Baltimore police said they recently closed a "well-organized house of prostitution" in Upper Fells Point and a related residence in Butchers Hill, a community of well-kept rowhouses and close-knit residents. City prosecutors say it is apparently a case of human trafficking, involving Mexican women who arrived in Durham, N.C., and were transported to Baltimore to work as prostitutes.
The rare city-level case, which moved this week to Baltimore Circuit Court, exposes a flourishing underground world of human sex trafficking that is often overlooked in a city with daily exposure to more conspicuous crimes such as robbery and gun violence, said Assistant State's Attorney Joyce Lombardi.
"This kind of thing is hidden so well in the fabric of a neighborhood," said Lombardi, who helped form the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force last year. "The ringleaders are smart. They pick up and move to a new house when they're detected, so they are extremely hard to catch."
Sterling Clifford, a police spokesman, said that while "the vast majority of our prostitution issues, like many other issues, are local and drug-related," police have found other prostitution set-ups similar to the one in East Baltimore.
This police investigation culminated last month in a raid on a two-story Formstone rowhouse on South Collington Avenue and the arrests of the suspected pimp, Carlos Silot, 39, and two suspected prostitutes, Reina Lopez, 35, and Virginia Martinez, 31. The women said they are sisters and listed a Durham apartment as their address. Silot's address, on East Lombard Street, also was associated with the sex ring, said authorities, who believe the prostitutes lived there while in Baltimore.
Court documents say the women in the prostitution ring were paid $15 per customer - Lopez and Martinez had 19 apiece on the day of the arrests - worked seven days in a row and then were returned to Durham and exchanged for new sex workers.
Customers were charged $30, court documents say, and the Collington location was advertised on fliers distributed to Hispanic men in the Patterson Park area.
The charges, prostitution and pandering, are misdemeanors. Silot, Lopez and Martinez posted small bails late last month and are scheduled for a court hearing in November. None of them could be found yesterday. Authorities said they were unsure of their immigration status.
The suspected brothel and Silot's residence, both rentals, operated in a part of East Baltimore near Patterson Park that has recently renovated rowhouses, trendy restaurants and a fast-growing Hispanic community centered on Eastern Avenue and Broadway. Butchers Hill bills itself "Baltimore's friendliest neighborhood."
The place on Collington, just south of Butchers Hill in Upper Fells Point, is a half-block from Salt, a "new American tavern" acclaimed for its food and atmosphere. Across the street, a brick-front rowhouse with Brazilian walnut floors, stainless steel kitchen appliances and a roof deck with a water view is listed for sale at $635,000.
Barry Glassman, president of the Butchers Hill Community Association, called his neighborhood relatively quiet and trouble-free. The street-level prostitution that dogged Patterson Park for many years has been "totally alleviated" on the Butchers Hill side, Glassman said.
Neighbors alerted police to suspicions about the houses. Charging documents in the case say that the stream of Hispanic men coming and going at the Collington address "had drawn the attention of numerous neighbors and members of the Butchers Hill Community Association who had lodged countless complaints about the activity in this home."
Glassman said he saw "lots of coming and going" behind the Lombard house. "That confirmed what to then had been an unfounded rumor," he said.
It's unclear how long prostitution might have been going on. Glassman said he made his observation about three months before the arrests. Meanwhile, police apparently built an investigation - something Lombardi said "takes a lot of time and resources."
She said rumors swirl about brothels throughout Baltimore. Sometimes, she said, local teenagers are lured into prostitution by their boyfriends. Other times foreign women - Mexicans, Koreans, Ukrainians are among the groups Lombardi said she has heard about - become part of the city's sex trade. Police statistics on the extent of the problem are limited.
"This is all literally happening right under our noses," said Sidney Ford, who runs You Are Never Alone, a Baltimore prostitution outreach and awareness group.
Landlords for the two properties, who live in Owings Mills and Patterson Park, according to property records, could not be reached yesterday. Glassman said he has spoken with the owner of the Lombard house, who "assured us this has been brought to a halt."
Just before the Sept. 25 search of the Collington address, an undercover detective went to the door. Silot answered, documents state, and said, "Business is closed. The girls are tired."