Rapist used in police prostitution sting

April 09, 1992|By Peter Lewis | Peter Lewis,Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- As part of an undercover sting operation three years ago, the Des Moines, Wash., Police Department hired a convicted rapist to have sex with women suspected of being prostitutes, the police chief has acknowledged.

The rapist, police informer Robert Berdue, was authorized not only to get an agreement to have sex for money but to engage in sexual acts, which he did, according to court records and Martin Pratt, police chief in this suburb south of Seattle.

Critics of the ploy include defense attorneys, prosecutors and rape-relief counselors.

"I think it's probably the most outrageous investigative technique that I've encountered in my 20 years of practice by a police agency," said Seattle defense attorney David Leen, who represented one of the women arrested in the sting.

"What it does essentially is involve the government in greater criminal participation than the people they're trying to apprehend. . . . I think there's incredible risk for government being exposed to liability if this guy brutalizes an innocent victim," he said.

Chief Pratt, 46, acknowledged that some people might be offended by what the department had done. But, given the same circumstances, he said he'd do it again to keep his town free from organized prostitution.

"I'm willing to take the heat," said Chief Pratt, who has been chief since 1975.

Mr. Berdue, 29, who has had various brushes with the law in addition to the rape conviction, has been an informer for several local and federal police agencies. He was last reported in jail in Oregon, where he was being held on $100,000 bail on charges of forgery and theft recently filed in King County.

Chief Pratt said he authorized using Mr. Berdue after plainclothes Des Moines officers were unsuccessful.

Starting in April 1989, Mr. Berdue was sent undercover to the Body Care Center, a massage parlor police suspected was operating as a house of prostitution. The city eventually revoked the Body Care Center's business license, and several women were charged with prostitution in Des Moines Municipal Court.

Records show the charges were dismissed in all but one case, in which a woman who didn't get a defense attorney was sentenced to three days in jail.

Chief Pratt said that it never crossed his mind that Mr. Berdue might rape the targets of the sting. The chief couldn't recall whether Mr. Berdue was told to take precautions against spreading or contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

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