Hook, Line, and Sucker
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.
It seems that on that particular Friday night, August 19, Metro-Dade police were hunting prostitutes at the same time the city was hunting johns, and neither told the other. The county cops also brought along observers: Circuit Judge Jonathan Colby and some neighborhood activists. Things were a little slow up in the 79th Street area, so the contingent started looking south. That's when the county detective met the city cop. "Yeah, one of their spotters sees our decoy, and taking her for a prostitute, advises one of their pickup cars to try to make a move," Blanco says, after the fact. "He apparently was wired."
Lt. Glenn Theobald of Metro-Dade's Tactical Narcotics Team was in charge of the county sting. "We used a hard-body bug microphone," he confirms, "where all the conversation the undercover detective has with the prostitute comes over into our vehicles. He says, 'I think we ran into a City of Miami sting.' Their cars came up, we responded to the scene. He did identify himself as a police officer."
"But apparently he was already handcuffed," Blanco elaborates. And the handcuffs were the plastic kind that had to be cut off. "They took him down to the [mini] station and released him there," Knowles adds. "I didn't want to alert passersby as to what was going down."
Now that it's over, everyone agrees such encounters are rare but not unheard of. "Sometimes it's a small world," concludes Blanco. Neither he nor Metro's Lieutenant Theobald is eager to draw any conclusions about the offer of "fifteen dollars for head" that apparently initiated the bust. Did the Metro cop assume he was dealing with a genuine prostitute and knowingly entrap her? "That's what the question is," Theobald says. "We don't know who offered who or what. There was a question about that, if both undercovers made an offer. I don't know which." Judge Colby adds he doesn't know who said what because he was riding in a car in which the conversation wasn't heard.
Officer Kelvin Knowles, who relayed to Blanco the Metro cop's offer of money for sex, says he doesn't have any reason to doubt decoy Ponder's word in this case, which seemed routine until after the exchange. Blanco diplomatically drops the subject. "It was an unfortunate set of circumstances," he says. "We kind of left it at that and said,'Okay, it's over.'"
Theobald says he can't release the name of Metro's undercover john because that could compromise a narcotics operation in which the detective is currently using his last name.
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