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INV Johns20 decoys Authorities review tactics these prostitution decoys will use during a sting in Carlisle, Pa. The women, law-enforcement interns in Pennsylvania, are identifi ed only by numbers.
Authorities review tactics these prostitution decoys will use during a sting in Carlisle, Pa. The women, law-enforcement interns in Pennsylvania, are identifi ed only by numbers.
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Published: 3/20/2006

LOST YOUTH: TEENAGE SEX TRADE

Police stings curtail prostitution at Harrisburg-area truck stops

Alleged ring of Toledoans had flourished in Pennsylvania

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Second of two parts

A decoy prostitute trolls for business at a travel plaza along I-81 in Carlisle, Pa., as part of the 'bait-and-sting' operation.
A decoy prostitute trolls for business at a travel plaza along I-81 in Carlisle, Pa., as part of the 'bait-and-sting' operation.
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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- At a cluster of truck stops 20 miles southwest of here known as "The Miracle Mile," Les Freehling doesn't mind being a pain in the neck.

Go ahead. Find a prostitute. Chat up a deal and pull out your cash.

But be warned: Somewhere in the semidarkness of this asphalt landscape, a handful of cops are just waiting for the signal.

Thinking back on the defenses he's heard from some of the 115 truckers arrested here since undercover operations began in mid-2004, Detective Freehling laughed.

This is my first time.

I was just trying to save her.

I really didn't want sex.

READ MORE: Lost Youth: Teenage sex trade

That last one, said the chief detective of the Cumberland County prosecutor's criminal investigations division -- "That's the best."

Toledo women for years have been supplying prostitution services along this stretch between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-81 in Middlesex Township. One of the only juveniles they ever encountered was from Toledo, local authorities said.

Earl Bock, a detective in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, signals colleagues to get ready to arrest a 'john' in a truck-stop sting. Earl Bock, a detective in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, signals colleagues to get ready to arrest a 'john' in a truck-stop sting.
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And just 25 minutes east is the Gables in West Hanover Township, a truck stop that until last year was notorious for supplying Toledo prostitutes.

In December, prosecutors accused 15 Toledo men and women of running a national prostitution ring that included girls as young as 12. The 102-page indictment followed a lengthy inquiry into the sex trade that tracked thousands of dollars in money transfers and taped countless hours of phone conversations between suspects.

Instead of treating prostitution as a string of benign misdemeanors, the authorities went after it as organized crime. Convictions on some of the charges carry possible life sentences.

In contrast, battling prostitution at the Miracle Mile is a case study of fighting a crime one john and one hooker at a time.

"What is law enforcement at the end of the day?" said Gordon Zubrod, the prosecutor on the federal case in Harrisburg. "It's really not altering the way things are done. You're really just mowing the lawn."

In Middlesex Township, johns face the usual $100 fine, and maybe a couple of nights in jail.

But graver consequences are just a few phone calls away.

Commercial trucks are impounded by the Middlesex Township police, and officers give employers the bad news that it'll cost $400 or more just to get their vehicles back.

About half of the truckers "lose their job on the spot," Mr. Freehling said. And then there are wives and girlfriends to contend with.

A suspect is arrested after a prostitution decoy alerted authorities to make their move. A suspect is arrested after a prostitution decoy alerted authorities to make their move.
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"We had one guy call his wife and say he got arrested for drunk driving. So she called down to [the police] to find out what she had to do, and she was told, 'Drunk driving, hell! He was arrested for soliciting a prostitute.' Her response was 'Keep [him] there,' and she hung up," Mr. Freehling said.

It wasn't always this way.

As in most jurisdictions, prostitution became an almost accepted part of the landscape -- as long as business wasn't blatant.

But then two bodies were dumped near here. Both were hookers. A 16-year-old prostitute was thrown from a truck, too, but she survived.

Now a Cumberland County Common Pleas Judge, Merle "Skip" Ebert was the county's district attorney at the time. The sex trade, he decided, did not belong in his county.

He even came up with a name for the operation: "Don't do it here."

"You can't afford having women killed out there. They're picking up prostitutes and some psycho is killing them.… It's the Jack the Ripper thing -- you know, pick on prostitutes, nobody really cares," he said. "Well, we weren't [allowing] that here."

To make matters worse, rumors were floating around about a veteran Middlesex Township cop on the take, accepting sexual favors in exchange for looking the other way.

Mr. Freehling, assigned to investigate allegations about Cpl. Kenny Johnson, interviewed a prostitute from Toledo. It left him unsettled.

He approached her as she left court one day on yet another misdemeanor arrest. When he asked her about the cop, she was nonchalant:

"The word is if you want to work [at truck stops], come to Carlisle and make sure Kenny Johnson is working."

Mr. Johnson was ultimately convicted on two felony bribery charges. But his arrest at a local motel was not the end of the township's fight against the sex trade -- it was just the beginning.

These days, retired officers in blue jeans and flannel shirts periodically head out to the massive truck stops built around the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other interstates that criss-cross near the state's capital.

There are negotiations at the driver’s side window, and a few key phrases. As the “bait” strolls across the front of the semi as if to get into the cab’s passenger door — then slips away — the undercover officers close in.

The tactic seems to have worked. These days, the stings have dwindled to once every few weeks.

Still, police are realistic about the cat-and-mouse chase among cops and hookers and johns. There are always willing clients with wads of cash, so law enforcement — even at its best — simply shifts the trade elsewhere.

“For the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job of pushing [prostitutes] out of the area, but is that a major success? Or are we creating problems for someone else?” asked Earl Bock, another investigator. “It depends on how you measure success.”

Blade Staff Columnist Roberta de Boer contributed to this report.

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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