Getting women off the streets

Fed-up neighbors are fighting prostitution on West Fourth Street. Cops are taking action. But the real solution may lie elsewhere.

Photo By David Robert

The hooker looker drives slowly down Fourth Street, craning his neck at every pair of legs—whether it’s the obvious tourist women walking up West Fourth by the Sands or the dark-haired teen in sweats, wearing a Walkman and jiving to the beat as she passes a convenience store on East Fourth.

I pull up close enough to his beat-up Wagoneer to read a bumper sticker. Someone has a “child-of-the-week” at a local elementary school. And it is about 3 p.m. But this guy isn’t in the right neck of the woods for picking up a fourth- or fifth-grader. That’s not what he’s looking for.

He cruises the length of East Fourth until it becomes Prater Way. Then he turns around.

“If you sit here and watch long enough, you can spot the Johns,” the police officer says. “Legitimate cars are going to work, going home. You don’t see the same car going by five times.”

Sgt. Robert Nuttall looks out the window of a restaurant on West Fourth Street. He drinks coffee and tells me about the Reno Police Department’s Special Enforcement Team, a division of officers who handle things like street-level drug buys and the stepped-up vice operations on West Fourth. On the Friday before Christmas, Nuttall and his team—including a female officer used as bait—nabbed five guys aged 32 to 49 for solicitation of prostitution and, while at it, busted a 20-year-old for unlawful use of a controlled substance.

The theory behind the John stings is obvious. Cops want to discourage guys from heading to Fourth Street for sex. By reducing demand, they’ll reduce supply, ultimately getting girls off the streets.

“It’s simple business,” Nuttall says. He compares getting sex from a street prostitute on Fourth Street to getting a favorite product from a familiar store. One day, the store shuts down. It’s hard to find that favorite product. “So you stop using that product.”

Two days after Christmas, the team is out nailing more horny guys. Each John is arrested, fingerprinted, tested for HIV, booked into Washoe County Jail and fined $1,370 for solicitation of prostitution, a misdemeanor. If a guy who tests positive for HIV is busted on the streets again, it’s a felony.

Nuttall’s radio crackles on the table: “She’s headed south on Washington.”

The RPD’s “girl” starts her night not far from the Gold Dust West Casino. It doesn’t take long for her to attract an interested male.

“Think we got our first one,” Nuttall says. He adds that the Johns are being a bit more careful. “They’re leery now. They drive by our girls a couple of times. But they can’t control themselves. They’ll pull over and make the deal.”

The female cop doesn’t usually get in cars with Johns. Sometimes, though, she will, if the situation seems safe enough. “It’s a misdemeanor crime,” Nuttall says. “I’m not going to get an officer killed over it.” During day shifts, the police will arrest mostly senior citizens or others, often ethnic minorities, he says, who aren’t usually that scary. But at night, Nuttall says, the weirdos come out.

“On the swing shift, we see some serious freaks,” he says. “These are guys with extensive criminal histories.”

In Reno, Nuttall recalls, three or four girls were murdered in the early ‘90s. And there are still cases of girls being abducted off the streets, sometimes by men posing as undercover police officers.

“They tell girls, ‘You got a choice. You can have sex with me or go to jail.’ “

It’s hard to say how many street prostitutes are beaten up, robbed or kidnapped.

“Most gals never report it,” Nuttall says. “Society looks at crimes against prostitutes as no big deal. Especially if you get a hard gal in her mid-20s that’s been working the streets for a couple of years. … The girls don’t report it. They take their lumps. They lose their money. They go on.”

The radio crackles again. The officers have arrested William Johnson, 43, and they need a case number.

“This guy’s got dope on him and a bunch of credit cards in other people’s names,” an officer tells Sgt. Nuttall. Nuttall tilts the radio so I can hear.

Johnson ends up being charged with solicitation of prostitution, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of controlled substances (meth and marijuana), having a fictitious registration and a revoked driver’s license, possession of credit cards without owners’ consent, felony probation violation and possession of a stolen vehicle.

“See?” Nuttall shakes his head. “That’s what I mean.”

She’d had complaints from customers, patrons of the Chapel Of The Bells. One groom arrived at the wedding chapel in his tuxedo, ready to meet up with his bride. As soon as he got out of the limousine and headed across the parking lot, a hooker propositioned him for sex.

“In our parking lot!” exclaims Margaret Flint, whose family has owned the property for about 40 years.

And she couldn’t believe it when she heard that a neighbor woman was propositioned while walking her 6-year-old daughter to the bus stop.

“The guy said, and I’ll be blunt, ‘I’ll give you $100 for head,’ right in front of her daughter!”

But the final straw was when a hooker looker—Flint’s label—hit on her daughter’s 13-year-old friend as the girl walked up to the dollar store on Keystone Avenue.

“That’s when I said ‘enough',” Flint says. “The hookers were so visible out there, so blatant. And the cops just drove by them.”

Flint and I are downstairs in a family photo-filled office under the Chapel Of The Bells. Her dad, George Flint, is owner of the chapel and a spokesman/lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association.

Margaret Flint and her friend, Suzzette Jorgensen, decided to take action to get the girls off their streets. In November, they made a couple of signs and went out to the street corner to picket. “Hooker lookers go out east,” one sign proclaimed. The comment was misunderstood by at least one East Fourth Street business owner.

Getting girls off the streets involves reducing the demand for prostitutes, says Sgt. Robert Nuttall of the Reno Police Department’s Special Enforcement Team.

Photo By David Robert

“I got a call from the owner of a bar on East Fourth, and he said that he’d just gotten rid of them and he didn’t want them back,” Flint says, chuckling. She had meant that guys looking for sex should make the 15-minute drive east of Sparks to the Old Bridge Ranch, a legal brothel.

Flint and Jorgensen picketed only two times—and law enforcement’s response was speedy. “I love what the RPD is doing,” Flint says.

When she was out with her signs on the street corner, someone drove past and rolled down the window.

“He was griping, ‘This is Fourth Street. If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have a business here.’ … But I was here way before hookers invaded. This is what feeds my kids. I’m not going to give up on it.”

Flint says she’s seen things on the street outside the chapel door that “break [her] heart.” She’s seen girls that couldn’t be more than a few years older than her 10-year-old daughter. Once she called in to report a woman who was regularly dropped off on West Fourth by a guy who’d then park on Washington Street and wait.

“They came and pulled him out of the car and there was a baby in there.”

Another woman would arrive on Fourth with a man and small child, about 2 years old or so, Flint supposes. The woman would arrange a “date.”

“Then he’d walk up and down the street with the little boy while she was doing her thing,” Flint says.

The worst thing is watching a woman disintegrate, her body showing the effects of heroin or crack or sexually transmitted diseases. One woman whom Flint sees frequently has a multitude of cold sores crusting up all around her mouth.

“If I were married and my husband felt he needed to have sex with someone else, I’d rather he went to a legal brothel where it’s safe. It’s dirty and nasty out there on the street.”

When you’re a woman working the street, breaking free can seem impossible.

“Sometimes you have to go to prison to clean your life up,” says Gloria Weber, 52. “Or get beaten up so bad that you’ll never be the same.”

Weber works at the Center Street Mission’s thrift shop on Wells Avenue. She tells of Tammy, a prostitute who’d been through Center Street Mission’s recovery program. Tammy graduated and seemed to have her life on track. She worked for Gloria as a cashier in the thrift shop. Then one day she went back out on the street.

“She just decided she wanted to do something else,” Weber says.

Before long, Weber heard the news that Tammy had been beaten nearly to death.

“I went to see her and her head looked like a pumpkin,” she says. “It’s a dangerous world out there. We don’t have any control at all.”

Weber and two other women in Center Street Mission’s program sit in a meeting room under the thrift store to tell me their stories.

“Where we come from, on the street, we are gamers,” explains Sarah Gilbert, 26. “We’re going to try and play you.”

“We don’t know any other way,” Weber says.

Weber and Gilbert have both been homeless. Gilbert, looking now like the red-headed college student she is, says she lived for three months straight at local bars. She entered the CSM program seven months ago, got her general-education diploma and started going to Truckee Meadows Community College. She wants to be an elementary school teacher.

Weber hitchhiked to Reno five years ago. After losing all her money, seven bucks, in a nickel slot machine and sleeping in a vacant apartment, she ended up at the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission. She got the boot for a rule infraction after just two nights and ended up sleeping on the floor at the homes of various acquaintances. She’d get food from Center Street Mission and eventually started attending Bible studies there. When she finally asked CSM staff for help, she had pneumonia. She was counseled by CSM’s executive director, Edwina Hughes.

“She told me, ‘Girl, we got a lot of work to do,’ “ Weber says.

Life on the streets didn’t land Weber and Gilbert on Fourth Street. A newer member of CSM’s women’s program, Rebecca Haroldson, 34, wasn’t that fortunate.

She ended up working Fourth Street not long after she and her husband of 17 years, Steve, came to Reno from Washington. That was July. The couple blew all their money on motels. By the time Hot August Nights rolled around, things were getting desperate.

“I was out prostituting myself on the streets, spending the money on crack and motels,” she says. “And then we’d get too high, so we buy some alcohol …”

“To straighten up,” Gilbert interjects.

“Then we’d need more dope,” Haroldson says.

“Because you weren’t high enough.”

“I prayed every time I went out on Fourth Street, ‘God, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ “ Haroldson says. Her voice breaks. The other two women both stand to reach for a box of tissues.

“I had to sleep down by the river one night,” she continues. “It was cold. My hair was so freaked out. I couldn’t do my makeup. … I got a job at a casino, but I couldn’t go to work smelling like fish.”

Photo By David Robert

“When I started prostituting, I had to be drunk. So I numbed and dumbed. If I was normal, like today, I’d hear a voice inside saying, ‘What are you doing, Rebecca? This is so wrong.’ I had to get drunk not to hear the voice. I’d tell myself this was the last time. Then we’d wake up in the morning with no money and me having to go out there again.”

In October, Steve went to Center Street Mission and joined the men’s program. Some guys on the street—people Haroldson considered friends—told her that her husband had left town.

“They said, ‘He hates you. He said you’re a lousy whore.’ “

One of these men convinced Haroldson, who’d been working and had $600, into getting a room for his girlfriend, a heroin addict who was five months pregnant. Haroldson had befriended the girl.

“I’d tell her, ‘You need to quit shooting heroin into your neck. You keep nodding off, and you’re going to get killed,’ “ she says.

But Haroldson wasn’t in much of a position to give advice. Within two days, her money was gone. She’d been beaten, raped and robbed by those she considered friends.

She went to the library, got on the Internet and received the message that her husband was at Center Street Mission. At first, she wanted nothing to do with the program. Then she decided she could put up with the hassle of CSM’s rules and regulations for two weeks, long enough for her and Steve both to earn just enough money to leave town.

She and Steve were sent to separate houses for men and women. Rebecca was irritated that she’d have to attend classes. But in less than a week, she’d been deeply changed by the compassion and caring of women whom she now considers sisters.

“First I said, ‘I’m not staying in Reno. If I walk into Jack-in-the-Box, everyone there knows I’m a prostitute.’ But now I don’t care. I say, ‘Look at me now. I came from the muck and the mire.’ … And other people can say, ‘Her life was just like mine, but look how God’s worked in her life.’ You think you’re not worthy, being a prostitute. God has mercy on me. He’s letting me have another chance.”

While I’m at the Chapel of the Bells, the brothel man himself—George Flint—sits down to chat. He doesn’t want to sound like an advocate for legal brothels, he says. But isn’t it interesting that in the two years since the high-profile Mustang Ranch closed, street prostitution has become more visible, seemingly more prevalent in Reno?

“With the closure of the Mustang Ranch, there was this perception that the brothels had closed,” Flint says. “Nobody even knew the Old Bridge Ranch existed. And because they’re limited in their ability to advertise, they really just have to sit there and exist.”

Street prostitution and work at a legal brothel are two different animals, he says, telling me about one girl he knew from the brothels.

“She made the mistake of falling in love with a young man,” he says, “and he convinced her to leave the house.”

After some time on the streets, the girl came to the chapel to see Flint. She feared for her life, she told him, after her friend had disappeared. The girl gave Flint some money, a few hundred dollars.

“She said, ‘Will you hold on to this for me, put it in your safe?’ “ Flint pauses. “You know, that was eight years ago. And I still have that envelope with that money still in it.”

Prostitution is going to exist, Flint argues. So the question he’d ask is how do we, as a society, want it to exist? On the street as an illegal activity associated with drugs and violence—or in a regulated, licensed, disease-free brothel?

Arresting the Johns and the girls deters prostitution to some extent in the short run, Flint says. But other communities keep prostitution in check only by doing vice operations year after year after year.

“It still flourishes everywhere,” Flint says. “And the only place it hasn’t flourished until now is in Reno. That’s because it’s been legal and available.”

The police won’t be able to keep this keen of a focus on West Fourth forever, Nuttall says. They hope to do enough work there for change to occur.

“We’re trying to change the public perception that this is a victimless crime,” Nuttall says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For example, this summer, police began seeing girls as young as 12 or 13 in record numbers.

“You can’t tell me that a 12-year-old runaway who’s picked up by a pimp isn’t a victim,” Nuttall says. The RPD couldn’t put their finger on the man they suspected of running the young girls. But they managed to arrest him for a drug violation and “ran him out of town,” Nuttall says. When he left, the girls disappeared, too. Not that this solved the problem for the girls, who likely work somewhere else.

Nuttall, who has two daughters of his own, says the RPD would like to be more involved with a Hollywood nonprofit group called Children of the Night, which tracks child prostitutes through the Western states. At Children of the Night’s shelter, child prostitutes are offered intervention, shelter and education in a atmosphere of “unconditional love,” according to the Hollywood group’s Web site.

Getting young girls off the streets, and keeping them off, involves more than arrests or John stings to reduce demand.

“We don’t have a lot of mechanisms in place [to help child prostitutes],” Nuttall says. “It kind of took us by surprise, and it shouldn’t have. … If you don’t intervene after an arrest, it’s likely the child will run away again and fall back into the lifestyle.”

What will it take to really help women get off the street?

As homeless service providers remind us, there aren’t many mechanisms in place to help adult women in Reno, either. The drop-in homeless shelter on Morrill Avenue doesn’t accept women. A woman can stay a few nights at Reno- Sparks Gospel Mission. But after that time, unless she signs up for one of the mission’s programs, she’ll be back on the street.

The women I talked to at Center Street Mission—women who’ve been there—say that it took the love of God, the support of a community and an individual decision to seek out help.

“You make a commitment, but you don’t do it on your own,” Weber says. “You have the umbrella of God and these people as your back-up. … What you get here isn’t what you get out on the street. What do you get out there? I lost everything. My family, my ID, my purse, my makeup.”

“Morals,” Gilbert adds.

“Brain cells,” Haroldson says, smiling.

“Liver,” Weber says.

“Self-respect," Gilbert says. "But this is renewing. You lost yourself so long ago…"