Sacramento's red-light district is a 9-mile trail of violence, disease and hopelessness—and it's busier than ever
A federal crackdown curbed online prostitution but forced it back onto the streets.
Pearl Callahan pulls her sedan to the side of Stockton Boulevard, just up from an abandoned house with boarded-up windows, somewhere near Sacramento’s southern city limits. Planted on the stoop is a young woman with stringy blonde hair, wearing sunglasses to cloak an already-dark night. Callahan, small and dainty under a canopy of bangs hedging her forehead, turns to her best friend, Kristen DiAngelo. They exchange a look. These onetime sex workers know a member of the tribe when they see her.
Over the past year, they say, that tribe has grown in both size and despair.
“I have never in my life seen that many workers in the street,” DiAngelo says.
You’d be hard-pressed to find better authorities on the subject. The two started out as sex workers in the ’70s, surviving rapes, robberies, kidnappings and other callous mistreatment. Decades later, they’ve reinserted themselves into the landscape as activists, with DiAngelo fronting a local iteration of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Along with a platoon of like-minded allies, SWOP Sacramento has attempted the first scholarly survey of the homegrown sex-worker population.
The findings depict alarming rates of violence, medical neglect and hopelessness. It’s a public-health crisis disguised as a criminal nuisance.
Sacramento’s unofficial red-light district is a 9-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard that cuts through the neighborhoods of Oak Park, Little Saigon, south Sacramento and Florin like an incision, scabbed on either side by cheap commerce and human suffering. Across the street from a chapel is a dingy motel where the transgender workers congregate. Fifteen blocks south is the pitch-black mouth to a mobile-home park where underage girls are trafficked, DiAngelo says. Past Mack Road, the older “renegades” solicit.
Along with an area of Watt Avenue north of Auburn Boulevard, it’s one of the county’s busiest open-air prostitution markets. Busier still, since federal authorities raided an online escort operation last summer.
In June 2014, a joint investigation by the IRS and FBI brought down myRedBook. Authorities say the San Francisco-based website, which primarily served California and Nevada, facilitated prostitution and had to fall. Sex workers say the site provided a meager safeguard against predators, pimps and cops.
When it disappeared, the most at-risk workers—those of limited means and greatest need—were displaced to the streets.
“Every time somebody gets in a car, you never know if they’re going to come back,” Callahan reflects. “They don’t even know if they’re going to come back. But you take that risk because you have to.”
That desperation is what brings DiAngelo and Callahan out night after night. On this Saturday, they’re spreading word about a safety class where they’ll instruct workers how to guard against predators.
Crouching down to eye level, DiAngelo invites the woman on the stoop. The woman’s voice shakes. “You’re doing that for us?” she asks.
Down the street, a female worker slides into the passenger side of a pickup truck. It drives off. Moments later, the stoop is empty, too.Feds start the fire
“Monroe” is a 23-year-old woman hiding out in Sacramento, a potential FBI informant against the pimp who trafficked her up and down the coast. But a year ago, the young mother and former sex worker was operating independently. She was on the road to San Jose, where the plan was to set up in a motel room around midnight and earn some money.
That’s when myRedBook went dark.
On the freeway passing Fremont, Monroe checked the home page on her phone and discovered three government agency seals and a terse message: “This domain has been seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as the result of a joint investigation by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service.”
She knew that instant the game had changed.
When federal authorities indicted myRedBook’s operators, sex workers lost an online resource they used to warn each other about dangerous clients. Unlike other escort-friendly sites with broader geographic profiles, myRedBook allowed users to access safety information and post certain ads for free.
Monroe says she had a good rating on the site and only worked with clients who were equally well reviewed. “In order for me to see [clients], I had to see that they were reviewing other girls on there. I even asked to call some of the girls that they did see [for feedback],” she explains.
The safe dates were “white-listed” with a star. The bad ones weren’t.
Workers could also earn enough money through the site to hold down apartments and cars, keep their pimps at bay—or even operate without them, which is rarer on the streets, local detectives say. It wasn’t an ideal existence, by any means—and there are plenty of myRedBook horror stories out there—but it provided a measure of control to those who knew how to use it.
When it disappeared, that all changed.
“I think we all remember that day,” DiAngelo says. “It was sort of like, ’What are you doing? It’s our only safe mechanism. What are you doing?’”
In the immediate aftermath, DiAngelo, Monroe and others say pimps forced their workers into a climate they weren’t prepared for. Here’s how Monroe remembers that time: “A lot of the Ps started to get together and rob, or they started beating up dates, which made it even harder [on us],” she says. “Ps were kidnapping girls. … Dates were even pulling up on girls, taking them, raping them. Pulling us into back alleys, all types of stuff.”
DiAngelo says she interviewed four sex workers who fled the skyrocketing hostility in Oakland in search of safer trespass in Sacramento.
Perverted market principles followed the migration. As the local street supply increased, demand decreased. Whereas workers used to average $100 or more for an online date, they were barely clearing $20 to $40 for a parking lot sex act. That inflamed the transient workforce to accept bigger risks for less money, forsaking condoms and other precautions just so they could make it to another day.
“From a public-health standpoint, it makes us cringe,” says Rachel Anderson, executive director of SANE, an acronym for Safer Alternatives Through Networking and Education or Sacramento Area Needle Exchange.
Federal and local law enforcement officials dispute that any diaspora from the net to the streets is occurring. They say the disappearance of myRedBook may have caused a momentary blip, but contend most of that activity “simply shifted” to other sites.
That’s how Special Agent Maria Johnson, who supervises the Sacramento field office’s child exploitation task force, put it in an emailed statement to SN&R.
On the whole, authorities contacted by SN&R were reluctant to discuss myRedBook. It’s easy to see why.
In return for dismantling myRedBook and prosecuting its purported operators, Eric “Red” Omuro of Mountain View and Annmarie Lanoce of Rocklin, the federal government didn’t come away with much.
Omuro, 54, was recently sentenced to 13 months in federal prison and handed a $3,000 fine. Lanoce, 41, struck a plea, the details of which have been sealed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In fact, much of the case against myRedBook has been sealed upon request by the Department of Justice, including the warrant affidavit, which summarizes the FBI’s investigation and probable cause for making its arrests.
Prosecutors for the DOJ ignored multiple requests for comment, as did attorneys for Omuro and Lanoce.Return to the mean streets
Seated by the window of a nearly empty fast-food restaurant, a woman scans the parking lot coming through the skin of her reflection. This sex worker was somewhere out there, talking sweet and hiking up the bloom of her pink dress for a ratty billfold or two. She smells of that work now, and looks worn from a life of it.
She’s nervous, anxious, averting eye contact and concentrating instead on her hands and that window. It’s where she looks when she talks about the first time she was raped.
She doesn’t linger on the details. The man who did it was her first client. He assaulted her, left and that was that. The second rape, that was different. It was another client, an ordinary-looking guy who wouldn’t let her leave his car. She starts to talk about the knife he used, but the memory gets the best of her.
“He told me not to scream and I didn’t,” she says. The whites of her eyes sprout red veins as she turns her face and sobs.
DiAngelo reaches across the table and tells the woman to say no more. She and Callahan know how these stories end.
Since the beginning of this year, DiAngelo and Callahan have conducted emotional interviews like this one. Offering $20 apiece and free pizza—and with crisis intervention specialists on hand—the two women and another former sex worker set up in secluded locations where pimps weren’t allowed and listened as dozens of working prostitutes unpacked their lives. Mothers selling themselves at the end of the month to feed their kids. Girls who took their first tricks at the age of 12. Women, young and old, who turned to the needle to dull the horrors of the trade—and now sell their bodies to feed that addiction.
“It makes you want to cry,” says Anderson, who observed some of the interviews and helped assemble the report that’s based on them. “It makes me want to cry, and I’m a jaded old bitch.”
The report’s findings are equally blunt.
Of the 44 sex workers interviewed, a staggering 59 percent say they had been raped at least once.
Fifty-five percent report getting beaten at least once, while 27 percent say the abuse occurred at the hands of law enforcement.
Another 48 percent say they’ve been forced into sex work against their will.
Behind these statistics lie stories of chilling depravity. Multiple workers, interviewed separately, told DiAngelo similar accounts of a man in a white pickup truck who drove them to a home in Folsom, held them prisoner for days, assaulted them, poured vinegar in their orifices to conceal his abuse and dumped them near Folsom Lake with threats of death if they reported him. They didn’t.
In fact, though 55 percent of survey participants said they would report a crime to law enforcement, none of them actually had.
DiAngelo interviewed one woman with healed gunshot wounds she sustained during an attack, and another whose attacker slit her mouth from its corner to her ear. Neither woman turned to police, reasoning that they were still alive.
That syncs up with what Detective John Sydow has experienced in his years working human-trafficking cases with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Investigations/Intelligence Bureau. He says authorities only learn a sex worker has been victimized if someone else comes forward. “They’re thinking, ’Nobody’s going to believe me. I’m just a drug addict. I’m just a prostitute. Who’s going to care?’” he says.
The detective would argue that he does, and that law enforcement as a whole has gotten better at determining when someone needs help instead of handcuffs. “So many women and underage girls we encounter, so many of them are not getting arrested,” he says. “But it’s not like you have a bunch of social workers driving around in uniform.”
DiAngelo knows this terrain too well.
On a stormy August night in 1983, she ducked into an old cardroom on J and 21st streets to play Ms. Pac-Man and dry off. A heavyset man crowded the blinking screen and offered her a ride home. DiAngelo accepted. Instead, the 59-year-old drove to a shabby neighborhood off north C and 16th streets and invited DiAngelo inside while he got something. DiAngelo had called it quits for the night, but entertained the notion that this could be a potential client. The discussion never got that far.
Once inside, the man locked the door and placed a standing fan in front of it. He then produced a badge and made like he was a cop.
“Bullshit,” DiAngelo scoffed, edging toward the exit.
The man grabbed a fistful of blond hair and yanked the 92-pound woman into his orbit. DiAngelo bit hard into the beefy palm that smothered her mouth. He pounded her face until her eyes swelled shut and blood filled her mouth. Wet hands drifted around her throat and locked until things went dark. She was strangled and raped repeatedly that night.
The rest is a jumbled collage of images: being dragged down her attacker’s back steps, cutting her leg on a wooden board, hearing the trunk of his car open.
When the man went indoors to fetch the contents of her spilled purse, she dragged herself across the driveway to the end of the street. She crawled to where the streetlights found her, where her shouting attacker refused to follow. Through swollen eyelids, DiAngelo made out the colors of a police car blurring past. It didn’t stop. But a low-rider occupied by Latino men did. They saved DiAngelo’s life.
“I didn’t realize how messed up I was until I saw the look in their eyes,” she recalls. “They were scared to death.”
At the hospital, DiAngelo says two police officers tried to talk her out of filing a report, saying it would only shine a light on her prostitution activities. She went over their heads to the district attorney’s office, which filed a criminal complaint against her attacker. According to court documents, he received a 45-day sentence of collecting trash on weekends for an unrelated crime.
DiAngelo still carries a faint rasp in her voice—a battle scar from that long-ago attack. It serves as a constant reminder. “I always tell people, your voice is the biggest thing you have. Scream, make noise,” she tells the woman across from her. Then, smiling, she adds: “It’s not like the movies.”
The woman laughs joylessly. “No,” she agrees, “this is some real shit right here.”How to end a nightmare
A teenager in a navy-blue visor calls out the order from behind a cash register. DiAngelo returns with two grease-bottomed paper sacks for the woman and her son, an oversized 3-year-old she’s nicknamed “Baby Shaq.” DiAngelo says she bought nuggets and a hamburger in case the kid is a picky eater.
“Nah,” the woman sighs, “he’ll eat all of that. You’ll see.”
DiAngelo and Callahan have offered her a lift to the house where she stays, which belongs to an uncle that may not be her uncle—a man whose propensity for sharing needles burrowed an apple-sized abscess into his arm. Other working girls stay there, too. Half of them don’t know another life, the woman says. Sometimes their drama gets to her, but then she reminds herself she doesn’t know what hells they’ve endured.
She only knows hers.
The woman has four children. An adult son lives in San Francisco. Child Protective Services took the youngsters when she tested positive for cocaine at the hospital. She wants to get clean, but says Medi-Cal has only given her the runaround, sticking her on various waiting lists and referring her to multiple dead ends.
“The only thing you can think of is to get high. Even if you do want help, there’s no place to go,” she says. “A lot of us do have homes and do have families, but who wants to be around their kids this way?”
The woman checks off many of the survey’s most marginalized boxes. She identifies as female, as did 96 percent of participants. She’s black, like 84 percent of them are. She’s over the age of 31, as 71 percent are.
In other words, she’s an adult black woman of scarce means, scraping together a life the only way she can. No wonder the system has ignored her.
Sacramento Area Congregations Together outreach worker Danielle Williams frames sex work as a Black Lives Matter issue. “If there were a bunch of white girls out on the streets like this our city and county leadership would issue a state of emergency,” she writes in an email.
The political response has been less decisive.
Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, who represents half of the affected strip, says the county is indeed experiencing “an uptick in prostitution along Stockton Boulevard, particularly near Mack Road where we have a Motel 6 operator who is a real problem and turns a blind eye to what is going on in the establishment.”
Asked whether help is being provided beyond law enforcement crackdowns, Kennedy says his office will be funding a navigator position through Sacramento Steps Forward to refer people of all ages along Mack and Florin roads into safety-net services.
Then there’s RESET, for Reducing Sexually Exploited & Trafficked, a new diversion court that sounds great—in theory. Adult female sex workers who catch a bust can get their charges dismissed if they complete programs. It’s similar to one already in play for sexually exploited minors and, unlike other diversion courts for drug users and military veterans, this one’s free and not overridden with eligibility qualifiers.
“It doesn’t even matter if you identify as a trafficking victim,” says Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger. “We don’t even ask.”
But activists fear the court may end up doing more harm than good.
While RESET is just rolling out here in Sacramento County, 11 similar diversion courts have been operating for close to two years in New York state. Critics there say the courts extort guilty pleas before sex workers can enroll in services, which creates trust barriers between participants and the providers. Critics also say these services don’t address the workers’ dire economic or health needs.
“I think diversion courts are often portrayed as a panacea, like we’re going to criminalize these people, but in a compassionate way,” says Sienna Baskin, managing director of the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project in New York.
SWP has been measuring how the New York courts are functioning. Project director Jessica Peñaranda says the preliminary findings show there’s no congruity in the services provided and no tracking of outcomes. But there is one thing she can say for sure:
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in arrests,” she says.
The motive, DiAngelo suspects, is to artificially boost the need for this new approach, which is being looked at as a model for the country.
At least one Sacramento County employee who worked on developing RESET says increased arrests are a possibility here. The employee spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, those who fail RESET’s diversion programs are on the hook for “alternative sentences” that they accepted when they originally pleaded guilty. And even those who successfully complete the programs will see their charges dismissed—but not thrown out completely.
Here’s why that matters: Any prospective employer searching Monroe’s real name in a court database would still be able to see that she was arrested for prostitution six times during a nine-month span. That was when she was under the control of a pimp who forbade her from making court appearances, but that context won’t be available.
For Monroe, it likely means crossing off her aspiration of becoming a registered nurse, and possibly some lower-hanging fruit. “I don’t want to keep explaining that the rest of my life,” she says wearily. “I just want it off.”
Sealing the records of adult sex workers and trafficking victims is a matter for state lawmakers to address. A spokesperson for Assemblyman Jim Cooper, whose district includes Stockton Boulevard’s red-light district, says it’s too late in the session to introduce legislation this year. But the Elk Grove Democrat could be interested.
“He plans to look into this matter, talk to law enforcement and victim’s groups, and research if a legislative fix is needed,” communications director Taryn Kinney writes in an email.
In the meantime, DiAngelo hopes the survey will elevate the visibility of a population that is “just trying to breathe.” She’s identified an old post office in Oak Park where she’d like to open a drop-in center, where workers can safely congregate, shower and stop looking over their shoulders. It’s the perfect spot, right off the main stroll.Life on the ‘blade’
During a recent Saturday night on Stockton Boulevard, it becomes clear why streets of illicit sexual commerce get called the “blade”: because they slice long and deep.
By this reporter’s count, approximately two dozen street workers scatter across the torched thoroughfare, milling near fast-food joints, liquor stores, check-cashing parlors, motels and empty warehouses. A few linger as far north as the UC Davis Medical Center. Each one is a black woman or girl.
In one strip-mall parking lot, a woman with straightened hair and a dark skirt makes the decision to approach a car that has drifted down a dark side alley adjacent to a closed discount chain. She leans an elbow on the driver’s window, not far from where a hand-to-hand drug deal is occurring.
In another lot, young men on bicycles cut long, drifting loops for no discernible reason. Cops and sex workers refer to them as “tennis-shoe pimps,” an unflattering term for broke-ass dudes who mistake exploitation for easy money.
For the most part, cops chase other activity. On the side of the road, two officers paint their flashlights through the interior of a stopped car, its four doors pried open like the wings of a moth. Two nights earlier, deputies found a dead body slumped over the steering wheel of a sedan, stalled at the southbound stoplight of Stockton Boulevard where it crosses Florin Road.
Private security is another matter, dispatching SUVs with flashing yellows to chase off the workers who congregate by well-lit businesses, where they’re safer. But it’s like a sad game of whack-a-mole.
With the SUV in another location, five scantily clad women assemble under the artificial glow of a discount storefront. A line of cars trawls past, brazen, as if they were navigating one of the drive-thrus that are prolific in this battered part of town. Before any negotiations can start, another car cuts the line and spits a man out of the passenger door. He’s young, with long, ropy arms that spring upward as he raises up on the stocky woman in the middle. She sinks to the ground, terrified, as the man yanks her hair and barks.
She is led by the arm and disappeared behind a slamming door. The car accelerates down one end of the blade while the johns slink off the opposite direction.
Moments later, the remaining women are back to working the razor’s edge. They stand a little closer.
An earlier version of this story cited Councilman Rick Jennings as representing this district. That was incorrect: Some of Stockton Boulevard’s "red-light district" is in Council members Eric Geurra and Jay Schenirer’s districts.