time in New York when a man paid $2,500 for a half-hour.

In another case, an undercover detective set up an appointment with one of the women at a Knights Inn near Fort Meade. While at the motel, police said, the suspect and another woman offered to have sex with the officer for $200. Both were arrested.

On the streets of inner-city Baltimore, the sex trade often takes more desperate turns and usually doesn't involve an Internet connection.

Jacqueline Robarge, director of Power Inside, a Baltimore-based advocacy and support group for women in prostitution, said that women in the city may engage in what she called "survival sex" - sex for housing, food or clothes - while coping with severe drug addiction or psychological trauma.

"A lot of them don't have a house, don't have a computer, and they're not walking around in high heels or have clothes to boost them up in the industry, let alone to survive," Robarge said.

She said she suspected that women were finding more safety in soliciting work online because they were not out walking the streets and were able to screen potential clients by phone.

"The reality is that it's probably a little safer than what people do out on the streets because they're not as desperate," Robarge said. But, she cautioned: "If a woman thinks she can do the sex trade easier or safer [online] and doesn't take into account the creeps on the Internet, that could be a problem."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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