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Sex trafficking an old problem in Bellevue with new challenges
Bellevue has been in the spotlight over the past month regarding a perceived uptick in sex trafficking and prostitution, but the police here say current events only highlight an issue that has long been prevalent in the Puget Sound region and beyond.
"It's not new," said a Bellevue vice detective, who has been addressing the prostitution and sex trafficking problem here since before the unit was created in 2011. "This has been going on forever."
The U.S. Attorney's Office's announcement last week of the arrest and prosecution of John "Lucky" Cyprian Jr., for violent sex trafficking crimes and a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of a Bellevue anesthesiologist for alleged sex trafficking and money laundering just scratch the surface of the regional problem with prostitution, said Bellevue Police Lt. Lisa Patricelli with the Investigations Section — an issue for which there is no simple solution.
"The big part of it is we can't arrest our way out of this problem," she said.
Former Bellevue Police Chief Linda Pillo created the Vice Unit three years ago, to address complaints by residents and the City Council regarding the influx of illegal Asian massage parlors here.
"As far as the massage parlors, I think we've got the vast majority of those closed," said Bellevue Ofc. Seth Tyler.
The greater problem the Bellevue Police Department now faces are the multiple listings for sexual services on popular online ad sites, the most prominent being Backpage.com. Without a known strip in Bellevue where prostitutes are seen visually enticing customers, most transactions are happening online and behind closed doors.
In the DEA case against the Bellevue anesthesiologist, he is alleged to have aided his Thai girlfriend's sex trafficking enterprise, renting out apartments and condos for prostitution and using backpage.com to advertise the women being used. Cyprian is also accused of trafficking women through hotels in the Puget Sound region and Portland, recruiting women to work for him, and subjecting them to physical and emotional abuse, according to court documents.
Bellevue's vice detective told the Reporter the city offers a number of high-end hotels, upscale high-rise apartments and condominiums that are being used for prostitution. The Bellevue doctor under investigation by the DEA is alleged to have rented out units at the Avalon Meydenbauer, AMLI Apartments at Bellevue Park and Washington Square condominiums for his girlfriend's prostitutes, who charged up to $200 an hour for their services.
"They are going to attract a certain type of clientele," the vice detective said of attractive hotels and rental units, adding of apartments and condominiums, "These are the ones where we would most likely see the foreign trafficked gals."
Prostitution is also a transient problem, he said, as many sex workers travel in circuits, staying a few days in one city before heading to another — all the while keeping up with their online advertisements.
"They say they come to Bellevue because the money's there and the guys are nice," said the vice detective, but that's not always the case.
Even prostitutes in Bellevue are in danger of being robbed, beaten or sexually assaulted, and most of those crimes go unreported, Patricelli added.
In a joint sting operation by the BPD and King County Sheriff's Office in March, detectives posted online ads for prostitution, netting 10 arrests. That included a Seattle man who allegedly went to the Bellevue hotel intending to rob the undercover officer he thought was a sex worker. This turned out to be the man's modus operandi, using a firearm that turned out to be an air gun, Patricelli said.
While websites like Backpage.com are a problem for law enforcement trying to counter criminal activity, the vice detective said it is also a tool for tracking down prostitutes and pimps. It can also be used during sting operations, where fake ads are put up to catch Johns.
This hasn't been done with the support of Backpage.com, which removes ads posted by law enforcement to discourage potential Johns with warnings that some posts for escorts are actually the police, said Tyler, "Because it's bad for business." The vice detective said even if Backpage.com and other popular advertisement sites for prostitution were shut down, others would take their place.
Johns, known on the streets these days as "hobbyists," don't fit one demographic, the vice detective said, and those busted in Bellevue aren't always residents here. He said Johns sometimes travel for hours to get to Bellevue for appointments with prostitutes. Johns are the primary target for Bellevue's Vice Unit, which aims to curb the demand side of prostitution — a directive that comes down from the King County Prosecutor's Office. The prosecutor's office will soon announce the award of a federal Department of Justice grant to aid in doing just that, Patricelli said.
The business community has also mobilized to fight sex and labor trafficking, which includes receiving training and resources through groups like Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking. Founder and Executive Director Mar Brettmann said the BEST Alliance launched in 2012, and was inspired by a 2008 study commissioned by the city of Seattle. That study estimated 250 boys and girls were involved in prostitution in the city and outlying areas annually.
"That was one piece of research that really brought this issue to the floor, and I was wondering what businesses could do to be part of the solution," Brettmann said, adding victims services groups and law enforcement were reacting to the issue, while she wanted to focus on prevention. "As far as sex trafficking, we focused our work on the hotel industry. … Hotels are often used to facilitate the crimes, unfortunately."
BEST brings in those victims services groups and law enforcement to provide hoteliers and their staff with training to recognize possible sex trafficking occurring at their businesses.
"I think we've made a good start. We did do a program evaluation to see what is happening, and we have seen an uptick in the number of cases that have been identified at hotels … and we've also seen a huge increase in the amount of training (by hoteliers)," Brettmann said. "… When I talk to people from Bellevue, they seem to think their community is somehow immune," because of the level of affluence. "Nobody is immune to this, in fact a lot of this crime follows money, so they're also at risk."
Brettmann said BEST is also working to develop a way for hoteliers to communicate with each other, but it's uncertain how many might get on board.
"We're not sure if it's going to work yet," she said. "… We're just kind of piloting it, right now."
Carol Loya said she's using her business, Truce Spa at the Westin Bellevue Hotel, to champion the healing side for sex trafficking victims. Loya carried her charge back to Bellevue and her Kirkland church from Thailand, where in 2012 she joined other congregation members in working to get girls and women out of the sex trade there.
Escape to Peace is a global mission to end human trafficking. Loya said locally that includes clothing and toiletry drives, raising funds for the Bellevue Police Department to aid victims and workshops with high school students to decorate flip-flops for victims, she said.
"The police will say the youth will come in dirty, so they give them the toiletries to clean up. With their street clothes on they're still in this state of who they were," Loya said, adding she coordinates her efforts with Patricelli at the police department. "People really want to help. I say, these people want to do something, what do you need, and she'll say something like flip-flops and then our goal is flip-flops."
Truce Spa also issues clients puzzle pieces – the symbol for human trafficking — for donations of three wine or other bottles that are used to create candles to aid victims in relaxing their troubled bodies and minds. Loya said she hopes to put informative puzzle pieces up in storefront windows and other businesses around the area where traffickers are known to recruit sex workers.
"It just takes a while for things to get known, but we're working toward that, because that's our goal," Loya said. "I think it's going to be years of this whole movement."