Prostitutes' help sought in solving violent crimes Women often witness or are victims of sexual, other assaults

Patterns sought in attacks

November 15, 1998|By Devon Spurgeon | Devon Spurgeon,SUN STAFF

Handcuffed in the police Winnebago, Polly saw the face.

Inside a three-ring binder the police gave her was a photo of the man she said had paid her for sex last November, then beat her unconscious and dragged her behind a trash bin in Southeast Baltimore. A stranger found her, one eye out of its socket, bones in her face broken.

Polly, 38, who has been turning tricks for 19 years and uses heroin, never called police. But when she got busted for the fourth time for prostitution recently, what she knew about that near-fatal fall attack became a bargaining chip to keep her out of jail.

In a crime-fighting push other departments around the country are monitoring, Baltimore police have begun recruiting prostitutes such as Polly to help hunt down violent criminals. Since April, police interrogations of prostitutes have yielded two witnesses to homicides and firsthand information about 15 killings.

More than 60 of the nearly 150 women interviewed by police reported at least one incident in which they were raped or sexually assaulted by a customer.

"Prostitutes are people on the street at all hours in areas where murders are occurring," said Lt. Barry Baker of the department's Southern District, who pioneered the program. "They know what is happening."

Many times it is happening to them.

"It is our belief that the violent, recidivist sex offender uses prostitutes as his own laboratory to safely practice his methods of domination," said Baker.

"We believe that while the offender may be attracted to a prostitute for various reasons, including minimal chance of arrest and prosecution, any woman can and does become his victim."

Put more simply, all rapists are potential serial rapists who frequently hone their skills on prostitutes before moving on to other women, he said. If police can solve crimes against prostitutes, they can put the offender behind bars before he attacks a neighbor or the stranger coming out of the grocery store.

Like Polly, prostitutes rarely report such attacks, fearing they will be arrested or not taken seriously.

The Sun agreed not to use Polly's last name at the request of police, who are looking for the man she identified and fear for her safety. She and other prostitutes who are unidentified in this article are police informants who need protection, police say.

Baker recalled a case last November in which a man abducted a woman leaving work at Northrop Grumman Corp. near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He bound her with duct tape and shot her 11 times as she tried to escape from his car.

She survived, and Norman Lindsey Mayes, 21, is awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping, attempted first-degree murder and assault.

Police also suspect Mayes in another case two days earlier, in which a prostitute was shot in the buttocks when she tried to get out of a car. If she had reported the attack, police say, they might have been able to find her assailant before the other woman was shot.

With funding from the William T. Baker Foundation, Baker and Jeffry Senese, a University of Baltimore professor, developed a questionnaire for prostitutes that asks them about crimes against them or ones they have witnessed, such as: Did he tie you up? Did he pull your hair? Did he kiss your mouth?

Such details, entered into a database, allow police to match seemingly unrelated crimes. Detectives can run the words a rapist utters during an attack, or what type of underwear he wore, through the database to come up with suspects. For example, all rapes committed by a man wearing blue boxer shorts could be grouped together.

Baker began the program after spending three years arresting prostitutes in the Southern District. When he arrived at the station on Cherry Hill Road in 1994, "the prostitutes were as thick as flies," he recalled.

"I got letters from men asking us to do something about it because their wives couldn't walk around without being asked, 'Are you working tonight?' " he said.

Prostitution arrests by Baker's special enforcement division more than doubled the next year, from 208 in 1994 to 446 in 1995. And Baker came to believe that prostitution was not the victimless crime some say it is.

"I started realizing these girls are assaulted quite frequently, and when you are talking about rapes and beatings, it is a lot more than a victimless crime," said Baker, who has been on the force for 32 years.

Now, police treat the women as victims to gain their confidence and persuade them to cooperate.

Prostitutes make ideal witnesses for police because they are observant. An experienced prostitute peers through the window before stepping into a car, scanning under the seats for weapons, ropes or any other signs of danger. Once she gets in, she rummages through the glove box looking for the car's registration and flips on the radio to see what kind of music the man prefers. Such clues can be logged into the database.

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