Hook, Line, and Sucker

What if they held a prostitution sting and everybody came? And what if one of the johns was a cop not keyed in to the action?

It was a hot Friday night on Biscayne Boulevard, and they were out under a full moon: the hunters and the game. Here at 73rd Street, across from the Vagabond Motel and in front of a gutted office building, was the game. A young black woman in a low-back jumpsuit, hair up in an elegant roll, standing with arms crossed.

A red Cavalier heading south on Biscayne slowed, turned onto 73rd, and the driver called out to the woman. She coyly approached his window, hands behind her back. They talked. The hunter was sizing up his quarry, calculating. Then the woman straightened a bit, her hands went languidly up to her hair as if securing a bobby pin or a comb, and she began to saunter over to the passenger's side. At once two patrol cars with lights flashing sped up to the Cavalier. The woman sprinted away into an alley. The young, would-be john climbed out sheepishly, and the cops handcuffed him and performed a quick search of his car.

The hunter, in the words of the Smokey Robinson song, gets captured by the game.

On this night, the Miami Police Department was conducting a reverse prostitution sting in the heart of hookerland. Officer Melissa Ponder was the decoy prostitute. Officer Kelvin Knowles was the "close cover," posing in a loose red T-shirt and jeans as her pimp, who, as pimps around here do, lurked just out of sight. Knowles was in radio contact A on a frequency reserved for this operation A with Sgt. Eduardo Blanco of the department's Push Out Pushers (POPS) program, who was directing the sting. Normally Blanco's unit is involved in drug operations, but it regularly helps out on prostitution stings, which the department stages once or twice a month. This one had been planned for 59th Street and Biscayne, but a sudden influx of Cuban refugees into the hotels in that area prompted the operation to move north. Invited to observe the sting in Sergeant Blanco's unmarked Buick, which was parked a block east of the boulevard on 73rd Street, were a local community activist and a New Times reporter.

After the john was taken seven blocks south to the Upper Eastside police ministation and his car driven off to be impounded, the decoy was back out. Almost immediately a pickup truck pulled over. The white man inside was wearing a shirt with what appeared to be epaulets on the shoulders. "He could be a pilot," commented the gravel-voiced, silver-haired Blanco. "We get a lot of professional men, upstanding citizens. You wouldn't believe some of the guys we've picked up. We've gotten a lawyer from the State Attorney's Office, we've even gotten a cop."

Whoever he was, the man in the pickup was having a long discussion with the decoy. She isn't allowed to make any offers; by law that would be entrapment, Blanco explained. The prospective john must offer a specific amount of money (or other unit of exchange, such as crack cocaine) for a specific sex act before he can be arrested. After each arrest, decoy Ponder would tell Knowles the amount offered and for what sex act(s). Knowles would then relay the information by radio to Blanco. (Since the advent of crack on the boulevard, prices for sex have plummeted. Fellatio, for example, might have gone for $25 in the past, according to cops and prostitutes; today the price can be as low as $5 or $6.)

"The guys that talk the most have the most to lose," Blanco said with a touch of impatience; the "pilot" was still chatting with the decoy. "He probably sees that she's clean and doesn't have any marks on her, that she looks better than most of the hookers, and he's wondering if she's a cop. I just tell the girls if they get someone like that to say, 'Get the hell outta here, I'm working.'" It is true that Ponder looked suspiciously attractive when compared to most of the drug addicts on Biscayne. The pilot in the pickup drove away without making an offer.

At about 9:30 by the digital clock on Blanco's dashboard, a new white convertible Mustang moving slowly toward Biscayne on 73rd Street came to a stop. Inside was a young, clean-cut white male. The decoy approached the driver's window as usual, hands clasped behind her (a precaution against being pulled into the car), and they talked. Then up went the arms behind the head, the flirtatious little stretch that signaled the hunter had made the damning proposition. "Okay, she got one, move in," Blanco rasped into the radio.

"What was the offer?" the sergeant asked a few moments later.
"Fifteen dollars for head," replied the voice on the other end. The two patrol cars with flashing lights pulled up, but so did three or four other cars A civilian cars. While the clean-cut john stood handcuffed against the shiny Mustang, a man in street clothes got out of one of the civilian cars and began talking with the arresting officers. Knowles, at the scene, looked at the very surprised Mustang driver. He's seen that face before, he thought. Possibly in court. Down the street, Blanco wasn't getting much radio information. "What's going on?" he wondered. "Who's in those cars?" Everyone drove off. Knowles emerged from behind a corner convenience store, crossed the boulevard, and walked toward Blanco's car. They spoke on the sidewalk.

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