Three weeks ago, someone faxed Columbus police a stack of online ads for escorts. Sgt. Bill Gasaway saw the ads, made a few calls, and hours later had two women in custody on prostitution charges.
“When it’s brought to our attention, we don’t just turn our heads,” said Capt. Gil Slouchick, head of the Columbus police’s Special Operations Unit. “We act on it.”
Police have conducted 12 online prostitution stings since early 2010, netting 21 arrests of people from Columbus to Idaho. In those stings, officers solicit women they believe are prostitutes. They typically meet them at a local hotel, make a sex-for-money deal and then arrest them.
An online sting is different from the pandering sting that happened in Columbus last month. In that sting, female officers posed as prostitutes and then police arrested 16 men they say propositioned the female officers for sex.
Many of the women snared in the online stings come from the Atlanta area, including three women netted February 2010 in the first sting. Those arrests grabbed headlines because the women accused of prostituting themselves were with a 15-year-old runaway, also an alleged prostitute.
The teen, later found to have fled a LaGrange, Ga., group home, had her case sent to Juvenile Court while the three adults faced charges including child molestation.
The child molestation charges were later dismissed by a grand jury.
The stings typically result in prostitution or solicitation charges -- misdemeanors that could put someone in jail for a year maximum, though most jail time for prostitutes in Columbus is less than three weeks.
In a September sting, two men were charged with pimping. Drugs have been found in some cases, though Slouchick said narcotics aren’t the only motivation.
“The motivation is what I think it’s been for thousands of years, which is money,” the captain said. “What they do with the money, I don’t know. With the street-level prostitutes, I think drugs are a factor.”
In most cases, the women are from out of state. Two have been from South Bend, Ind. One recent arrest was from Idaho.
“So what are they doing in Columbus, Georgia, online?” Slouchick asked. “We know why they’re here. They’re here prostituting. There’s got to be somewhat of a trend. They can’t stay anywhere too long, because they get busted. When we go out and bust one, everyone just seems to shut down. Nobody’s answering the telephone numbers.”
Slouchick’s division handles more than just prostitution. It deals with street-level narcotics, alcohol license compliance with business and clubs, and Alcoholic Beverage Control card checks. The priority his division puts on prostitution depends on what’s happening at any given time.
“It’s against the law,” Slouchick said. “When we get a complaint, (citizens) expect us to act on it and we do.”
Defense attorney Bill Mason, who represents a woman arrested at Sun Spa in April and charged with prostitution, said he didn’t realize prostitutes plied their trade online until he saw the arrests in the news.
“I thought, ‘We’re a big city now,’” Mason said. “I see it on TV all the time, but I never thought Columbus was a place where it could be successful. I don’t know if it’s successful.”
Eleven escort ads on an online classifieds website for Columbus were posted before noon Thursday. Twenty-one ads were posted for Wednesday.
Some ads state that any money exchanged is only for the time the escort spends with someone. Others are more explicit, stating specific dollar amounts and services provided.
Regardless of how people prostitute themselves, on the street or online, the penalty is the same.
Mason suggested the creation of a law that would penalize people for using the Internet to prostitute themselves. A similar law exists for those who use anything from a written letter to an email to sell drugs. Someone convicted of that law faces a maximum $30,000 fine and one to four years in prison. That’s in addition to any sentence for a drug conviction.
Suzanne Goddard, chief assistant solicitor with the Columbus Solicitor General’s Office, agrees with Mason about the need for another law.
“We do need to go a little farther with the charges,” she said. “It’s a little more involved. I think that the ones on the Internet, we do need to prosecute more aggressively.”
Goddard’s office handles misdemeanors for Columbus. About 200 cases come through her doors each week and, on average, two of those are prostitution.
She’s starting to see a rise in that number, which she attributes to the Internet.
“The ones that are doing this online here, people are bonding them out,” she said. “We never see them, or they have lawyers. They have a lot of support. It’s a bit more of a business.”