July 29, 2009 in City

Authorities target Web prostitution

Police say Craigslist ads ease hookups for changing population of sex workers
Meghann M. Cuniff meghannc@spokesman.com, (509) 459-5534
 

Detectives didn’t doubt the prostitute’s story. They found her bloody and crying in an upscale home overlooking Hayden Lake, claiming she’d likely killed a man who’d attacked her.

The man, David Lynn Foreman, of Rathdrum, was indeed dead, his throat slashed.

Prosecutors said the killing was done in self-defense, and the Spokane woman was never charged.

But the grisly 2008 incident is still on the minds of Kootenai County sheriff’s investigators, who say preventing such scenarios is among motivations to combat an Internet sex underworld that drew wide attention with the arrest of a Boston medical student suspected of being the “Craigslist killer.”

Kootenai County authorities were monitoring local Craigslist postings even before Philip Markoff was charged with murder and with assaulting and robbing women he’d met through the Web site, which offers free classified ads.

A month after Markoff’s arrest, Kootenai County authorities took action, occupying two donated rooms at a Post Falls motel, setting up surveillance and calling numbers in ads offering sex.

Eventually, a woman arrived at the motel and pocketed $400 she’d agreed to take in exchange for sex. She was arrested on a prostitution charge. Amy L. Davis, 21, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor this month in the only successful prosecution that came out of the sting. She’s to pay $300 and perform 16 hours in a Sheriff’s Department labor program by the end of September.

Authorities believe the women who advertise on Craigslist may be part of a network. After Davis was arrested, other women contacted by undercover detectives lost interest as soon as they learned the location of the proposed meeting. Word had apparently gotten out about the sting’s location, said Lt. Lee Richardson. But authorities said their work will continue.

“We really want people to understand that we are aware of this situation,” Richardson said. “Hopefully people will realize that it is a dangerous thing and maybe they do need to get out of it.”

Craigslist is seen by some as a bastion for the sex trade. The Internet has made it cheaper and easier to advertise, ushering in what some believe is a different demographic of women willing to have sex for money. Street prostitutes are usually plagued by homelessness and drug addiction, authorities say, but Craigslist makes it easier for anyone with an Internet connection to sell sex for quick cash.

“You can be an independent business person,” Richardson said. “I quite frankly think it’s a business to make money during these economic times.”

The marketing is hardly discreet on Craiglist. Advertisements feature photos of scantily clad women accompanying statements such as “350 roses for the time of your life.”

“They aren’t like, ‘Hey, I’m a prostitute, and this is how much I charge,’ ” Richardson said. “Read between the lines and you figure it out.”

After Markoff’s arrest, Craigslist changed the name of its “erotic services” section to “adult services” and vowed to screen each ad for illegal offers.

Police say they doubt the Web site’s efforts will be effective.

“They can say what they want, but I don’t know whether they’ve got the manpower to really look through the volume of traffic that they have,” said Sandpoint police Chief Mark Lockwood.

A Craigslist spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sandpoint police launched a sting two years ago that led to the convictions of three people.

Officers investigating a check-fraud case learned the suspect advertised with another woman as prostitutes on Craigslist. One detective contacted the women by e-mail and arranged a meeting at the lakeside town’s Quality Inn. He told them he was visiting from Texas.

Both women, Randi J. Friss, 26, and Selene Ann Mende, 31, were arrested, along with a 25-year-old man, Lavelle N. Baudin, who drove them to the motel and waited in the parking lot. All pleaded guilty to misdemeanor prostitution charges and served a couple of months in jail, according to court records.

In Spokane, police efforts to combat prostitution focus on East Sprague Avenue, the stretch where Foreman met the prostitute who turned his knife on him, and where serial killer Robert Yates found many of his victims.

Occasional undercover stings nab would-be johns and prostitutes, but Internet sex crimes detectives in Spokane County focus on crimes against children, not prostitution. In North Idaho, Internet advertising is popular, but police suspect pricey escort services also operate in the area.

“You have no idea what goes on at some parties, and that could be downtown USA anywhere,” Lockwood said.

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