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Sonoma County authorities' changing views toward prostitution

Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 9:47 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 at 9:47 a.m.

Just down the hill from some of Santa Rosa's toniest neighborhoods, an Oakland man brought his 20-year-old "girlfriend" last month to rendezvous with an undercover police officer, ostensibly to trade sex for money, authorities said.

Her "boyfriend" carried a loaded handgun purchased mostly with proceeds from an earlier all-night "date," which brought in $800 in exchange for the young woman's submission to repeated and varied sex acts, Santa Rosa police Detective Chris Mahurin said.

When police stopped the man's car behind the Flamingo Hotel on Sept. 11, the young woman's 17-year-old sister was inside. Investigators believe he hoped to lure the teenager into the trade, as well.

The suspect, Mike Lavella Turner, 19, admitted the older sister -- the one who called him "boyfriend" -- was his "ho," Mahurin said. He said he had "taught her what to do."

It's the kind of case local authorities say is far too common in Sonoma County and across the nation: Vulnerable young women, girls and sometimes boys sold for commercial sex by others who profit from their emotional dependence or fear of violence.

Until recently, those providing the sex would likely be considered criminals. But increasingly, authorities are viewing some prostitutes as victims of a crime, not perpetrators. With new understanding of the dynamics of human trafficking, local law enforcement agencies are reassessing their approach to combatting prostitution and trying to change attitudes

"We tend to think prostitution is a choice, (that) these girls enjoy turning six to eight tricks a night with six to eight different men," Mahurin told a roomful of Sonoma County hotel managers and owners last week. More likely they're working for someone who maintains strict control over their lives and their money, he said.

"We're evolving," Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch told the same group.

The meeting was organized by the revitalized Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force, led by Chief Deputy District Attorney Bill Brockley. It is part of a campaign to raise community awareness and make the county inhospitable to people who traffic other humans for any purpose.

The conference drew about 50 hotel and motel workers to learn how to detect sex trafficking. Signs may include an unusual number of people coming and going from a room; women from outside the area, wearing skimpy clothing, who let their male partner do all the talking; a man who wants to register without showing identification or a credit card, or who uses the woman's identification to register but pays cash for the room himself.

Police do not expect hotel workers to confront or interrogate guests, Mahurin said.

But if a guest can't answer common questions like, "What brings you to the area?" or "What do you plan to do while you're here?" it might be worth making a note or alerting law enforcement, he said.

"You guys are the first line of defense," Mahurin said.

"What these individuals are looking for is opportunity . . . favorable conditions," Santa Rosa Vice Mayor John Sawyer said.

For many, the phrase "human trafficking" is something that happens only in distant lands, evoking images of foreign women or young girls smuggled across international borders.

But it happens right here in Sonoma County, authorities said, on Santa Rosa Avenue, all over the Web, in massage parlors, and in hotels and motels, from modest to luxurious.

"These people are sold, so they are trafficked," said Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, a local rape and trauma counseling center.

Once considered a "victimless crime" whose primary ill was the blight it brought on a neighborhood, prostitution is now viewed as a far more serious and widespread problem, Santa Rosa Police Detective Sgt. Mike Clark said.

On Tuesday, for example, several hundred prostitutes were listed on a website advertising commercial sex in the North Bay. A few might answer only to themselves, Mahurin said, but he believes the majority are making money for someone else.

Mahurin said his profound awakening on the subject occurred last April, while investigating the disappearance of a 14-year-old Santa Rosa girl who had run away.

When he found her in Fairfax four weeks later, she'd been trading in sex in communities around Sonoma and Marin counties under a different name at the instruction of a man she said had threatened harm to her and her family, Mahurin said.

When the detective met her, the teen refused even to acknowledge her real name. But she eventually decided to trust him, he said, "lunged forward, hugged me, and started crying," and said, "If I tell you anything he's going to kill me."

The man, Amari Folsom, 19, was later arrested at the Third Street Transit Mall in Santa Rosa in the company of two young runaways from Marin County. He ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced last week to four years and eight months in prison, Mahurin said.

Earlier in April, police arrested a Los Angeles man at a local hotel who, they said, brought a 16-year-old girl to town. He sexually and physically assaulted her when she refused to have sex with customers, police said. The man was charged in court but the case was dropped when the girl and others who had worked for him refused to testify, the District Attorney's Office said.

Turner, arrested last month behind the Flamingo Hotel, remains in custody and has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the undercover sting. A preliminary hearing in his case is scheduled Thursday. Charges against his "girlfriend" are pending, authorities said.

In another Santa Rosa police case over the Labor Day weekend, a developmentally disabled 19-year-old woman from Sacramento escaped a Cleveland Avenue motel, saying another woman had been trafficking her in Santa Rosa and San Francisco before she was able to flee, police said.

Mahurin also tells of a raid on a Santa Rosa massage parlor whose workers, police learned, were rotated out weekly between operations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Santa Rosa.

"It scares me," he said, "to believe that Santa Rosa is in that group."

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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