The sun is setting out the window of a dingy San Luis Obispo motel room strewn with snacks, cellphones and evidence bags — but the curtains are drawn shut. Seven cops are fixated on a television screen featuring blurred surveillance video of a couple in another room.
The police wait silently for the secret phrase.
“Happy birthday to me,” says the man in the video feed, when a female prostitute begins unzipping his shabby cargo pants. Three officers wearing bulletproof vests enter the room to detain her as the man, an undercover cop, slips away.
Thirteen men and 10 women were arrested this week for allegedly engaging in or soliciting acts of prostitution (both misdemeanors) during a three-night prostitution sting conducted by a joint team of officers from Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo police departments.
The sting was meant to discourage prostitutes and their clients from hooking up in local cities after two incidents of alleged violent rape, assault and robbery against prostitutes occurred in Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo hotels earlier this year, police say.
Held at a hotel in each city, the operation used a young female officer posing as a prostitute with an online sex dating profile, as well as a male decoy officer posing as a customer who found his dates on the same site, www.myredbook.com.
Ten of the men arrested were residents of San Luis Obispo County, while only three of the prostitutes were local. Most were cited and immediately released — unless evidence of another offense or existing warrants were identified.
To arrest a “John,” or a man soliciting sex, police must witness him verbally agree to a sex act and pay the money. To arrest a prostitute, that person must accept the money and initiate a lewd act by beginning to undress themselves or the decoy. The sting only targeted female prostitutes.
The Tribune does not typically release the names of people arrested for misdemeanors.
“People say prostitution is a victimless crime, and most of the time, it is — but we do this because there are men out there raping and beating prostitutes. And it’s a health issue. Some of the men we’ve caught are having sex with prostitutes, then going home to their wives,” said Sgt. Kurt Hixenbaugh of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, who led the operation.
Violence against prostitutes
Prostitutes have told local officers that their work is safer in San Luis Obispo County, where they are less likely to get robbed and can demand higher rates.
But that wasn’t true for the alleged victims of Gregory Arthur Erwin, who in January allegedly drew a gun to a prostitute’s head to force her to give him oral sex, then tied up, beat and robbed her, according to court documents and Pismo Beach police Detective Julie VanDusen.
In March, Erwin allegedly raped and robbed a prostitute in a San Luis Obispo hotel room, but she was able to get his license plate number as he fled, leading to his arrest.
Erwin is pending trial in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on 14 felony charges and several enhancements for allegedly using a firearm during the crimes.
The charges include three counts of rape by force, two counts of oral copulation by force, two counts of assault with intent to commit a felony first-degree burglary, a count each of first degree residential robbery and burglary, assault with a firearm and criminal threats.
Erwin has made statements that corroborate the victims’ reports, said Deputy District Attorney Dan Dow, who is prosecuting the case.
Erwin’s defense attorney, Jim Royer, declined to comment on the case, saying that he doesn’t think it’s proper to make statements that could potentially influence a jury.
Erwin faces life in prison if convicted.
While this week’s sting was partially in response to Erwin’s alleged crimes, Dow doesn’t believe the stings will prevent truly violent individuals from committing a crime.
And prostitutes and other illicit populations, such as immigrants without legal papers, are less likely to report violent crimes against them, police say.
“But these stings will help cut down on the demand,” Dow added. “There are people out there that are not violent, but they are directly supporting sexual exploitation, often of minors. If we can send a message to the Janes and Johns in the community that we will not tolerate prostitution and human trafficking and we can stop or slow the demand, then that is an excellent outcome of this sting,” he said. The effectiveness of such stings remains to be seen, however.
Two prostitutes arrested early in the sting were advertising themselves on www.myredbook.com, a common sex dating site, the very next day.
Stings have more of an effect on men soliciting sex than on the hookers, who depend on prostitution for income, police say.
“This is not going to have an impact unless it happens on a regular basis,” Hixenbaugh said. “But if you bust enough Johns, they are gonna be scared.”
The sting in action
Two Fresno sisters in their mid-20s, who call themselves “Cinnamon and Sugar,” were arrested Thursday evening after they showed up together for a date with the decoy.
Sugar, who also works part time for the federal government, said prostitution is easy money.
“One day I needed some money, and some guy paid me $300 to rub my toes. I thought, this is so (expletive) simple,” she said.
But the money is only good when they don’t get robbed, which can be often.
Cinnamon, who admitted to also being raped, held out her tattooed arm to reveal a scar where a customer cut her to force return of his payment.
Sugar said, “I was a crack baby. Most of the girls that do this, they have been raped as a child. They’ve been in foster care their whole lives. They are runaways with no family.”
One of the men arrested, a 20-year-old with bloodshot eyes, was detained less than a minute after entering the decoy’s room. Police found a picture of his girlfriend as the home screen on his cellphone.
Another man negotiated with the female decoy, who asked $120 for an hour. He said he only had $55, and wanted a “quickie.”
Another John told police that he was there only because “I am just trying to feed these girls.”
One of the final arrests of the sting was a 20-year-old woman in tight flowery leggings who told the police she’s addicted to energy drinks, because of all the driving she does.
She rents a car each week and drives around the state hooking, sleeping in hotel rooms each night.
“That’s not normal,” an officer said.
“For you, this (sting) is normal,” she retorted. “Everybody is different.”
When asked by The Tribune if she has been a victim of robbery or rape, she replied with an easy directness, as if sharing her birthday or address.
“Yeah, but I don’t stress off it,” she said.