Police say this customer is never right 'Operation Buyer Beware' nets alleged sex solicitors

September 30, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Officer Cynthia McCrea's first time selling sex was easy.

She peered into an open window of a white Lincoln Town Car at Calvert and Preston streets and struck a deal with the driver. Sex for $10.

Baltimore police officers pounced and arrested a young man -- the first of 30 busts in a crackdown on prostitution during the weekend and McCrea's first collar posing as a hooker. "It was easy," the police officer proudly said later.

The weekend Baltimore police sweep, dubbed "Operation Buyer Beware," netted an engineer for a prominent area company, a real estate agent and a downtown theater manager.

One man led officers on a three-block chase down the middle of a street waving his arms and yelling, "I didn't do anything" before being pinned by police at gunpoint. Another cried in the back of a squad car, "I'll never come here again."

Prostitution stings are nothing new in Baltimore. But despite thousands of arrests over the years, the problem continues. Neighborhoods seem overrun. Residents complain. The question looms: Is arresting men and women for this so-called "victimless crime" worth the effort?

"I don't like these cases because they generally focus on women who are, at best, unable to care for themselves in any other way," said District Administrative Judge Ellen T. Rinehardt.

"However, in a neighborhood, it affects the quaility of life," she said, "and I sympathize completely with those persons who want them out of there."

Judges prefer the roundup of male customers to female workers. Men, they say, are less likely to be repeat offenders. Most plead guilty.

"They are embarrassed in the courtroom," Rinehardt said. Added her colleague, District Judge H. Gary Bass: "Sometimes the greatest penalty is not what we do, but the fact of having to tell their wife."

For police, the threat of AIDS has made prostitution anything but a victimless crime. Officers think of themselves as protectors, not home-wreckers.

"It makes you wonder," said Officer Lori Marketti, a vice detective in Southeast Baltimore. "You see all walks of life doing it. You see the family man with pictures of wife and kids. He has a good job and a nice car.

"They see me: 'Hey, a clean looking girl. She's attractive.' But still, in that one day, how do they know who I've been with?"

Police get angry when people complain that they should find another crime to target. They quickly point out that most prostitutes use drugs, which attracts dealers to neighborhoods, which leads to blight and other crime.

The Central District station, which covers downtown and part of the west side, has 280 police officers. Only four work the vice unit, led by Sgt. Craig Gentile, who holds out hope that his efforts aren't futile. "Prostitutes are going to move," he said. "Then we will go to where they are and lock them up again. Then we will lock up the johns. Sooner or later, the light is going to click that they have to find another way."

Last year, police in Baltimore arrested more than 1,800 prostitutes and customers, most in the central, southern and southeastern parts of the city. Most walk away with probation or a small fine.

For police, the effort is worth it. On Friday and Saturday nights, they set up in the 1200 block of N. Calvert St., the 1800 block of N. Eutaw St., Collington and North avenues and the 800 block of Park Ave. All are areas where residents besieged police with complaints. One woman who lives on Eutaw Street paged Lt. John R. Bailey while he was watching McCrea work a corner and asked for more help.

Another woman said male drivers often honk their horns and slow down in front of her house, thinking she was one of the working girls. "I can't come out of my house," she said. "It gets offensive."

McCrea traded in her uniform for a short black skirt and a leather coat to become a "working girl" for the weekend. "It is definitely something different," she said. "I've been on the force for 10 years, and I've never done anything like this before."

The preoperation banter is light. "You do look cheap in that miniskirt," one officer joked. Another looked at McCrea and said: "Somebody in trouble tonight. Baltimore better watch out."

But posing as a hooker is dangerous work. Some men have strange ideas of what $10 can buy them. They want to be tied up, dominated or dressed in lingerie. They want to be hit. They pack guns and drugs.

Marketti recalls being stalked by a man who learned her work schedule and repeatedly drove by her on the street. When the man was arrested, he had a 14-inch butcher knife in the driver's door of his car and a loaded .380 handgun in his pants.

At other times, the job can be funny, such as when the pizza delivery man was arrested in the middle of a run or when the Brinks armored car driver stopped to pick up an undercover officer in his bulletproof truck.

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