As the investigation into the unsolved slayings of 18 Spokane-area women intensifies, one East Central neighborhood group has become the informal protector of women still working Spokane’s streets.
Local prostitutes have come to rely on an open door and a protective hand at First Step Services on the corner of East First and Napa.
The unremarkable building, surrounded by trash, dogs and homeless people, serves as a communications center, lunch room, safe house and meeting place for Spokane prostitutes.
“They aren’t just hookers,” said Penny Johnson, who runs the addiction recovery club with her husband Darold. “These women need to have some place that they feel safe. At least they know they can come here and we do what we can for them.”
The street people at First Step have become the eyes and ears of Spokane’s prostitutes, keeping track of their whereabouts, caring for those who are sick and searching for those who don’t check in regularly.
First Step, run by volunteers, is not a shelter or a detox center. The former post office at 1927 E. First is a clean and sober club for people who need a cup of coffee, a shower or a break from life on the streets.
The Johnsons keep it running with their own money and donations.
Keeping tabs on the women - something First Step has always done - is harder now that the neighborhood is on alert for a serial killer who detectives say has killed at least four of the 18 victims since 1984.
The streets where many of the prostitutes work now clear at twilight. Residents lock themselves tight in their houses. A half-dozen police cars steadily cruise East Sprague between Hogan and Haven every night.
Many prostitutes have gone into hiding, say those who are still working the streets. Only a few remain out at night. Those who find a “date” know that the regulars at First Step try to write down the license plate number of any vehicle a woman gets into.
Files containing years worth of license plate numbers were recently turned over to detectives at the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department. Members of the Spokane County Special Investigations Unit have been getting copies of the files for years.
The records are telling. Notes scribbled on scraps of paper identify drug dealers, troublemakers and men looking for sex.
Warnings such as “convicted murderer,” “Violent!” and “rapist” are written next to the plate numbers of men who are considered dangerous.
“If we can keep track of what’s going on in the night, we can stop (the killings),” Darold Johnson said.
On most nights, the homeless crowd the couches at First Step to sober up and watch Chuck Norris movies on the color television.
Although the recovery club looks after the neighborhood’s working women, few of them linger there for more than a cup of coffee. An average night brings about three women for every 40 men into the club, which is open 24 hours.
On Friday, the limp, nearly unconscious body of a prostitute known as Bear took up precious space on a couch with a prime view of the television.
Managers of the club, who call themselves bounty hunters, wear bullet proof vests and pack several guns apiece, issued a stern warning to anyone thinking about disturbing Bear: leave her alone.
“She just needs to sleep it off someplace she won’t get hurt,” Darold Johnson said. “The girls need to know that they are safe here.”
During better times, Bear and 12 women who she said continue to work East Sprague, stop into the club nightly in between “dates.”
They use the bathroom, fix their makeup, make a few phone calls and are gone. The quick check-ins help the people at First Step keep track of who’s on the streets and who’s missing.
“I can’t stop working,” said Bear, a drug addict who would not give her real name. “That’s it. I take the chance.”
She takes the chance despite the fact that the four most recent victims were her friends: Darla Sue Scott, Shawn Johnson, Laurie Ann Wason and Shawn McClenahan.
A First Step regular, who only identified himself as “D,” said Scott, Johnson, Wason and McClenahan were not women to be trifled with.
“They weren’t no dummies,” he said. “They knew how to handle themselves.”
That’s what worries him.
“Ain’t nobody going to be able to handle themselves with a gun in their face,” he said.
So when the women aren’t seen for a few days, men from First Step go looking.
“We keep track of them as best we can,” Darold Johnson said. “I am closer to some of these women than I am to my own family.”
Nearly everyone at First Step knows the three women currently considered missing and being sought by a four-detective task force investigating the deaths.
Jessica Fitzgerald nearly died from a drug overdose in First Step’s bathroom about two months ago, Darold Johnson said. She was seen last Friday by several men at First Step, but has not been located by police.
Linda Marie Maybin and Sunny Oster haven’t been seen at First Step since late November. Maybin was a regular.
“It’s really hard on a place like this,” Darold Johnson said. “You really get to know them. It’s sad to see this … happen.”
As the city-county task force continues its investigation, First Step plans to continue watching out for the women who they consider family.
The prostitutes feel the club has always looked out for them, and that’s all they ask.
“I know I can come here when I’m in trouble,” Bear said. “What else is there?”
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