'Johns' caught paying kids for sex still dodging hard time
SEATTLE -- The detective must have been a disappointment.
Pulling his Mercedes into a Kent Jack in the Box, Scott Fulton hoped to meet - his words - a "steady to bareback all the time."
Fulton, 49, cast a 17-year-old girl for the role. Responding to a prostitution ad on Backpage.com, he set up a "date" with the girl he hoped to pay $120 for unprotected sex.
Instead, Fulton got a meeting with the catfishing detective - "Kara" online, a Kent vice detective in real life - with whom he traded sexually explicit text messages in the weeks before. Questioned by detectives, the Bellevue man said he planned to "hang out and soak" with the teen prostitute at a Federal Way hot tub parlor.
That thwarted May 15 liaison left Fulton a convicted felon -- he was sentenced to 216 hours of community service -- and registered sex offender. And, in that, Fulton is something of an oddity - he's one of only a handful of Washington men caught paying a child for sex who has been ordered to register.
Demand, if that's not too clinical a word, for child prostitutes is as strong as ever. Police stings like the one that snared Fulton draw dozens or hundreds of would-be "johns," only a scant minority of whom is caught and prosecuted. And most men nabbed have managed to dodge stiff penalties created by a zealous state Legislature three years ago.
In recent months, though, King County prosecutors and police have fine-tuned an effort meant to show many more "johns" the inside of a jail cell and add their names to the sex offender rolls.
Thanks largely to sting operations, prosecutors filed child prostitution charges against 47 men in 2013, up from 14 the year before and nearly twice as many as the preceding three years combined. And, in a change promised by a 2010 state law yet to be fulfilled, they expect most of the men will be forced to register as sex offenders.
Washington's largest county remains an outlier when it comes to enforcement of state laws targeting men who pay children for sex. Just one other county has seen a customer convicted of the offense since the anti-child prostitution laws were strengthened three years ago; most have not charged anyone with the offense.
Online police stings account for nearly all of the increase in King County. Flanked by a senior deputy in charge of the prosecutions, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said earlier this month that the response to the undercover ads - the number of men seeking sex from kids - has been unpleasantly strong.
The men run the gamut. Executives and workers. Students. Ministers. Plenty of husbands.
Most unnervingly, Satterberg said, they are neighbors and friends.
"They're regular, common people, our coworkers, and when they have free time they're looking to abuse teenage girls sexually," Satterberg said. "Some admit to doing this a lot. Some claim when they're arrested that this is the first time they've done it."
"A lot of people don't like to think about it," the prosecutor continued. "If we're ever going to turn the corner and increase the dignity of the community and the safety of these kids who are on the streets, we have to start with the demand side."
Most 'johns' caught with kids still dodging promised punishment
As men who've paid children for sex go, James Kilburg is nothing special.
Police hunting a wanted robber instead saw Kilburg walking into a Kent Motel 6 looking for a 16-year-old girl who'd been selling herself on Backpage.com.
Kilburg told police he was there for "companionship." Text messages on her phone showed he was there for sex; a used condom and the girl's statements to police backed that claim.
A year later, the 63-year-old Sammamish man has pleaded guilty to a felony - second-degree assault - and is slated to be sentenced in January. Prosecutors will ask that he serve 90 days in jail.
What Kilburg won't be doing is registering as a sex offender. And that is entirely usual.
Despite a 3-year-old change in state law meant to punish "johns" who pay children for sex, the vast majority of men caught and prosecuted avoid sex offender registration.
Pushed by police, prosecutors and anti-sex trafficking activists, the Washington Legislature in early 2010 passed sweeping enhancements to Washington's laws on prostitution. Pimps and men who bought sex from children were to feel the heat while prostituted children were to get more help.
The reform was also meant to lighten the burden on prosecutors taking the cases to trial. Under the new law, "johns" could no longer defend themselves by claiming they thought the girl or boy they paid was an adult.
Rather than a fine and jail time, "johns" caught with a kid were to face at least 21 months in prison. And sex offender registration was to be mandatory.
None of that amounts to much next to the price paid by girls and boys who find themselves prostituted.
Beyond the trauma of the work itself, kids working the "track" - stretches where customers know they can find prostitutes - and online face rape, sexually transmitted disease and violence at the hands of "johns." Pimps keep the money, starve them, feed them drugs and use pain to maintain control.
Earlier this year, a woman who asked to be referred to as "Nicole" detailed her time in "the life" to a gaggle of reporters gathered at a conference room in the Seattle FBI office.
Nicole traveled the country as a teen working for her pimp, now a federal inmate. Prostituted in Las Vegas, Oregon and around Seattle, she recounted bone-breaking beatings delivered by the pimp she thought she loved.
Now a college graduate in her mid-20s, Nicole said one particularly savage incident left her looking like Quasimodo, the titular character in "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." She joked that surgical repairs to her face and body left her with more metal than Ironman.
She would've left if she could have managed it, she said. Most of the girls she met would do the same.
"We're not bad people," she said. "It's not that we chose to commit these crimes because it's fun."
"I tried to do the best that I could," Nicole continued. "I was locked in where I was. I had nothing to run to."
Enthusiastic proponents held a news conference in the parking lot of a downtown Seattle strip club days after the law went into effect in June 2010.
Since then, though, just three convictions have been won under the state's child prostitution law, commercial sexual abuse of a minor. Two were in King County, where more than 40 men have resolved child prostitution charges filed for crimes committed since the tougher penalties went into effect.
A seattlepi.com review found 15 of the King County 41 defendants who have been convicted pled guilty to crimes requiring sex offender registration. Several of those prosecutions involved particularly egregious circumstances - a girl was chained, beaten and sexually assaulted by one defendant - or police stings; prosecutors won the sole child prostitution case that went to trial.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Val Richie, the lead trial attorney for human trafficking investigations in King County, said evidentiary issues in some of the earlier cases forced prosecutors to resolve them through generous plea bargains. Some have pled misdemeanors, including patronizing a prostitute.
Defendants caught "hands on" with a child are generally allowed to plead to second-degree assault, as have Kilburg and at least 12 other King County men since penalties were increased in 2010. That assault conviction doesn't require sex offender registration.
Offenders caught in the stings face stiffer penalties - the plea offered generally is to a felony pimping charge and a sex crime requiring registration as a sex offender.
The King County plea scheme has meant convictions. Only three men have seen the charges dismissed since the change in law, and one of those did so through a plea deal that involved court supervision.
Prosecutors in Pierce County have charged eight men with commercial sexual abuse of a minor since the law changed. Of those, two men have been convicted of sex offenses and a third was convicted of a drug crime. Charges were dismissed against three defendants, while two cases remain outstanding.
In Snohomish County - a community of 733,036 people, a third the size of King County - prosecutors have not charged anyone under the strengthened child prostitution law.
All those prosecuted have been men, and all their victims - real or invented by police - have been girls. Those near the issue believe boys are being turned out as well. If child prostitution is an industry in the shadows, though, sexual exploitation of boys is happening in the darkest corner.
Investigators say privately that worries about the perception that they're targeting gay men have effectively blocked such investigations. Those concerns, of course, spring in part from rampant police abuses against sexual minorities during less tolerant times.
'We need men to step up'
All this comes at a moment when child prostitution is the issue du jour.
In the past decade, the Legislature has passed at least 47 bills related to the human trafficking and financially motivated sex crimes. Forty of those laws were made in the past three years.
Co-sponsor to the 2010 reform and a state senator with long-experience on the issue, Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she's seen attitudes improve on human trafficking in recent years. Lawmakers and the public have tuned in.
"Now trafficking is becoming a term that is much more understood by people," Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat, said recently.
Enthusiasm for the issue prompted the creation of the first shelter dedicated to children made to work as prostitutes. Adapting to the prostitute-as-victim mindset, Seattle police renamed the vice unit - it's known in most circles as the high-risk victims unit these days - and sent an officer to Washington, D.C., to argue for greater resources for prostituted children.
The city of Seattle briefly considered paying Microsoft to build an information-sharing network with Portland police. That scheme was abandoned after the Seattle FBI agent leading the regional child exploitation taskforce informed the mayor's office that the feds already have it handled.
Shelters and new programs for prostituted girls and, now, women are meant to create a kind of sanctuary. But, while the progress is undeniable, the tools available don't match the job at hand, said Melinda Giovengo, executive director at Youth Care, a service organization that operates a center for sexually exploited children in Seattle.
Most communities don't have anywhere to place and help prostituted children. And, Giovengo said, there still exists a permissive attitude toward child prostitution in certain circles.
"This is not an acceptable form of entertainment," Giovengo said recently. "I would say that we need men to step up and say, 'Not on our watch.' I don't think we have that yet."
Giovengo said she has seen a cultural shift during her nearly three decades working with King County's homeless youth. Women and girls who've sold sex are treated as victims; the men and, very rarely, women who pimp them are vilified and punished.
Giovengo acknowledged that prosecuting men in numbers in harmony with the scale for problem would prove "very, very difficult." Deterrence aside, though, she said such prosecutions do help the victims of sexual exploitation.
"To be honest with you, there's nothing like seeing your victimizer heading to jail," she said. "It can prove to (the children) internally that they were a victim of a crime and not a perpetrator."
Stronger laws and a public willingness to address the issue have put a price on pimps' heads. In Washington, recruiting or transporting a child or an adult as part of the sex trade now can carry a prison sentence equivalent to second-degree murder; pimps who turn out children face punishment on par with defendants convicted of life-threatening assaults and violent rapes.
Records kept by the state Caseload Forecast Council show a steady growth in the number of prison sentences doled out for pimping-related crimes, and state and federal prosecutors have garnered several high-profile convictions against pimps sentenced to more than a decade in prison. Twenty-three defendants have been sentenced in pimping-related offenses in 2013, more than triple the number from a decade before; the past four years have seen 104 men and women sentenced on pimping charges.
Largely unaddressed, though, have been the men who make it all possible.
Kids walking still streetwalking in Seattle
Prosecutors in King County say they may have solved a piece of the puzzle, thanks largely to detectives posing as teen prostitutes.
Classic "john patrol" investigations work something like the May 30, 2012, bust that saw Seattle resident Scott M. Dougherty, 31, charged with commercial sexual abuse of a minor.
That evening, King County Sheriff's Office detectives saw the girl first.
Wearing tight jeans and a puffy jacket, the 16-year-old walked in the 9800 block of Aurora Avenue North, a stretch of state highway long popular for streetwalking among prostitutes working out of motels near there. She'd passed a strip mall restaurant when Dougherty rolled up.
Detectives followed Dougherty's truck as the pair drove to an unlit alley, pulled over and turned out the lights. Dougherty was literally caught with his pants down.
Dougherty ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and was sentenced to four months in jail with work release, meaning he could leave jail for work. Because Dougherty did not plead guilty to a sex offense, he was not required to register as a sex offender.
Prior to sentencing, Dougherty was checked out by a social worker specializing in sex offender treatment. The reviewer described Dougherty as a sex addict in need of therapy; he would likely continue seeking out prostitutes if he didn't do so, the social worker.
Prosecutors require defendants to undergo similar screenings - sexual deviancy reviews, in the parlance of the court - before allowing the men to plead to reduced charges. During those reviews, offenders are questioned about their offenses and sexual histories by trained evaluators; Richie said deals aren't cut with offenders whose histories are particularly problematic.
Their advantages aside - actual girls often get pulled of the street is the big one - "john patrol" prosecutions can be difficult and time consuming. The "johns" are generally freed after their arrest and have little incentive to cut a deal that involves a significant sentence or sex offender registration. In King County, offenders caught "hands on" with girls are almost all allowed to plead to second-degree assault after a sexual deviancy evaluation.
Jury trials are generally rare - less than 4 percent of Washington's criminal defendants convicted in 2013 faced a jury - though sex crime cases are slightly more likely to go to jurors. Making a traditional child prostitution case stick at trial means the prostituted teen has to testify, and they're often not interested in doing so.
"The victim is often unwilling to cooperate or unable to cooperate because of having been manipulated or scared by their pimp," Richie said.
Prosecutions involving real girls have seen Seattle vice detectives cross the country to recover witnesses and bring them to court. Once there, they may decide to exercise their right exercise the right against self-incrimination and refuse to testify meaningfully.
The faux "girls" netting men online don't have such concerns.
Detectives finding dozens, hundreds of takers online
Posing online as girls interested in having sex for money, detectives in Seattle, Kent and elsewhere have found plenty of takers at a variety of popular websites.
"These are sites that are prolific with commercial sex transactions," said Richie, who serves as the King County Prosecutor's Office pointman on the commercial sexual abuse of children.
"These are men who respond. And when they respond, they respond en mass," Richie continued. "We're seeing dozens or even hundreds of responses to a single ad."
As a practical matter, the cases against the would-be "johns" are straightforward. The men aren't exactly subtle in discussing the sex acts they want to pay for, and they usually show up to the "date" loaded for bear.
"When they show up with a box of condoms and lubricants and sex toys, that's certainly indicative of what they're intending to do," Richie said.
Satterberg said he doesn't doubt each of the men undercover detectives nabbed and his deputies convicted would have found actual children to sexually exploit were it not for the stings.
Speaking at his downtown office, Satterberg described the effort as a new start in a relatively new fight, one that is for the prostituted girls as much as it is against prostitution.
"None of them wanted to have a life like this, to be put out on the street or trafficked on the Internet by a violent pimp, forced to have sex with dozens of men a week, keeping none of the money," Satterberg said.
"The more you find out about the reality of these young girls," he continued, "you have to conclude that our community is better than this."