By Amy Wenk
At approximately 6 p.m. on Sept. 3, seven people entered a Sandy Springs hotel on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road.
But they weren’t looking for a restful night of sleep. They came to bust prostitutes.
The seven officers from the Sandy Springs Police Department, most casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts and one in a striped shirt and pressed pants, settled into three suites on the third floor for an undercover sting that targeted those who advertise sexual services on the Internet.
Two officers from Atlanta Police Department joined the operation hidden in the deluxe suites with flat-screen TVs and garden tubs.
Since February, police from Sandy Springs, Atlanta, Gwinnett County and Marietta have coordinated with the FBI to conduct prostitution stings in metro Atlanta. The work is part of a task force called MATCH, which strives to combat underage prostitution.
The purpose is “not to arrest young girls,” said Sgt. Robert Stevens, a vice officer with Sandy Springs Police. “It’s more to get them off the street and find out who the predators are.”
Stings occur at least twice a month and vary in format. Those apprehended under the age of 17 are handed over to the FBI.
The shakedown also sends a message about the city of Sandy Springs Sgt. Stevens said.
“Our goal is to make people scared to come to Sandy Springs to do any type of prostitution,” he said. “So far that is happening.”
The Sept. 3 set up did not rouse juvenile prostitutes, but it did put cuffs on 17 people: 12 women ages 18-27, one registered sex offender and three suspected pimps.
Staff writer Amy Wenk followed the sting in person and chronicles what she experienced.
At 5 p.m., Sgt. Stevens briefed me on the situation at hand. Internet prostitution is a growing problem. Instead of standing on street corners, women now advertise sexual services online. Rates vary from $50 to $400 per session.
“That’s a hard lifestyle to give up,” said Sgt. Stevens, who has worked with police Special Investigations Units for 10 years. The division handles narcotics, prostitution and gang-related cases. “It’s easy money. You don’t have to pay taxes.”
But other crimes seem to follow prostitution: drugs, drug trafficking, torture, rape and murder.
“We have solved other crimes by talking to these girls,” Sgt. Steven said. “It’s a seedy lifestyle. It’s dangerous and very unpredictable.”
To curb the crime, Sandy Springs Police has been eager to arrest prostitutes in the city. “If it goes to state, they pretty much get nothing,” he said.
If arrested in city limits, perpetrators are in violation of a city ordinance and charged with solicitation for illicit sexual acts.
“Solicitors have been doing really well trying to get this out of Sandy Springs,” said Sgt. Stevens, noting about 15 arrests have been made in the last month
We arrived at the hotel that Sgt. Stevens asked remain anonymous. We took the elevator to the third floor where the police began to set up. The crew was introduced and the process explained.
Det. Jeff Thomas, who wore the dress shirt and slacks, posed as the customer and called the women using a fake name from one of the rooms.
In that suite, a bug was hidden inside a coffee cup on the desk. A suitcase in the corner and some crumbled up trash set the stage.
A second room was for operations, where police waited to apprehend the said prostitutes. One officer was parked at the window with binoculars to watch the cars that approached the hotel. He corresponded with two officers in the lobby with walk-talkies.
The room also contained the bug equipment that allowed officers to monitor what occurred in the first room. Det. Jeff Byrd and Sgt. Stevens waited by the door, peeking out the peep hole, until they heard the take-down words, “naughty girl,” and then ambushed the room for an arrest.
The third room, occupied by Officer Amanda Martin, was where the women were detained and interviewed after capture.
“A lot of this is hurry up and wait,” said Sandy Springs police Det. Joseph Simone, who was stationed in the operations room. He sat at the desk manning the bug equipment and a laptop for recording cases and checking warrants. “Let’s start calling girls now.”
The first target was “Shannon,” an 18-year-old from Kennesaw who advertised herself as “the perfect treat” and charged $160 per hour.
Thomas made the call, and before long, a black Dodge Charger dropped the woman off at the hotel. Minutes later, officers spotted the young woman in a pink shirt and tight plaid shorts walking down the hallway. But she hesitated and soon turned to walk away.
Det. Byrd and Sgt. Stevens reacted quick, running out of the hotel room and demanding the woman put up her hands. They handcuffed her and detained her in the third hotel room.
“That was easy,” Sgt. Stevens said.
Another woman appeared just a moment later. Dressed in a black jumpsuit, she soon knocked on the hotel room where Det. Thomas waited. He invited her in and paid her. She began to remove her clothing until officers barged in and arrested her.
It was now just after 7:30 p.m., and the third room held four women. Those arrested include the two women who drove “Shannon” to the hotel. “We didn’t know what she was doing,” one pleaded. “I don’t see how we are getting solicitation.”
Sgt. Stevens said that was part of Sandy Springs’ zero tolerance approach.
“They facilitated the act,” he said.
There was a slight lull in activity after two more women are arrested.
But around 9 p.m., officers scrambled to keep the operation rolling. Women arrived within minutes of each other, making it difficult to remain inconspicuous. Officers succeed, at times snagging women just seconds before another caller strolled down the hotel hallway for her appointment.
“When it rains, it pours,” Sgt. Stevens said.
Among those busted are two transgendered individuals, “Mya” and “Mariah,” who said they were visiting Atlanta from Detroit, Mich. for a gay pride celebration.
Both received solicitation charges. One admitted to having ecstasy pills in his car. Officers discovered the other was wanted for shoplifting in DeKalb County.
Police also nabbed a registered sex offender, Charles Mason, who was a driver for two of the women detained.
The Paddy wagon
It was now after 11 p.m. After the arrest of the last woman, a 27-year-old who advertised massage services, a paddy wagon arrived to transport the suspects to the Doraville jail.
Soon all the officers lined the third floor walls as the accused filed into the hallway. They were taken in a single file line down the concrete stairway of the hotel to the ground floor. Using the elevator would have drawn attention, and officers wanted to keep a low profile in respect of hotel guests.
The prisoners were led into the parking lot behind the hotel where more than a dozen waist chains lay on the asphalt by the paddy wagon. Officers put the belts on those arrested and sent them on to jail.
“This is a good night,” Sgt. Stevens said as the sting drew to a close.