First of two parts
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Prostitutes in this south-central section of Pennsylvania -- where interstates cross and johns and hookers connect for $40 sex -- knew the cost of doing business: $418.50.
A money order worked best in court. Have it ready, pay quickly, get back to work.
Many of the “workers” were teens, and nearly all came from 420 miles away: Toledo.
When it comes to prostitution in Harrisburg, said one FBI intelligence analyst, “Toledo is everywhere.”
Even in the punch line.
“That became a joke around here: Is everyone from Toledo a prostitute?” said Trooper David Olweiler, a state police intelligence officer.
In a 102-page indictment unsealed in December, the feds paint a violent picture of pimps and their most trusted prostitutes -- “bottom bitches” -- who routinely brutalized newer recruits.
Spelled out in court documents is much of the what, where, who, and why of the business.
But it takes a trip to Harrisburg to learn the “how” behind what investigators describe as a savvy and lucrative enterprise that trafficked in human misery.
It’s here, northeast of the city limits -- especially at a truck stop called the Gables -- that truckers stopped for gas and rest and, sometimes, for a few minutes with a young stranger in heels and panties.
“You could sit and watch girls run down the rows, run under the trucks, in all directions,” Trooper Olweiler said. “There were some nights out there it looked ridiculous.”
The truck stop was often jammed by late afternoon, especially “party row,” the dark far end of the parking lot notorious for “lot lizards.”
But for a truck stop that became one focus of “Innocence Lost,” a major federal inquiry into underage prostitution, The Gables is surprisingly small and homely.
On a stretch of roadway just off I-81 and surrounded by other, larger, better-lit truck stops, the Gables’ patch of asphalt ends at the edge of a woods -- convenient for hookers hiding from police.
If she ducked the cops enough, and enticed enough clients, a prostitute could end many nights $1,000 richer -- even with lots of competition.
“You could work the girls in shifts,” one former hooker said. “The money was just there.”
Out of “the game” for almost a year, this Toledo woman was known on the street as “Fire.” The daughter of a prostitute, Fire had been selling sex long before her string of arrests in the Harrisburg area.
And the $418.50 fine and court costs?
She shrugged. Shell it out and get back to the lot. There was plenty more.
“You could go back and double up, triple up what they took,” she said.
Now 25 years old, Fire was 16 when she began working as a prostitute. During her years in the sex trade, she said, she worked for four pimps, including Derek Maes.
Maes is sitting in a Pennsylvania jail today, awaiting trial next month on federal prostitution charges that could put the 41-year-old Toledoan away for life.
He knows the 102-page federal indictment names him and 13 other men as co-conspirators in a nationwide sex-trade ring. He knows investigators allege this ring traded and sold girls as young as 12 -- routinely beating them if they failed to follow orders or make enough money.
But Maes said federal prosecutors have it wrong. He’s no pimp, he said in phone interviews from the jail last week, he’s “a player.”
“Pimps do things like … lock the girls up in closets. I’m ‘finesseful,’ you know what I’m saying?”
Consider the case, he said, of Deric Willoughby, 40, who stands accused of locking two young girls inside his southwest Toledo home for several days, beating them and forcing them into prostitution.
“I’m not aggressive like that,” Maes said.
Maes was convicted of trafficking a prostitute in Memphis in 1991. He’s been accused at least three times of breaking women’s noses. But he insisted that he forced no one to do anything. “These girls, they love the game. They love the game, trust me. It’s the glamour, it’s the pimped-out ride. … It’s Snoop. It’s all of that. It’s not, ‘Bitch, what you want,’ and throw you in a trunk.”
Robert Scott, 44, agreed.
Convicted twice before of pimp-related charges involving minors, the Toledo man also awaits trial. Four others charged in the Harrisburg case, he said, are relatives: two sons, a cousin, and a nephew.
“The prosecutors are trying to make it like a bunch of us running around with candy in our pocket, going to parks and picking up little kids. It wasn’t like that at all -- period,” he said.
If the girls were forced or scared, Scott asked, why didn’t they call home? And when they were arrested, Scott added, why didn’t they ask police for help?
True enough, the girls didn’t, acknowledge police and court clerks in this working-class township of some 6,500 residents.
A court routine
In a nondescript strip mall office, West Hanover Township Magistrate Roy Bridges handles everything from wedding vows to murder charges. His three clerks set out candy on the front counter, and they and Judge Bridges, an avuncular man with a friendly smile, chatted with the girls they’d see again and again and again.
Even in some of the coldest weather, the judge said, “you should have seen how some of them were dressed. Sometimes troopers would wrap them up in one of those yellow blankets used to cover dead bodies.”
What was routine to the prostitutes was also routine to court staff.
“They’d already have their money orders made out to us,” Judge Bridges said.
Clerks made it their practice to wear latex gloves while handling cash and money orders. Prostitutes wearing lingerie and heels have precious few places to hide currency.
Of the more than 100 prostitutes identified in the Harrisburg investigation, about two dozen were underage, officials said. The youngest was 13.
That’s not surprising. Researchers and police alike say that 14 is the average age when minors enter the sex trade.
But law enforcement said it would be naive to believe that the young teens were willing participants, even though some of the girls may have offered aliases and fake Social Security numbers.
The federal indictment against the pimps reads like an inventory of brutality: beatings and robberies to keep hookers in check. But it wasn’t just at the hands of the pimps, Trooper Olweiler said. “What really started to push this was we had girls dumped. We had one dumped off the highway with a sock in her mouth.”
At least two died. One barely survived, he said.
“It’s not like they’re just getting slapped. These girls are getting violently abused,” said David Johnson, chief of the FBI’s Crimes Against Children unit.
Beyond that, maintaining control is a matter of psychological conditioning, especially for girls already fleeing homes of incest, battering, or even simple neglect, said Chip Burrus, the FBI’s acting assistant director of the criminal investigative division. “Normal,” he said, is a relative term.
“For them their normal day is servicing johns, and after a while, this just becomes [her] life, and [she] kind of accepts it …That’s what happened to a lot of these girls. They just become accustomed to that lifestyle.”
If they don’t adjust or try to escape, Mr. Burrus said, “the pimps say, ‘Okay you want to break away? I’ll kill your mom,’ or ‘I know you have a sister who’s 8, and I’ll go to her school, and I’ll rip her head off.’ ”
Trooper Olweiler spent long hours talking to the girls, piecing together a criminal case and trying to get inside the girls’ heads.
“A lot of these girls, you wouldn’t know they’re victims. They love to brag. You wouldn’t know they were in it against their will,” he said.
Mr. Burrus takes it one step further: “You can’t consent to be a prostitute at age 14. That’s just an impossibility.”
But Scott and other co-defendants argue that no one is forced into the business. And, as for brutality, Scott said:
“Have I ever hit a woman? Yeah, I hit a woman, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “You know why I hit her? Because she hit me. … My old man raised me. [He said if] you’re big enough to give a punch, you’re big enough to get a punch.”
And there are limits, he said, adding, “I didn’t beat them up like I would a man.”
Besides, Scott said, he’s not even a pimp. If anything, he’s in a partnership -- and partners are always free to change allegiance.
“She’s choosing the best investment for her money,” Scott said. “It’s like going to Smith Barney or any other firm that invests your money. You go to Merrill Lynch, and Merrill Lynch invests your money and you don’t make … money, you lose money. You go to Smith Barney, and Smith Barney makes you money. Who you gonna stay with?”
For all the money that changed hands at the Gables, the business drew little attention.
Certainly there were sporadic turf wars, robberies, and a fight or two at area motels. But for the most part, business stayed within truck cabs, said West Hanover Township manager Mike Rimer.
“It was this little island of activity,” he said. “It pretty much was contained in those areas, and you really never heard about it.”
Still, there are surprising ways to measure whether business is booming.
After Pennsylvania State Police began cracking down on the problem in 2004, money from court fines poured into the West Hanover Township coffers.
In 2003, the township collected $3,319 in “ordinance fines,” which included fines for prostitution or vandalism or trespassing. With undercover police working the Gables the following year, fines jumped almost tenfold, to $32,430, Mr. Rimer said.
These days, the Gables parking lot is newly lit, newly managed, and considerably quieter.
But for how long? From his state police barracks about a mile from the Gables, Trooper Olweiler considered the question.
“For a while, after the indictments came down -- even before -- it was pretty much cleared out,” he said. “For a long time, we didn’t see anybody. But one of our patrols came back the other day and said they’re back out there.”
Contact Robin Erb at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.
TOMORROW: Using college kids in a "bait and sting," one small town outside Harrisburg fights prostitution by badering johns and hookers.