Hook, Line and Sinker

Lonely Avenue


Giving the hook to hookers: Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Rich McComber arrests a suspected prostitute on Santa Rosa Avenue, one of several busts in a six-month sweep meant to serve notice to the local skin trade.

From the whorehouses of Wikiup to the car dates on Santa Rosa Avenue, sex, drugs, and despair are a dead end

By Greg Cahill

BETH SOBS SOFTLY in the sun-drenched parking lot, sniffing back tears and twisting her wrists in a vain attempt to loosen the tight steel handcuffs gripping her soiled wrists. “I’m scared,” she says in a slurred, unsteady voice. “I’ve never been to a jail that big.”

“A jail that big? Well, it’s a pretty nice jail,” offers Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Griffin McKay, looking up momentarily from the paperwork strewn across the hood of a sheriff’s patrol car in the empty parking lot that serves as a makeshift office during the department’s prostitution busts on Santa Rosa Avenue. “I mean, if you’ve got to go to jail, that’s a good one to go to.”

“Well, oh gawd!” she protests, stunned by his light-hearted effort to soften the blow of her arrest.

“Hey,” Sheriff’s Detective Rich York injects dryly, “the next time we stop you we’ll ask where you want to do your time.”

Beth’s arrest is part of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department’s ongoing six-month sweep of prostitutes and their customers in the area.

It’s 12:40 on a warm spring afternoon on Santa Rosa Avenue, the nearly four-mile stretch that runs south from Luther Burbank’s old digs to Highway 101 near Rohnert Park. That busy main street is home to a string of shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, cheap motels, low-rent trailer parks, used-car lots, and a lion’s share of the local sex industry. In the dark underbelly of the avenue–where the lonely seek the desperate with often tragic results–nobody is having a good time, whether you glimpse the action from the perspective of the cops, hookers, residents or AIDS workers who are trying to curtail the danger of the skin trade.

The Case for Legalization

For Beth–a short, squat, haggard-looking 32-year-old with dirty blonde hair and badly rotting teeth–the bust is the latest jolt in what clearly has been a very hard road. She is clad in a faded brown leather bomber jacket, low-cut T-shirt, filthy black stretch pants, and tattered cloth slippers.

“Like you can see, she’s not a real beauty, like Lady in Red,” whispers McKay, noting the stark contrast between local street walkers and the glamorous image of the oldest profession as portrayed in the movies.

“These aren’t Hollywood hookers.”

For seven years, Beth has used heroin, spending $200 to $300 a day on the powerful narcotic. Three years ago, she started working the mean streets along Eureka’s waterfront “and doing whatever else” she had to do to support her habit. She has lost custody of her three children. More recently, Beth claims, she has been trying to turn her life around. For the past three months, she has received methadone–a potent but legal synthetic substitute for heroin–at a local drug rehab clinic, where she is trying to kick her habit.

But the streets have taken a toll. “I’m tired of this lifestyle,” she says wearily as detectives process her arrest papers. “I’m tired of spending all the money on drugs. I want to have money to spend on other things.”

This is the first time in a week that she’s turned a trick, Beth adds. “I just had to have money to pay for my motel today. In two days I’ll get the rest of my SSI [Supplemental Security Income], so I won’t have to come out here. I just don’t want to do this anymore.

“I mean, it’s a nightmare.”

A few weeks ago, Beth was robbed, roughed up, and raped–a fate she shares with many of the women who sell sex along Santa Rosa Avenue. “He picked me up near here and drove me out toward Rohnert Park,” she recalls of her attacker. “He held a knife to my throat.”

Now she’s facing jail time and an uncertain future. “I’m scared,” she sobs. “I’m afraid they’ll make me detox overnight. I don’t think I can handle that.”

IN JANUARY, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department launched this ambitious sweep after residents and owners of small businesses along Santa Rosa Avenue complained that local hookers had become increasingly blatant in their activity during the past two years.

Those who live and work in the area–some of whom say that the county has “dumped” a lot of the sex industry on their doorsteps because of the presence of the Santa Rosa Adult Book and Video Store and Everybody’s Talking topless bar–report finding used condoms and dirty syringes in yards, along sidewalks, and in used-car lots. And men searching for streetwalkers routinely solicit sex from teenage girls who live in the area and walk to bus stops on their way to school.

And then there’s the corollary crime that swirls around Santa Rosa’s seedy sex trade. Many of the prostitutes are heroin or methamphetamine addicts and have been known to rip off their customers. But more commonly it is the hooker who is the victim of violence. Last year, one Santa Rosa prostitute was stripped, raped, and beaten badly by an armed assailant who had taken her to the southern end of the avenue and held her at gunpoint. She escaped only after a sheriff’s deputy chanced upon the scene.

“There’s no need for residents to be subjected to this kind of behavior,” says McKay, who heads the Sheriff’s Department’s vice unit. “I know I wouldn’t tolerate it in my neighborhood, and there’s no reason why these folks should have to accept it just because they live in an economically disadvantaged area.”

Between noon and 1 p.m. is the busiest time for prostitutes to service men searching for “car dates” during the lunch hour. In recent weeks, undercover deputies have stepped up arrests of suspected hookers and nabbed a couple of dozen johns–their customers. Most of those johns–ranging in age from 26 to 75 and including a local high school teacher–have been netted in three stings that used female deputies posing as hookers. The most recent decoy operation on May 15–a rainy spring day–led to 12 arrests, including a 32-year-old state parolee who also offered drugs to the female deputy. The rest of the men were charged with soliciting for sex–a simple misdemeanor–and booked at Sonoma County Jail on $1,000 bail.

But not all the action is on the street. Several suspected hookers and at least 20 johns have been arrested since January at a handful of Santa Rosa-area massage parlors that Sheriff’s Department detectives say serve as fronts for prostitution. One of those alleged brothels, the Larkfield Massage Parlor in the Wikiup area just south of the Windsor city limits, has closed as a result of the busts.

While there are many legitimate therapeutic massage parlors in the county, sheriff’s officials say, several are operating in flagrant disregard of the law. “Our goal is to identify the ones that are nothing more than brothels and to close them,” McKay says.

Three local massage parlors remain under investigation.

“In the last three weeks, I’ve obtained evidence that a person who is a minister at a local Baptist church was in one of the whorehouses. In fact, he gave me a signed confession to that effect, which I have in my file,” adds McKay, who offers immunity to massage parlor customers in exchange for a statement that can be used to put pressure on landlords who could lose their property under red-light abatement laws unless they help to evict the massage parlor operator. “We’ve also arrested a doctor,” McKay adds. “It’s incredible! A physician, of all people. It runs the entire spectrum. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.

“Everyone’s doing it.”

THE LOCAL SKIN TRADE is not a new phenomenon, of course–nor is it restricted to the county’s jurisdiction. But most of the activity in municipal areas takes place out of sight, either in massage parlors or in private homes used for in-call or out-call services.

In the early ’80s, sheriff’s detectives busted several massage parlors in unincorporated parts of Santa Rosa. “One of them, Michiko’s, was darn near an institution,” says McKay, who made the establishment his first target after joining the department’s vice unit. “We managed to close that one down, along with Body Awareness on Santa Rosa Avenue and another in a residence in the Wikiup area.

“So this most recent activity is sort of a resurgence, or maybe it’s just a problem that slipped through the cracks and we lost sight of it. But it’s reached a real crescendo right now and we have to start enforcing the laws. We’re getting a lot of complaints and the women are rubbing our noses in it.

“They’re real blatant.”

McKay believes the sweep is having an impact. “I go up and down the avenue every day looking to see what’s happening, and it’s not nearly as prevalent as it was three months ago,” says the soft-spoken ex-Marine who cruises the avenue in an unmarked late-model luxury car that–along with his stylish haircut, wine-colored polo shirt, and casual slacks–makes him look more like a middle-class businessman than a seasoned cop. “Then it wasn’t difficult at all to find a prostitute on the avenue; you could do it with your eyes closed. But right now you have to really look close. I’d say we’ve been successful.

“The word has gotten out.”

Several weeks ago, McKay had stopped Beth during one the first sweeps. He chose not to arrest her, but did issue a stern warning that she is “persona non grata and should get off my avenue.” Beth decided to move her action just inside the Santa Rosa city limits, thinking she was immune to arrest by the Sheriff’s Department. Wrong.

“She told me about the cop [McKay] that she’d just seen,” laughs York, a tough-talking undercover detective who frequently patrols the avenue. “I told her she had me nervous and asked if she were a cop or something. She said, ‘Heck, no!’ and reached over and grabbed my crotch and squeezed it. She said she had a place at Motel 6 in Coddingtown. She asked what I wanted. I told her a half-and-half [oral and vaginal sex]. She said it would cost 40 bucks. I asked her what else she was selling. She said, ‘Well, I’ll give you a blow job for 25 bucks.’ That’s it.”

The detectives finally charge Beth with two misdemeanor counts of solicitation for sex and committing a lewd act. They leave her in custody with Sheriff’s Deputy Andrea Salas while McKay, York, and a uniformed patrol officer, Deputy Rich McComber, hit the avenue again in three sheriff’s units–two unmarked vehicles and one patrol car–to make another bust.

HERE’S HOW it works. An undercover detective–either McKay or York–pulls over in an unmarked car near a suspected hooker–preferably one he hasn’t arrested in the recent past and who won’t recognize him. The detective then tries to get the suspect to offer sex for money and to jump into the car. The second unmarked unit shadows that detective and reports the encounter by radio to McComber, who tails the undercover detective in a patrol car before pulling him over into an secluded parking lot on the pretense of issuing a traffic citation. Instead of approaching the driver, McComber walks over to the passenger side of the car and informs the suspect that she is being arrested for solicitation of sex.

McComber then handcuffs her, helps process the paperwork on the hood of his patrol car, and calls for a female deputy to take the suspect into custody at the county jail.

The whole procedure takes just 15 to 30 minutes.

“It’s a pretty safe way of doing things, and it doesn’t attract a lot of attention if we just make it look like a routine traffic stop,” says McKay, who honed his skills by helping the LAPD make busts on Sunset Strip. “It’s not a real brain-surgeon type of operation–anybody can get a prostitute to jump into a car with them.”

Back on the avenue, McComber–an easygoing, burly Vietnam vet with 24 years on the force–is monitoring radio reports from McKay and York while sharing stories about the street and comparing the attributes of heroin and crank users. “Heroin addicts are all open,” he muses. “It’s like they’ll chat with you about it like you’re talking to them about fishing or anything else. But the amphetamine users are a different story. They’re not very friendly.”

He estimates that there are between 20 to 30 women who turns tricks on the avenue at any given time. Most are at high risk for contracting–or infecting someone else with–the HIV virus, since many of the prostitutes are also intravenous drug users.

“I don’t know if these johns just don’t know that these women are IV drug users or if they just don’t care,” he ponders.

The mood is casual as McComber swings his patrol car northbound, heading toward the Santa Rosa city limits. But the relaxed, routine nature of the last bust soon gives way to a sense of danger when York radios that a suspected hooker has just waved after eyeballing him “hard and clean.” The woman, standing in front of Broiler Burger, is a broad-shouldered blond dressed in a purple leotard top and blue slacks. She has a winged-Pegasus tattoo on her right shoulder.

At first, McKay passes her by, radioing that she appears to be “too clean” to be a prostitute. But all that changes a moment later when the woman gestures toward York as he cruises past.

It’s been just five minutes since the detectives have resumed the action on avenue.

The units lose radio contact for a short spell. Then McKay comes on the air to report that York “has a date with the one I thought was too clean.” McComber chuckles that his supervisor had misread the woman’s appearance. McKay then reports that “something is going on. I’m not too sure what. [York has] walked back in the parking lot twice like they’re talking about something. She’s gesturing toward a male subject that’s sitting on the sidewalk.

“I’m not sure what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, McComber senses that the male subject has noticed his patrol car parked across the street from the burger joint, so he turns onto the avenue and drives south. “Something’s going on,” reports McKay, sounding concerned. “It’s not quite the way it usually goes.” He follows York’s vehicle as it swings southbound onto the avenue.

“Something’s going on with this one here,” he advises.

The atmosphere suddenly grows tense, since there’s always the possibility that the woman is armed and may be trying to rip off York or setting him up for a robbery. McComber punches the accelerator. His car lurches through the busy midday traffic and edges behind York’s car, red emergency lights beaming. The suspect glares angrily toward McComber as York swings into the parking lot of a local motel.

York slides out and steps to the back of his car, where McComber pretends to check York’s driver’s license. The two talk quietly for a moment and York tells McComber that the woman has solicited him and is offering to make a drug purchase. McComber gives York a feigned verbal warning before driving off, leaving York and the baffled woman at the motel parking lot.

McComber then radios the information to McKay, who is cruising nearby on the avenue. “He wants to play it out a little bit,” McComber reports. “I want you to keep an eye on him, OK?”

“Is it cool for me to approach the car and talk to him?” McKay asks over the radio.

“No, they’re still together. Just keep an eye on them and let me know where they go,” McComber says. “Let’s play it out for a minute until she’s ready to follow up,” McComber tells McKay.

McComber scans the avenue for York’s car. “The main thing right now is his safety,” he confides to the reporter, “because you never know what her trip is.”

York and the woman remain in the motel parking lot and talk for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, McKay radios for backup units to assist in surveillance in case the drug deal happens. When York drives past McComber and swings his car into the same secluded parking lot where the female deputy is waiting with Beth–still handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car–McComber and McKay agree that “things fell apart.”

They move in for the bust.

In the few seconds it takes for McComber to park his patrol car, York and Deputy Salas already have the blonde suspect handcuffed, informed of her rights, and ready for processing.

Tiffany, the suspected hooker, is 33 years old, agitated, high on crank, and reeking of booze. She banters with the detectives and explains that she works the avenue because the money is good. “I worked for Labor Ready [temporary job agency] for four hours housecleaning,” she offers. “I only made 20 bucks! You know, I ain’t trained for nothing. I didn’t never graduate. Here I go out on the avenue, a half hour later I’ve got $40 in my hand. One trick. Oral sex. And I always use a rubber. I promote safe sex and I promote safe use of IV drugs.

“I’m tested every three months at the homeless service center for AIDS.”

She’s been working the avenue for 15 months, Tiffany says, adding that she turned her first trick three years ago in Las Vegas. “It’s the same there. Small-time shit, you know,” she scoffs. Tiffany has lived in Santa Rosa off and on for the past 22 years. “I’ve been trying to get out of it,” she says of the sex trade. “And you know what? I had the feeling that this was coming down because you know when the axe is coming. Everybody knows.

“But I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to make this money anywhere else.”

She becomes quiet and reflective for a moment and then mutters, “This is a bad life, a bad, tough life. Here I stand in cuffs. And to tell you the truth, it’s almost a relief.”

Her mood shifts abruptly, however, when Tiffany hears York say that he’s filing an additional lewd act charge because Nicole flashed one of her breasts at him in the car.

“Fuck, I hate this,” she snarls, waiting for the detectives to finish their questioning.

For the past 18 months, Tiffany has been homeless–like many of the women on the avenue–living in a sleeping bag in vacant lots around Santa Rosa and turning tricks for extra cash. Once a week or so, she uses crank, but balks at the suggestion that she solicits money for drugs. “Hell, no, I ain’t no bag ‘ho!” she sneers when asked about her motives. “I don’t trade for that. I pay my bills. I’ve got a ring in hock. I have to pay for my hotel bills whenever I rent a room. It pays for my food. It pays for my liquor.

“Very seldom do I buy drugs.”

She squirms for a moment and then softens her tone as she tries to cajole York into loosening her cuffs. “I ain’t going nowhere,” she tells him.

“Just remember, these aren’t built for comfort,” York replies, adjusting the tension. “How’s that? If they get any looser I might as well just take ’em off and put ’em in my pocket.”

Nearby, McKay looks on stoically. “We’re making life uncomfortable for these prostitutes and letting them know that they’re not welcome here,” he says, listening to Tiffany complain that this is her first prostitution arrest.

“The problem on Santa Rosa Avenue isn’t as bad today as it was three or four months ago, and I hope that three of four months from now I can say the same. I mean, I’m not going to end this problem–it’s just not going to end–but I would like to cut it back.

“That’s all we’re asking for.”

From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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