Cops launch drop-in shelter to help prostitutes in SeaTac
Frustrated — and heartbroken — by the violent, abusive cycle of the sex trade, King County sheriff's officers go "above and beyond the call of duty" to help its victims.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Learn more about The Genesis Project and view the trailer for the documentary, "Rape for Profit:" www.gpseattle.org
The young woman with long brown hair turned and waved at Detective Brian Taylor as he watched her from a parking lot off International Boulevard in SeaTac.
He maneuvered his SUV behind a building, but when she turned and waved again, he abandoned stealth for a face-to-face meeting.
"I think she's got me pegged as a cop," Taylor said with a sigh. "Let's go see if we know her."
As dusk darkened on a recent Friday, the woman crossed a side street and waited for Taylor to pull up.
"I knew it was you!" she said as Taylor climbed from behind the steering wheel. "I swear, I'm just walking. I'm not working."
For Taylor and the two other detectives assigned to the King County sheriff's Street Crimes Unit, such encounters are a nightly ritual as they patrol Highway 99 — also known as International Boulevard and Pacific Highway South, depending on location — from Tukwila to Federal Way. They look for girls and women walking "the track," but their real prey are the pimps who use seduction and violence to turn teens and young women into prostitutes, as well as the men who pay for sex in a section of South King County that has a seemingly endless supply of customers.
While many cops would rather not take their work home at the end of a shift, Taylor, Detective Joel Banks and Deputy Andy Conner have turned their jobs of busting pimps and johns into a passionate crusade to save victims of the sex trade.
The stories the girls and women have told — each one more heartbreaking than the last — pulled at the men's heartstrings. Yet they were continually frustrated by the lack of services available for young victims of prostitution: They would bust a pimp and remove a girl from his grasp, but a week later they'd see that same girl back on the streets, working for someone else.
"We wanted to do more than put the bad guys in jail. ... It's personal for us. It's way more than a job," said Taylor, a father of five.
The three men pooled their own money and appealed to their individual churches, along with 150 other congregations, to help them create The Genesis Project, a drop-in center just off the track in SeaTac. It's a safe place where a cup of coffee and a hot shower can become a starting point for a woman to chart her way out of the life.
The wives of two of the cops have also become deeply involved with the center.
"It's a rescue mission"
Prostitution isn't the victimless crime that law enforcement — and the larger community — long assumed it was, said Conner.
"Once I figured out the lives they're leading are horrific, that changed my perspective," he said of the young women he's met on the streets. "It's a rescue mission."
Staffed by female volunteers, including six survivors of the sex trade, The Genesis Project has operated on a shoestring since August, opening only when a girl or woman indicates to an officer that she's amenable to the help being offered.
At the center the girls and women can eat, shower, sleep, wash clothes or just watch TV. Before they leave, "we load them up with whatever they want — clothes, blankets, jewelry," said Taylor's wife, Leslie, who regularly volunteers there.
Usually, "they're very uptight and not comfortable at all when they come in, but we just talk to them like normal people, not prostitutes," she said. "Ninety percent of the time, they end up pouring their hearts out."
Conner and his colleagues are awaiting word on a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, money that will enable them to staff the center around the clock. In the meantime, the trio is also working with Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking nonprofit headed by former U.S. Congresswoman Linda Smith, to open a five-bedroom safe house on five acres in rural Pierce County.
While many recovery programs around the country, including The Bridge Program in Seattle and Children of the Night in Los Angeles, have focused their efforts on prostituted youth under 18, Conner said services offered through The Genesis Project as well as the safe house, dubbed The Exodus Project, will be available to both juveniles and adults.
So far, 30 girls and women have passed through the doors of The Genesis Project, including two sisters, then 15 and 16, who were the first to be brought in after the Street Crimes Unit busted their alleged pimp late last summer. Police officers from Kent, Auburn and Tacoma also bring girls and women to the center as an alternative to booking them into juvenile detention or jail. Most are between 14 and 24.
When they enter, project director Bonita Cooper makes sure candles have been lit, soft music is played and the air is filled with the scent of lavender — all meant to create a relaxed atmosphere that's the antithesis of whatever motel room or police interview room a young woman has just come from. Only women are allowed to volunteer inside the center because it eliminates stress for the rescued victims, who don't have to worry about having to fend off a man's advances.
"The only men they see that come into the center are these officers — and then the officers leave," Cooper said.
Until the drop-in center is open 24 hours a day, Cooper has relied on a network of contacts to find temporary housing and a variety of social services for the girls and women she sees. Some have been accepted into The Bridge Program in Seattle, while others have traveled to California to participate in residential-recovery programs there.
Should the Justice Department grant come through, Cooper said The Genesis Project is ready to offer online GED courses, job training, as well as medical, dental and psychiatric help. "We even have someone to remove tattoos," Cooper said, noting that many pimps use tattoos as a way to brand the women.
The center is rigged with surveillance cameras, windows are blacked out and an old sign, belonging to a previous tenant, still hangs over the front door. Volunteers undergo criminal background checks, and a variety of safety measures are in place to ensure the location is protected.
"Above and beyond"
Taylor, Banks and Conner have worked vice cases for the past decade. While some of those investigations involved prostitution, they spent most of their time going after drug dealers, said Conner's wife, Laura. That changed about three years ago, when their focus shifted to sex traffickers and buyers.
She said her husband — whose work time is split between DUI enforcement and providing patrol support to the Street Crimes detectives — first floated the idea of a drop-in center for prostitutes several years ago while the couple sat in church.
"He'd been wanting to do this a long time," she said. "After their focus turned to the girls, he's just a lot more excited every day when he goes to work."
Nominated by former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr for his work on The Genesis Project, Conner was named the 2012 Citizen of the Year by the Metropolitan League of King County in April.
A documentary-film crew also followed the team for about six months and the film, "Rape for Profit," which features The Genesis Project, is to be released soon.
Rahr, now the executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said she nominated Conner, the idea man behind The Genesis Project, because creating the center to help prostitutes find a way out of the life was "just so above and beyond the call of duty."
While most people think of law enforcement officers as "enforcers," Rahr said Conner, Taylor and Banks — who she described as "grizzled veterans" — have taken on the role of "compassionate guardians" for girls and women who have been sexually, emotionally and financially exploited.
The lure of Highway 99
Getting a girl to open up and turn on her pimp is a slow, patient exercise in trust-building, especially since prostitutes are conditioned to protect their pimps at all costs, Taylor said.
"We pass out business cards like crazy," he said.
About 80 percent of the unit's criminal investigations begin when a girl or woman, finally fed up with the rapes and beatings, calls one of them — usually in the middle of the night — on their cellphone.
It's how the team busted D'Marco Mobley, who in April was sentenced to a 37-year prison term, the longest in state history for a pimp convicted of prostitution-related crimes. His youngest victim, a then-17-year-old, called Taylor one night "to get a violent pimp off her back," which enabled the detectives to launch a criminal investigation.
The stretch of highway the detectives work has been well known since at least the 1970s as a place to pick up prostitutes.
There are 5,300 hotel rooms in SeaTac alone, according to The Genesis Project's website. That concentration — along with the estimated 100,000 cars that travel up and down Highway 99 south of Seattle every day, and the 70,000 to 80,000 passengers who pass through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on a daily basis — has created a ready customer base for pimps.
"There's a huge concentration of girls who come here to work from all over the county," Taylor said. "We get so many girls from out of state because they hear South King County is the place where you can make a lot of money."
During one recent afternoon commute, the team tailed a gray Toyota Corolla to the parking lot of St. Thomas Parish, where they busted a beefy man in his 30s who had picked up an 18-year-old woman and agreed to pay her $40 for oral sex.
Taylor emptied the woman's pockets, which contained a pack of cigarettes and a handful of condoms.
"Once you've been doing something so long and being in the situation I'm in, it's hard to say no," said the woman, who began prostituting at 15. But she insisted she didn't have a pimp, and was only prostituting to pay the rent and care for her mentally disabled mother.
Her cellphone, however, told another story: As Banks drove her to the King County Jail in Seattle, "her phone was blowing up" with text messages from her pimp, Banks later told his colleagues. "He was telling her, 'Just keep stacking,' " said Banks, using a street term that means to keep making money.
"I can't pull away"
It was just before 9:30 p.m. when Taylor was spotted by the young woman with long brown hair who waved him down.
The woman was 20 years old but looked 14. Not even 5 feet tall, she had a fresh manicure and heavily lined eyes. Obviously sober, she told Taylor she can't prostitute unless she's high — she shoots meth when she works the track — but claimed she gives all of her money to a drug dealer, not a pimp.
"I hate myself sometimes," she said. "I can't pull away from this lifestyle, the fast money, and it sucks ... I don't like the person I've become."
She scanned the highway nervously and said she was afraid to be seen talking to a cop.
"Do you have bus fare? Have you eaten today?" Taylor asked as he pulled $7 out of his pocket.
She accepted the cash but when he offered her a business card, she said: "Keep it. I'll just throw it away."
Before she walked off into the night, Taylor told her: "Whenever you're ready to get out of this lifestyle, I have connections. Think about it. I'm always out here."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org