Crime, punishment and redemption- Delaware’s sex trade, Part 5

Police in Delaware say it's changing its approach to tackling prostitution crimes. (AP photos: LM Otero and Scott Eisen)

Police in Delaware say it's changing its approach to tackling prostitution crimes. (AP photos: LM Otero and Scott Eisen)

For the past several months, WHYY’s Zoë Read has been interviewing experts about prostitution and sex trafficking in Delaware. WHYY will publish a chapter of the story each day of the week. To read the series from the beginning click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

 

Paying for Sex

“T” sits on a patio chair in the sun outside a rehab facility, and recalls a period when he spent his money on drugs and prostitution.

The former john, referred to as “T” to protect his identity, said he paid for sex in the 90s in the height of his drug addiction.

“I didn’t want to get into a relationship and I didn’t have the ability to talk to women,” he said.

“A lot of times I never degraded them. First I asked where to get the drugs. Then it was like, ‘You don’t have to do nothing if you don’t want to, but if you want to’—knowing they’re going to want to if they want more drugs.”

T, who’s addicted to crack cocaine, said he spent thousands of dollars.

“This was all in my active addiction,” he said. “When I was clean I realized that goes hand in hand. Realizing if I go out and [meet prostitutes] I’m going to use again.”

T said he eventually realized the fantasy as it played out in his head was unrealistic.

 “I always thought I could turn a trick into a housewife,” he said. “I always wanted to take the woman…and what’s that movie?”

Pretty Woman?

“I think that’s every man’s fantasy,” T said.

He said he understands people may not be able to wrap their head around the act of paying for sex.

“I think the average person would be like, ‘Wow, would you want anyone to do this to your sister, your daughter?’ Most people wouldn’t understand,” T said. “Today I just try to respect women.”

Another former john— “C” to protect his privacy—said he sought sexual services because his then-wife refused to perform certain sexual acts.

“Tricks do on the street what [johns’] wives don’t do at home,” said C, who was a heroin dealer.

“Did I have respect for a trick? No, I had no respect for a trick. We were all dope dealers, there was no respect for any women, that’s the mentality we had.”

Paying for “high-class call girls” eventually damaged his relationship with his wife, he said. C said in a three-year period he spent between $150,000 and $250,000 on escort services.

“We never did the whole find a crack whore on the street thing. I was selling dope, so your caliber as far as females goes up. I’m messing with girls who look unbelievably good. If I’m going to have sex for money I’m going to make sure it’s the best thing I’m having sex with,” he said.

“Nine times out of 10 we would go to Vegas, go to MGM Grand. That’s how dope dealers live. I only did high-price hoes.”

C said he never was abusive to the women he paid for sex, but said other men are.

 “I had a guy I had to cut off,” he said. “He liked to brand girls…we had to cut him off.”

While there is a lot of attention on the women involved in prostitution, the issue wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the men who use their services.

Purchasing sex is a misdemeanor, and an individual charged with patronizing a prostitute receives a $500 fine, according to Deputy Attorney General Abigail Layton.

Edwina Bell, the advocate who used to be involved in prostitution, said releasing the names and pictures of johns to the public has been successful at reducing these crimes because it embarrasses the men, and affects their jobs and personal relationships.

Yolanda Schlabach of Zoë Ministries said men should be educated on sex trafficking and the mistreatment of women in the life.

“You have to make the face in front of you someone’s daughter, your niece or your own daughter, because it’s somebody’s. Instead of projecting your own sexual fantasy on someone who doesn’t want to be there and is traumatized because of it,” Schlabach said.

“If you help them understand these women are traumatized by what is happening and being raped against their will, it may take out some of the fantasy.”

Delaware doesn’t have any sort of “john’s school,” like there are in other states. When men are arrested for patronizing a prostitute in states that have john’s schools they’re educated on sex trafficking and prostitution in an attempt to prevent them from doing it again.

Leon, the UD professor, said from a feminist perspective she takes issue with john’s schools not being as intense as prostitution courts.

“You pay a hefty fee and sometimes that hefty fee goes to prostitution courts and programs related to them, but that’s pretty much it in terms of obligations placed on you,” she said.

Leon also said there’s no real data on how effective the programs are. She said the men usually take exams at the beginning and end of the course to see how their attitude changes, but there’s no extensive research on what happens after they leave.

“They do show people’s attitudes shift. The problem is there hasn’t been extensive follow ups,” Leon said. “So as with every other content, on your last day of class you might be fresh on the information, but six months or a year later people tend to regress back where they were before.”

Domestic Trafficking

But perhaps more dangerous and urgent than johns are the pimps and traffickers—or so-called “boyfriends,” who act as the women’s pimps.

“A lot of times they don’t want to discuss the boyfriend because they’re afraid to lose their home, and if they’re still on drugs, their livelihood at that time,” said Jeffrey Sytsma-Sherman of TASC.

“And to be controlled by that person who’s feeding their addiction, she’s basically an animal, and it’s sad they can take control of the women like that.”

Bell said the number of women with pimps versus those without is about 50/50. She said some women already involved in prostitution seek out pimps because they believe they will be protected from potentially dangerous johns—but often it can do more harm than good.

“In their eyes it’s a form of protection, but at the same time there’s a lot of submission to have that kind of authority over you,” Bell said.

McDonough said she’s even witnessed some of that authority in her trafficking court.

“When I see someone reticent to talk and looking around the room for [her] so-called boyfriend, unless she’s incarcerated, I have her come up to sidebar on record and there’s a more open discussion,” she said.

“I think these women want so desperately for someone to care for them, so there’s wishful thinking that so-called boyfriend really cares. She disregards the evidence to the contrary.”

Schlabach said traffickers keep girls and women on the move so they can’t form relationships or escape, and use coercive strategies to keep them dependent on them. 

“If they need food, housing, clothing, money, that’s what they offer and lure them into a relationship,” she said.

“She learns she will do what she’s told even with or without the punishment. That complex trauma she’s dealing with, along with the drugs, keeps her from being able to create a decision-making process for herself that’s clear or responsible.”

Traffickers can face up to 15 years in prison if the victim is an adult, and up to 25 years in prison if the victim is a child, according to Layton. If a person traffics an individual from a homeless shelter and it’s a minor, the felony can be upgraded to life in prison. 

Until only a couple weeks ago, no one had been charged with trafficking in Delaware on the state level, but individuals had been charged federally, Layton said. One Delaware man accused of trafficking was recently found in Maryland, and faces federal charges for trafficking two girls.

“I think it’s difficult to find traffickers, unless the victim speaks out,” Layton said. 

Leon, the UD professor, said services offered by advocates like Schlabach that target trafficking survivors is important, but that Delaware’s services throughout the state should not be exclusive to  those who are trafficked.

“When we focus on trafficking we’re doing a number of things that undermine what we want to do,” she said. “When we focus on trafficking we have in mind an ideal victim, a vulnerable person who is completely coerced, completely helpless and needs us to swoop in and save them.”

Leon is releasing a book next year focusing on sex work and how trafficking laws effect other types of sex workers.

“There absolutely are people who have been trafficked that require us to shift the way we’re doing things,” she said.

“If we assume all prostitution and sex work is ultimately exploited, it makes it difficult to recognize the constrained choices and ability to seek help.”

International Trafficking; Delaware’s Illicit Massage Businesses

When a Dover sewer drain wasn’t functioning as it should two years ago, the City of Dover Public Works set out to unclog a sewer pipe malfunction.

What workers didn’t expect to find was a large number of used condoms blocking the sewer line.

The rubbery mess led investigators to Da Wang’s Bodyworks in Dover, which was offering more than  massage.

The business owner, Da Zhong Wang, owned several massage businesses in the state. Prior to the sewer incident women at several of his businesses had been arrested for prostitution after offering sex services to undercover troopers.

In 2015, Wang pled guilty to one count of permitting prostitution. In May of this year, the Department of Justice filed a civil suit against Wang for violation of racketeering laws for operating massage businesses in the state as fronts for prostitution.

Wang’s businesses aren’t the only establishments investigated in Delaware. There have been several civil cases, nuisance cases and arrests throughout the state—and many other illicit massage businesses still operate.

Law enforcement receives complaints about illicit massage businesses, and it also searches for them on Craigslist and Backpage, using key phrases like “skilled full body massage,” “new arrived Asian staff” and “4 hands massage,” according to the DOJ. 

 

The increase of illicit massage businesses in Delaware is unknown, but it’s suspected they began increasing in volume after Delaware removed “massage establishment” from the definition of an adult entertainment establishment in 2009, according to the DOJ.

Rochelle Keyhan of Polaris, a national organization dedicated to eradicating sex trafficking, said most of the women trafficked for illicit massage businesses are from China and Korea, but some are from Thailand and Vietnam.

They are smuggled into the U.S., often into Flushing in Queens, NY, on temporary work visas or tourist visas, she said. Keyhan said some are aware of what they’ll do in the U.S. while others are unaware of the details. The traffickers also are from the women’s’ home country, she said. 

Amanda Eckhardt is the director of programs for Restore NYC, a New York City organization dedicated to eliminating sex trafficking that provides housing and services to survivors, including those who have worked at illicit massage businesses.

Many of the women involved in illicit massage businesses that Restore has served have impoverished backgrounds with little to no education, Eckhardt said. Many of the women also have a history of domestic violence and divorce, she said.

“Many women think there’s opportunity in America and, ‘I can go to the U.S. and make money and escape abuse and harm in China and provide for my family,’” Eckhardt said.

She said the majority of women who work at illicit massage businesses weren’t involved in prostitution in Asia. However, some women have reported otherwise, Eckhardt said. One woman Restore served said she and the rest of her family were sold to men, she said. She was only 16 when she was sold, and reports being raped repeatedly, escaping and falling into the illicit massage business, Eckhardt said.

Members of Restore NYC, including Eckhardt, have entered many illicit massage businesses with law enforcement. Eckhardt said customers are required to call ahead to make an appointment. The blinds are often drawn, and customers, often regulars, must knock on the door before entering and the manager approves their admission, she said. 

While appointments may be necessary, in Delaware the businesses usually are located in strip malls, shopping centers and other mainstream retail areas, according to the DOJ.

Eckhardt said there’s usually a living room that’s not decorated, only filled with a mattress on the floor or futon couches, and the lighting is minimal. Rarely is there a professional massage bed in sight, she said. Sometimes the women wait in the living room, dressed in lingerie, Eckhardt said. There’s often a kitchen, particularly if the women live there, and seldom is the space clean, she said.

In Wang’s case, the women who worked for him were found sleeping on couches and mattresses in the back rooms of the businesses, according to the DOJ. 

The manager is typically a woman who speaks some English, or is fluent, while the rest of the women speak no English, Eckhardt said. She said Restore has witnessed mother-daughter pairings, or arrangements where the mother is an on-site cook and the daughter is the manager. The ages of the managers have ranged from late 20s to 50s, Eckhardt said.

She said the prices of services vary, but the most common charge is between $30 and $50 an hour—most of which goes to the house. Women usually only receive tips, which can range from nothing to $50, Eckhardt said. At Wang’s businesses, women charged $60 and gave $40 to Wang, according to the DOJ.

 

The women often have relative freedom in movement compared to those who work on the street or out of motels, Eckhardt said. However, managers and traffickers know the women don’t speak English or do not have legal documentation, so women rarely leave the premises, she said. If they are mobile they remain relatively close to the establishment, because they may not even know how to get around, Eckhardt said. 

She said customers are often violent if a woman doesn’t provide what he wants. While there have been some cases where the managers report incidents to police, that is rare, Eckhardt said.  

“More often a manager will place blame on the woman, ‘This is what you deserved,’ or make subtle comments like, ‘Well, if you’re not going to provide that someone else will, if you can’t do the work I’ll replace you,’ so there’s a threat of loss of job,” she said. 

“Seventy-five percent of the women are mothers and need the finances to support their families back home, especially children, so women will do whatever it takes to make the money.”

Eckhardt said it can be difficult for the women to open up to law enforcement.

“Many women report the law enforcement interactions being really traumatic. Law enforcement want women to cooperate, but there are some real difficulties. Some of that stems from abuse of power of law enforcement in her home country,” she said. 

“Things like stigma and shame, and of course language and cultural barriers, for the women we serve form China there’s some significant cultural barriers to disclosing information about their trafficking experience.”

Eckhardt said while most police officers want to help the women, there are reports of law enforcement abusing their power.

“There are cases where law enforcement are requiring sexual favors in order for her to be let go, or even if she does provide that she does still get arrested,” she said.

Dave Paules, the treasurer for the Gwinhurst Civic Association in Wilmington, said the working class residents around the Philadelphia Pike area are concerned about illicit massage businesses in the neighborhood.

“They’re open at midnight, or even beyond. They have a neon sign that says they’re open,” he said. “Who gets a massage at a legitimate place after midnight?”

Paules said community members are disappointed, because they feel local government ignores several issues in their neighborhood, including the illicit massage businesses.

“We’ve been overlooked by government. We have actual evidence of it. The massage parlors even being incorporated and being present and not being able to stop it before it spread to two, three, four, five massage parlors up Philadelphia Pike is evident,” he said.

“We would like to see the massage parlors that are legitimate stay in business. But we would like the police to take a more active role in preventing the further spread of criminal and organized crime in  the area. We would like to bring back a sense of pride to our area.”

State Rep. Bryon Short, D-Highland Woods, said he too is concerned about sex trafficking in Delaware and the several arrests made at illicit massage businesses.

“I knew there were massage parlors that did things illegal. I had no idea how many of them were in my area,” he said. “I thought of this as a big city issue. [Police] rattled off five that are in my district and explained to me they are all over the place.”

Short said he’s working with police, the Attorney General’s Office and social services to find a solution to the problem, and hopefully introduce legislation.

“My hope is we might be able to come up with a better way to address it and if it works here maybe other states will be able to copy what we’re doing,” he said. “My effort is to hopefully reduce the number of victims we have.”

This year the General Assembly declined to vote on a bill targeting the operators of these facilities. The legislation, sponsored by State. Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton, would have provided the Department of Health and Social Services the authority to provide for and regulate the sanitary control of massage parlors and centers.

Smyk, a retired Delaware State Police trooper, said sex trafficking will not decrease if police only arrest the women involved, because when they’re released, the fines are paid and the operation still continues.

“Getting rid of the problem, they need to go after the establishment,” he said.

“Once we start to target that establishment it’s going to be harder to hold that business. It’s going to be harder for that foothold in the community for which to rotate the human trafficking trade.”

Smyk said he believes the reason the bill fell through was due to misinterpretation.

“They thought this was some partisan attack to equate some national politics on the equivalence of Planned Parenthood. I took great offense to that and my reply was, ‘I don’t go outside the state and bring national politics into the Delaware,’” he said.

“The problem was I disappointed a whole bunch of people who have become aware of human trafficking, and they’ve dedicated their entire life to fighting human trafficking and bring awareness to it.”

Smyk said he plans to rewrite the bill and bring it back next year.

“[The state] recently apologized for slavery, which was a good step forward, and yet slavery is not done yet, and the new word for slavery is human trafficking,” he said.

Steve Getek, a retired investigator from the Department of Professional Regulations, frequently investigated massage businesses suspected of operating illegally, and said the establishments are a big enterprise.

Getek, who followed Wang for two years before his arrest, said the businesses are difficult to eradicate.

“You close one, another one’s going to open up. It may not be in the same place, but some are,” he said. “It’s almost like a pest you can’t eradicate.”

He said owners and massage workers are required to have licenses, but women who aren’t professional massage therapists can get licenses from mills in California—and there’s no way to check up on them.

Getek said there needs to be tighter regulations in Delaware that allow investigators to inspect the businesses, and believes the state should create a task force to tackle the issue.

“It seems it’s a low priority for law enforcement right now, it’s a misdemeanor. And in a roundabout way you can’t blame them,” he said.

“It needs to be a team effort between DPR, law enforcement, there needs to be more investigative work on everyone’s side involved in this team.”

Keyhan of Polaris said limited liability corporation laws also make it easy for the businesses to operate.

“The main trafficker is guaranteed anonymity by our corporate laws, and can exploit loopholes to not ever have their name or address publicly associated, or to use a registered agent so their name is nowhere on the paperwork,” she said. “So they can operate a business that involved human trafficking and get away with it because their name is not affiliated.”

Keyhan said the law enforcement approach in Delaware, or anywhere else, should be similar to attacking organized crime, following the ladder to the top of the food chain.

“A lot of times the person managing the massage business is trafficked herself. So if all we’re doing is arresting the women working the massage and the person managing them we’re not ending it,” she said. “The people who are moving the pieces on the chess board are just going to import more and traffic more women.”

The DOJ said the State revokes licenses of those operating illicit massage businesses, and when it has sufficient information to take action and shut down a business, it is doing so.

However, addressing the issue of illicit massage businesses is much more difficult than other forms of prostitution and sex trafficking, said DOJ spokesman Carl Kenefsky.

The existing framework for treating prostitution is focused on empowering victims enslaved by addiction and poverty,” he said in a statement. “The massage parlor victims tend to face additional hurdles, such as language barriers, an inability to adjust to an utterly alien society, and the threat of retaliation against their loved ones in their native countries.”

Layton said state and federal agencies are investigating these cases and thinking globally about how to put an end to trafficking, and educate others about the issue.

“I think people often think, ‘These are adults, why don’t they just get out of the life?’ But the reality is no one wakes up at 5 years old and says, ‘I want to be in the sex industry,’” she said. “Many of these women are in these not by design or by choice.”

Cracking Down On Crime

Bratz said the Delaware State Police is taking a proactive approach, using data analysis to highlight high-crime areas where prostitution and quality-of-life crimes are prevalent. 

Enforcement includes placing undercover troopers in these areas to solicit potential prostitution customers, he said. 

The department has a two-person crime car, which patrols these areas to apprehend any women soliciting for sex, plus loitering in the area for illegal activity, Bratz said. 

The department also is involved in an initiative with the New Castle County Police for prostitution enforcement on New Castle Avenue and DuPont Highway, he said.      

Schlabach said she believes law enforcement should change their approach to tackling prostitution, however.

“We have to start making that paradigm shift in our mind to say, ‘What 23-year-old chooses to be raped or bludgeoned if she doesn’t meet a quota every night? Or abused and tortured out of her own volition?’ And that’s what’s happening to these women,” she said.

Bell, who has been hired by the New Castle County Police to mentor individuals addicted to drugs and those involved in prostitution, said police are restricted.

“Their job is to identify them, lock them up, process them and let them go,” she said. “It’s frustrating to them as well, so a lot of times they really don’t know what to do.”

Tammie, who says she’s on a “first name basis with the cops,” said putting the women in jail is counterproductive.

“When you’re in jail you’re thinking, ‘Which john can I call to get out of jail? What dealer could I call to get me out of jail?’” she said.

A new approach

The law enforcement approach may be changing, however.

On Aug. 19, Delaware State Police arrested two men for trafficking, following an eight-month investigation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and the Ocean City Police Department.

Police say Rashawn Davis was running a prostitution ring out of numerous motels in Sussex County, and taught George Dunn how to operate another prostitution ring. They say more than eight females, whose ages have not been released, were current or former victims of the two men, who advertised their services on the Backpage website. 

Police say the men used coercion, verbal abuse and withholding heroin to control the victims. Dunn and Davis kept all proceeds, police say, and they only provided the victims minimal amounts of heroin, and basic items like fast food and clothing.

Both men were charged with various counts of human trafficking-sexual servitude. Police wouldn’t comment on the victims’ current location because the investigation is ongoing.

The case is the first of its kind in Delaware, making trafficking and investigations of trafficking a top priority. Bratz said the shift is due to the same 2014 human trafficking law that launched the Human Trafficking Coordinating Council, which also enables more aggressive investigation and prosecution of offenders.

Following those arrests, Delaware State Police arrested Marcus Smith, 32, of Wilmington on Sept. 3 for allegedly running a prostitution ring out of a Rehoboth Beach-area motel.

Police say Smith used coercion, verbal abuse and the withholding of heroin to control his victims. In similar fashion to the previous incident, all proceeds from sex services went to Smith, and the victims only were provided with heroin and basic items, such as food and clothing. 

Smith, who also has a young child, was charged with two counts of human trafficking – sexual servitude, and endangering the welfare of a child.

Delaware State Police Victim Services Unit secured temporary lodging for the two female victims, and the Division of Family Services was contacted for the 6-month-old girl, who was eventually turned over to a relative.

Bratz said Delaware State Police will pursue these types of investigations when they learn human trafficking is occurring.

The arrests also mean key data that advocates like Schlabach are missing could finally be available.

Schlabach said she was “ecstatic” when she heard about the arrests.

“This is more a discussion around the water cooler than it ever has been, and I’m thrilled this is the beginning of making headway in the state,” she said.

Shlabach said the question now is what services the state has to offer those eight victims. 

“If we don’t have something to offer them they will go back to what they know, because that’s what everybody does, that’s human nature,” she said.

Getting Out of the Life

Since WHYY began reporting on this issue several months ago, Tammie has bought a car and found four odd jobs in sales, waitressing, cleaning and landscaping. She said she’s happier than ever, but said she will be more happy when she owns her own home.

Tammie was on good terms with four of her children and their own kids, but her youngest son refused to talk to her. She said she hopes she will reunite with him and his children.

Tammie said she also wants to counsel other women who face the same challenges she overcame.

“I just want to help somebody,” she said. “I mean, God spared my life for some reason.” 

Erica said she has dreams to get her GED and go to college, and eventually get out of the life. 

“I’m just getting to the point I hope I can find someone who can help me and I can get myself together and get my life together and get a better life,” she said. “I just want to become a better person, put that old lifestyle to rest before it’s too late.”

Erica, who is phoneless, has not reached out to WHYY since the Spring. Bell said she has seen her twice since their first meeting. She said she’s still involved in sex work, but now in multiple states, and still is homeless. Bell said Erica doesn’t feel ready to take the big leap quite yet.

Bell said individuals can overcome their challenges when they learn other people can’t fill the void inside their soul.

“Every one of us—john, pimp, prostitute—is looking for something,” she said. “I think as long as we look for things in people to fill the void, those things will always fail us.”

Bell said whether it’s a sex trafficking victim, a woman on her own working the streets or an escort earning $10,000 a weekend, they all have one thing in common.

“I bet each and every one of us have that night when we cry on our pillow” she said. “That yearning to love and be loved is so strong that we want to cover it up because it’s out of reach for us.”

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