Twelve (12) suspects were arrested after they arrived at a Bellevue hotel to meet up with who they thought was a sex worker last week. The suspects were actually greeted by vice detectives who had set up a two-day sting operation.
It happened Nov. 14-15 and the suspects remain under investigation. Charges have not yet been filed, according to the Bellevue city prosecutor.
Leading to the arrests, Bellevue detectives posted on prostitution sites posed as a sex worker. They broadcasted that they would be in Bellevue on a certain day and between certain hours. Sixty-six (66) men responded to the detectives’ ads, police said.
“The detectives will follow the exact protocol a (sex worker) would,” said Meeghan Black, spokesperson with Bellevue PD.
That protocol includes requesting a selfie from the interested parties, a step sex workers take to identify the person. Black said sex workers typically think the photo will help protect them from being robbed, but this typically isn’t the case.
“Prostitution is not a victimless crime,” Bellevue Police Cpt. Dave Sanabria said in a news release. “The majority of the women become victims of rape, robbery and assault. Most are also coerced or forced to continue in the sex trade by a pimp and their economic circumstances.”
Usually a date will be made between the sex worker and sex buyer and the details provided on the meeting location. At some point an act and agreed upon price is discussed. And payment expected at meet up (The average price was between $80 and $100).
The detective’s conversations with johns happened via text message, Black said. Detectives gave the suspect the room number, and were waiting nearby. The moment the suspect knocked on the door to the room, the suspect was considered to be “completing the act.”
It satisfies the statute, Black said, on what is considered patronizing a prostitute. According to Washington law, a person is guilty of patronizing a sex worker if: he or she pays a fee to another person for them to engage in sexual conduct, he or she pays or agrees to pay a fee to another for sex acts, or if someone solicits or requests another to engage in sex acts in return for a fee.
Of the 12 suspects arrested, one was a Bellevue local. Others traveled to the city from neighboring areas. One was on business from Georgia. One drove a Ferrari to the operation. Another got lost and couldn’t make it to the hotel.
“What happens is people feel safe to leave their home city and go somewhere else,” Black said. “There, they’re less likely to run into acquaintances and family friends.”
For those arrested by Bellevue PD could come a mandatory education program. Prosecutor Stephen Penner said if and when it comes to that point, he would be recommending that in addition to a potential misdemeanor charge, those arrested also attend a mandatory 10-week program called Stopping Sexual Exploitation (SSE). It’s put on by Seattle Against Slavery.
In 2012, lawmakers added a stipulation for first-time offenders. They’re required to fulfill the terms of a program, designed to educate offenders about the negative societal costs of prostitution. Penner said while it was made a requirement, there was a lack of places that offered that kind of program in the county.
It was in 2017, during another sting operation in Bellevue that nabbed about 100 suspects, that Penner discovered the gap. It was his first time dealing with the issue, since he came to Bellevue in 2016. Because of the need, Bellevue’s probation department crafted its own class.
Since that sting two years ago, Bellevue has moved toward sending convicted parties to programming provided by Seattle Against Slavery, “a grassroots coalition that works to mobilize the community against sex and labor trafficking.”
The SSE program is designed to curb repeat sex buying by uncovering the cycles of violence and unpacking masculinity, power, gender-based violence, and sex-buying, said Eli Zucker, men’s accountability director.
“A lot of men who come to the program don’t understand what their choice to buy sex is doing,” Zucker said. “The demand to purchase sex creates an incentive to traffick women. “
The group-based program consists of an education component, which explores how “manhood” is learned in society and the impacts it has. The back-end of the program is focused on creating the tools to build healthy, fulfilling relationships.
According to numbers provided by Zucker, at the end of the program 95 percent of participants say they won’t purchase sex again, 83 percent agreed that buying sex “had a negative impact on others in their life” and 75 percent anticipated they would share their thoughts with other men on the harm buying sex causes.
“We hope they not only leave with education… but are also able to build a social network and that they can have more fulfilling relationships in their lives, when equipped with ways to communicate and be vulnerable,” Zucker said.
He said it’s when men are able to build healthy support networks that the landscape is changed and program attendees choose to make different decisions — instead of buying sex.