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VOL. 122 | NO. 160 | Friday, August 24, 2007

Prostitution Plagues Memphis Neighborhoods, Businesses

By Rosalind Guy

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()

You can't buy much with $20 nowadays. It won't even buy a full tank of gas.

But in the sex-for-sale industry, buyers have quite a few options, most of which are not suitable to be printed in the newspaper.

The Daily News conducted a month-long investigation to get a clear picture of the industry and just how much it affects communities where it's most prevalent.

One of the hotspots known for prostitution is Bellevue Boulevard.

Of the 729 prostitution-related arrests made this year in Memphis-Shelby County, about 20 percent took place along Bellevue, which turns into Elvis Presley Boulevard to the north of the South Parkway intersection.

The street is heavily trafficked with prostitutes and the men patronizing them. But you don't have to tell George Buzard that. He can see it firsthand from any one of the windows at his company, Gates Lumber at 1253 S. Bellevue Blvd., which is directly across the street from the Bellevue Inn.

"The problem is that there's kind of an ebb and flow to it," Buzard said. "The police crack down on it and run the prostitutes off and (the police) get lax and it comes back. And recently it seems like in the past couple of months, not only are there a lot of prostitutes over there, but they're getting bolder and they come across the street and hassle our customers and employees."


Buzard said he's even seen the women stand in front of the motel and lift their skirts trying to entice people driving down the street. He also said he can stand upstairs in his kitchen and watch the women going in and out of the motel.

"I can see this going on, so I know what they're doing," he said. "And the motel (owners) know what they're doing and they're not doing anything about it."

Repeated attempts to speak to the manager of the motel were unsuccessful. A person who appeared to be working at the Bellevue Inn and declined to be identified did admit that the motel rooms in the area often are used by prostitutes.

"Most nights about half of the rooms are full," he said, adding that the women often face the possibility of being arrested during sting operations. "If you stand up there on the street wearing what you have on (the police) wouldn't bother you. But if you change clothes and have on a nice G-string or something, then they'd come down on you."

Buzard admits that there are random sweeps that cool activity across from his business, but that's not enough. He said the motel owners should be held accountable.

Pointing to the recent shutdown of some strip clubs in the city because of the illegal activity taking place, he wonders why the motel owners can't face a similar fate.

"One of the things that will get people's attention is if you inconvenience them," Buzard said. "If the authorities would inconvenience this motel, they'd go somewhere else."

Buzard's business and the motel are less than a mile from a church and Hamilton Middle School, according to an arrest report for one woman who was caught at the motel.

That means the woman, Latina Hayes, 33, who lives at 4053 Brompton Road and has a record of prostitution arrests that dates back at least 15 years, faces the possibility of being tried for a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a maximum 11 months and 29 days in jail.

Hayes was arrested through the use of a decoy, a procedure that is most effective when prosecuting prostitution-related cases, said Mary Thorsberg, assistant district attorney in Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons' office.

Hayes allegedly approached the decoy and, "after a brief conversation agreed to perform both oral and natural sex in exchange for $40, but refused to get in the decoy's car," the arrest report states.

After walking up to another decoy, Hayes asked him if he was "the police" and then "agreed to perform both oral and natural sex in exchange for $100."

Hayes was arrested in July and currently is out on bond. She is expected in court Friday.

X-rated view

Residents in one South Memphis neighborhood near Lamar Avenue also are fed up with the proliferation of prostitution in their area.

One resident, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Angela, said she woke up one morning and looked out her 2-year-old daughter's window and saw one prostitute engaged in sex with a john around 6 a.m. at the vacant house next door.

"What if it had been my daughter instead of me looking out that window?" she wondered aloud.

Angela did not call the police, but she did cause a lot of noise by knocking on the window, and scared the couple away.

While on the surface this appears to be a problem that's raging out of control, law enforcement officials are addressing the issue, said Lt. Christopher Moffatt of the Memphis Police Department's Organized Crime Unit.

Moffatt said there's no set schedule for when the vice crimes unit sets up stings to make prostitution-related arrests.

The stings could be held as much as three times a week, he said.

"We like to keep them guessing," Moffatt said.

Last week, two stings netted more than 80 prostitution-related arrests. The operation, which was held in various parts of the city, mostly netted prostitutes, Moffatt said, but four or five arrests were made for promoting prostitution.

Hook, line and sinker

It's impossible to have an effective discussion about prostitution without discussing the men involved in these crimes: the johns who patronize the prostitutes and the pimps who promote the prostitution.

Often, the pimps are doing more than promoting the offense; sometimes they force women to engage in the act.

Carol Wiley is the director of victim assistance for "A Way Out," a program that takes women out of the sex-for-sale industry and helps them turn their lives around. She recounts one horror story after another of how women essentially are held in bondage in the industry. First, they're lured in with the promise of all the money they'll be able to make.

She tells of stories in which strip club owners would go into places like McDonald's and buy a $3 sandwich, then tip the cashier $20. After the young woman expressed gratitude for the "gift," the manager would tell her the money was nothing compared to what she could make if she would come work for him. And it's recently come to light that in many strips clubs, back rooms are used for prostitution.

Two Memphis strip clubs - Platinum Plus and Tunica Cabaret & Resort - were closed late last year after a two-year investigation involving the MPD and FBI that uncovered crimes taking place in them; among them drug possession, money laundering and prostitution.

Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Loyce Lambert-Ryan said there are various levels of "pimping" in the city.

"There are those that are actually like the pimps you see in movies, the 'Super Fly pimps' that really have a stable of women out there," she said. "They get the women hooked on drugs and the women actually bring their money to them.

"Then there are the pimps that give referrals. These men may stand out on the corner and direct potential johns to a woman waiting in a motel room. For those referrals, the men may get $5 to $10 per referral."

But Lambert-Ryan said what really was a thorn in her side from the time she took the bench in 2000 was the fact that, while state law required women charged with prostitution to be tested for HIV, it did not require the men patronizing the prostitutes or the pimps to be tested.

And, in discussing the absent requirement, Lambert-Ryan points to the oft-forgotten victims of this supposedly victimless crime: the johns' wives, girlfriends and families.

"What happens is you have the guys that are businessmen or the guys that have wives and they're procuring the services of prostitutes," she said. "And they take whatever they have contracted from the prostitutes back home to their families and that bothered me."

Fewer double standards

The laws have since changed. As of about three years ago, men patronizing prostitutes are required to be tested for HIV upon conviction. And, as of July 1, pimps are required to be tested upon conviction as well.

But the laws seem to lack teeth. Court officials must jump through all kinds of hoops to view those test results, Thorsberg said.

Although the court might order anyone arrested for prostitution, patronizing prostitution or promoting prostitution to take an HIV test, it's up to that person to return the results to the court.

"They're all tested for HIV; most of them while they're in jail," Thorsberg said. "The Health Department comes and does that but we can't get the record without jumping through some hoops.

"And a lot of these defendants just don't return their results to the court; they're not going to come back once they're out of jail. They're not going to go through all the trouble of going to the Health Department, getting their records and bringing (them) to us."

If the district attorney's office has knowledge that a woman knows she has HIV and engages in prostitution, she can be charged with aggravated prostitution. Aggravated prostitution is a Class C felony, which can carry from three to 15 years in prison or a fine of up to $10,000 depending on a number of factors such as the number of prior felony convictions the person has.

Thorsberg said the DA's office handles prostitution-related cases on a daily basis. By and large, the ones that are most able to be prosecuted are those that take place during sting operations.

"The statute itself allows us to prosecute someone as it says loitering for the purpose of prostitution, but that's a hard thing to prove," Thorsberg said. "I can't think of too many instances where we've used that part of the prostitution definition successfully."

She said the best cases involve an undercover officer who is approached by a prostitute.

"The prostitute will initiate the conversation," Thorsberg added. "And then there's the offer and the acceptance, just like contract law. Then (the officer will) usually have (the prostitutes) make some overt gesture like telling them to meet them in a motel room ... you know, something that indicates to us that it's not just idle talk."

Thorsberg said it's almost a cycle with the women being arrested for prostitution, released and re-arrested for the same offense.

As proof of that take the last words of 31-year-old John Levell Taylor of 4368 Hodge St., who was arrested in June for promoting prostitution.

While in the back of a police van, the arresting officers overheard Taylor, "telling several females who were arrested for prostitution that if they come work for him, that he would get them out of jail when they get arrested." The defendant also said, "I'm a real (expletive) pimp and I got two (expletives) out there now working and they going to make that money and come get me out."

And the cycle continues.

Editor's Note: In Monday's paper read about A Way Out, a nonprofit organization that helps women get out of the sex-for-sale industry.

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