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Internet Helps Prostitution Thrive

Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal

Around noon Wednesday on Central Avenue, the sun was burning and the tired-looking woman — we’ll call her “Lou” — had just fallen for the classic police prostitution sting.

Lou got in a pickup truck with an undercover Albuquerque vice detective. As other undercover detectives trailed behind, the detective in the pickup tried to set up what police call a “date,” or a formal deal, to exchange money for sex.

The moment Lou agreed to a deal, the detective signaled to his colleagues, who surrounded his pickup. The detective pulled over, and Lou was soon placed in cuffs.

At 38, Lou looked more like a modest house-cleaner than a prostitute: She wore black pants, a white button-up shirt and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

Though an admittedly longtime prostitute in the city, with a rap sheet to prove it, she did not fit the stereotype of  the high-heeled, skin-showing streetwalker flaunting her assets.

Neither did the 17-year-old girl called “Kate,” whom police picked up a few weeks ago in a different sting — this one involving the Internet.

A detective answered an ad on backpage.com, the site police say is most commonly used by prostitutes seeking johns. The pimp who had been spotted leaving her hotel room was eventually arrested.

On the street or on the Internet, the sex trade continues to thrive in Albuquerque, according to police.

And the recent arrests of two high-profile community leaders have brought it into the spotlight.

Neither case involved the infamous “Track” — the area of East Central between Eubank and San Mateo that has long been the haunt of  street-walking prostitutes.

Instead, the prostitutes that now-retired state District Judge Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch and former University of New Mexico President F. Chris Garcia are accused of doing business with — as a customer in Murdoch’s case and as an operator of a ring in Garcia’s — come from the World Wide Web.

“We’ve seen an explosion of prostitution on the Internet,” Sgt. Matt Thompson said, adding, “We’re just seeing more prostitution in general.”

Hundreds of arrests

The Albuquerque Police Department’s vice unit, usually composed of three detectives, made about 450 prostitution-related arrests last year and has made about 200 so far this year.

That includes prostitutes, pimps and johns.

Roughly 100 or so “johns” — individuals who solicit prostitutes — are charged each year.

Thompson said vice tries to focus on johns as much as prostitutes, but there are discrepancies between how each are treated once in the legal system.

For example, it’s extremely rare for a john to serve any time other than immediately after the arrest. So rare, Thompson said, that he’s never seen a john be sentenced to any jail time. The men usually have to pay fines of about $100 and court costs.

Prostitutes can be sentenced from a few days to several months, depending on their prior criminal record.

While police don’t have a breakdown of  how many of those involved use of the Internet, Thompson, who heads the vice unit, said advertising services on the Internet is becoming the more prevalent method of selling sex.

For example, a daylong sting on Central might result in 10 arrests, according to Thompson.

Compare that to the 20 to 30 new women who appear each day on backpage.com.

Data for prostitution-related misdemeanors handled in Metro Court have ranged widely in the past decade, but, every year, there are between 300 and 500 cases.

The number has dropped in recent years.

However, the number of arrests the vice unit makes isn’t always tied to what detectives see on a daily basis. For example, an operation to arrest an Internet prostitute takes considerably more time than an operation to arrest one found walking the street, Thompson said.

And resources for tackling prostitution cases have dropped.

Southwest Companions

This year, detectives have spent a majority of their time investigating all aspects of Southwest Companions, the online prostitution ring that led to the charges against Garcia. Only a handful of arrests have been made in that case, but police expect many others.

Garcia is a respected professor and political analyst who served as president of UNM in 2002 and 2003.

He faces charges of promoting prostitution, conspiracy and tampering with evidence, and is accused of acting as moderator and helping to run “Southwest Companions,” a secret website used to set men up with prostitutes while avoiding law enforcement.

“Southwest Companions” has been the unit’s biggest bust in years, Thompson said. The monthslong, meticulous investigation is ongoing, but police believe thousands of men used the site to find prostitutes.

One reason police can’t estimate the number of prostitutes working in Albuquerque is that many of them are transients.

But police are increasingly coming across younger, more vulnerable girls often tricked into prostitution by pimps who find them online at social networking sites.

A majority of girls who are online-based have pimps, and most of the pimps find them by answering their ads, Thompson said.

Detectives recently came across a classic example of how online prostitution works in Albuquerque:

A detective trolling backpage.com saw an ad featuring a girl who appeared to be a minor, according to a criminal complaint. An undercover detective contacted her and met her at the Ambassador Inn on Candelaria near Interstate 25, the complaint states.

When the detective arrived, he spotted a man leaving the girl’s hotel room. The detective continued to the room, where he solicited sex from the girl. The two made their date official — $180 for an hour of sex — and the detective signaled his colleagues to make the arrest for prostitution.

The girl, who used the pseudonym “Kate,” turned out to be 17 years old. The girl would not name the man who was initially spotted leaving her room, but it turned out to be her pimp, Dante McKay, police say.

McKay had driven the girl to the hotel, police said.  He was arrested and charged with promoting prostitution, human trafficking and tampering with evidence.

Murdoch allegations

When a vice detective two weeks ago interviewed a prostitute shown in a video having sex with Judge Murdoch, the detective, not the prostitute, alleged that the prostitute had been raped.

Murdoch, the top criminal court judge in Albuquerque for many years, has denied any wrongdoing. One of his attorneys said Murdoch was “confident that he will be vindicated once the issues surrounding this case are fully examined and decided.” The judge stepped down from the bench after 26 years on Friday.

The rape investigation began on July 18,when a confidential informant told detectives about a video of Murdoch having sex with a prostitute, according to a criminal complaint.

APD — through the informant — purchased the video for $400.
The woman, who is from Arizona and was in Albuquerque temporarily, later told police she had been solicited by Murdoch on backpage.com and went to his house about eight times.

She told police that, during their first encounter, Murdoch insisted on performing oral sex without her consent.

Police have charged him with rape and intimidating a witness. The prostitute is under investigation in connection with extortion because police believe she might have been trying to sell the video.



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