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Published: Friday, 5/26/2006

Pimps' seized property eyed as restitution


This is part of an ongoing Blade investigation into teens exploited for sex.

If pimps make their money off the bodies of young women, why not make them pay - literally - for any misery they cause?

That was the question yesterday from the mother of an 18-year-old Toledo prostitute whose death last month was attributed to drug use.

Melissa Palmer, a chronic runaway and teenage prostitute, was a key witness in the case against a group of accused pimps now awaiting trial in Harrisburg, Pa.

The federal government has also seized at least two dozen houses and vehicles in connection with the case.

Trembling at times, Melissa's mother, Mary Groth, yesterday faced about 50 caseworkers, court officials, and health-care professionals and wondered aloud if those seized properties could help young prostitutes who want out of the sex trade: "Why can't they take that property, auction it off, and use it for programs?"

Melissa, she said, had met one of the men now awaiting trial in Harrisburg.

"Why can't they make restitution for what they've done to these girls?" she said.

U.S. attorneys in Harrisburg could not be reached for comment yesterday on the proposal.

Each month, about 50 men and women gather at a Collingwood Boulevard church to figure out how to reach out to young prostitutes and get them off the streets.

Coincidentally, just before the first roundtable discussion in January, U.S. attorneys unsealed indictments accusing several Toledo men of operating a sex trade ring, using juveniles at truck stops nationwide. Since then, the monthly meetings have produced several suggestions for keeping vulnerable Toledo teens away from "the game."

For one thing, participants want to pressure trucking companies to adopt a no-tolerance policy so an employee caught with a prostitute would be fired.

The group also is planning several fund-raisers - from wine and cheese gatherings to bake sale booths at local festivals - to launch a public awareness campaign about prostitution.

Yesterday, several shook their heads at the suggestion to pursue proceeds from the sale of assets in the Harrisburg case.

"It's going to take a push to get the feds to release that money," said Kim Oats, head of probation officers at Toledo Municipal Court.

But EleSondra DeRomano, who heads a fledgling outreach program, was quick to answer: "Then we'll push them."

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