How the Internet is bringing the world's oldest profession to a neighborhood near you
In his 19 years as a cop, Tom Parodi had seen shootings, abused
children, traffic deaths, and the violent wasteland of the illegal drug
culture. Until recently, he wore a scruffy beard and grew his dark hair
down to his shoulders while investigating outlaw motorcycle gangs.
You’d think nothing would faze him. When Parodi got a tip from an
informant last June that there was a brothel across the street from the
Concord Police Department at the Italian villa–style Legacy Park
Central, he was definitely surprised. But what blew his mind was what
he found when he visited the brothel’s website.
The prostitution operation, which called itself A-1 Pleasures, listed not only its hours of operation, but also links to nude photos of the women who worked there, and to message boards where their services were rated. As the Concord detective followed these links and came upon other adult sites with Bay Area listings, he found himself staring into an electronic universe of women pushing their product in Pleasanton, Danville, Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Concord—close to the homes of their affluent suburban clients. Just as Amazon.com lets you read the synopsis of a book you want to buy and customers’ critiques of its contents, online message boards that Parodi scanned allowed johns to post appraisals of a woman’s physique and sexual performance. A-1 Pleasures won raves. Self-professed clients hailing from all over the Bay Area called it a “Reno-sized whorehouse” providing professional, “get-what-you-pay-for services.” This was the kind of word-of-mouth buzz any business craves.
“I was shocked to see what was regularly posted on the Internet,” Parodi says. “I learned to my utter surprise that prostitution is no longer that ‘seedy’ element mostly associated with the ‘ghetto’ or large cities. It is everywhere.”
Click and Go
Anyone seeking a prostitute in his neighborhood can Google a few obvious search terms and mouse-click his way to upward of 50 different purveyors of sex working in the 925. These businesses range from strip-mall storefronts disguised as massage-therapy studios to independent $300-an-hour prostitutes advertising “in call” in their hotel rooms or in their apartments in Pleasanton, San Ramon, Walnut Creek, and Concord.
The women even advertise with enticing personal ads on mainstream sites like Craigslist. But for a more revealing peek, a john can hit Bay Area adult websites, and, from there, click directly onto a woman’s personal web page. These sites have an extensive array of seductive photos and descriptive text, sometimes including the prostitutes’ blogs, in which they offer glimpses of their personal lives and personalities.
A-1 regularly posted ads on adult Internet sites, along with links to web pages showing nude or nearly nude photos of the women who were working on a given day. A quick scan of the photos revealed that these women didn’t look like the beaten-down streetwalkers of popular stereotype, but were confident, top-of-the line professionals: a statuesque “Italian bombshell;” a Pamela Anderson body double; a fresh-faced young beauty willing to indulge a mature man’s college-girl fantasy. Accompanying ad copy sumptuously detailed each woman’s physical attributes and her sensual specialties. The ads also included links to online message boards, where men would rate an individual woman on various criteria, such as the size and naturalness of her breasts.
A-1’s ads let customers know that it offered appointments weekdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., later on Thursdays—hours suited to men who needed to squeeze in visits on their lunch breaks, on their way home to family dinner, or, in the case of a few who were doctors, after finishing rounds at area hospitals. Most clients chose half-hour sessions, which cost $160; hour-long visits cost $260. To make an appointment, a guy simply called the phone number in the online ad.
By staking out the Legacy Park Central complex, Parodi learned that the alleged madam, an attractive 50-year-old brunette named Debra Watts, drove her white 1999 Corvette each day to Concord from her home in Fairfield. Watts, who called herself Leilani, had been convicted in 2001 for operating a house of prostitution disguised as a massage parlor in Benicia. One term of her probation prohibited her from running any kind of massage or escort service in Solano County. So, it seems, she set her sights south, on the lucrative market of suburban Contra Costa County.
Parodi also learned that Watts’s clients weren’t bottom-feeders. A parade of Lexuses, Mercedes, and BMWs pulled up, men hopped out, got buzzed in through the security gate, and headed up to apartment 2151.
Once the client entered A-1’s officelike living room, he was introduced to the woman he had seen online. If he wasn’t satisfied with her looks, he could choose another.
Whomever he chose would then lead him into one of the two bedrooms, offer him a beer, soda, or water, and ask if he’d like to take a shower. He had to pay his cash “donation,” as it is referred to in sex-industry parlance, upfront. Then they got started.
In online reviews, clients complained that some women forbade kissing or being touched in certain ways. But other women were happy to provide GFE—“girlfriend experience”—which might include DFK (deep French kissing), cuddling, and other treats.
The A-1 Woman
A survey of A-1’s online ads and message board traffic hints at the number of women Watts brought in to work there—women she often found online. At various times, A-1’s website advertised the services of a porn star from Southern California and a honey-voiced sweetie from New Orleans. “New girls were routinely brought in to A-1 to spice things up,” Parodi says. “Girls that were not well received were dismissed, and new girls would replace them.”
One of the women who worked at A-1 told Diablo in a phone interview that she liked working for Leilani because it felt safe. A curvaceous blonde, according to her online billing, “Crystal” started stripping about three years ago at age 18 at the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco. She says she earned enough money in a few months to buy herself a Cadillac El Dorado.
But Crystal soon learned that the real money was in selling sex: She could make $400 or more satisfying a big-spending client for just an hour. She started putting her photo on the Internet, working on her own, and would get as many as 50 calls a day. But she was looking for a place with a steady stream of clients, where someone else booked the appointments and provided the workspace, so she contacted Watts after hearing about her from a friend.
Crystal says she interviewed with Watts in a parking lot. “Leilani has you walk over to her car,” Crystal says. “She likes to see how you walk.” Watts immediately liked what she saw and hired Crystal on the spot, at which point Crystal gave Watts a CD loaded with seductive photos to post on the Internet.
Crystal says she saw up to eight clients during an eight-hour shift at A-1. She turned over $60 from each standard half-hour or hour fee. She says she kept the rest, plus tips, which could be quite generous. Crystal liked the setup. Watts was fair and provided amenities like towels and linens, and, for a $20 day fee, condoms and lotions. None of the women appeared to be strung out on drugs. Another A-1 woman told Parodi that Leilani acted like a mother to her. “I love Leilani,” she reportedly said after the bust.
The A-1 Man
Crystal was surprised by the types of men she saw. “It’s incredible how the guys are, like, from a different walk of life. He comes from a place where he has everything. He goes home and kisses his wife on the cheek when, an hour before, he was bumping and grinding with some 19-year-old.”
She says many of the men were chatty with her and would say they hadn’t had sex with their wives for several months, or that they just liked the thrill of being with a younger woman. “They’d talk about everything,” she says. “They’d get so excited about being there, being devious, like young boys. They were so giddy.”
Crystal says she also visited her clients in their palatial homes in Alamo and Danville—although only when the johns’ wives were out of town or, as in one breakneck appointment, when the wife was at the kids’ soccer practice.
The obvious possibility that these men would bring sexually transmitted diseases home to their wives was lessened by A-1’s rule requiring the use of condoms for intercourse (although according to clients’ online reviews, some women were willing to perform oral sex without a condom).
As it turned out, used condoms became useful evidence in the investigation. Detectives occasionally dug through A-1’s garbage for them; one day’s haul was 36. Parodi estimates that A-1 averaged about 15 clients a day. But Watts boasted in the recruiting e-mails she sent to escorts around the country that A-1 saw up to 25 men a day.
After a seven-month investigation, Parodi conservatively estimated that A-1 hosted at least 8,000 visits and earned more than $2 million during its four years of operation. The Legacy Park Central was the brothel’s third location. From interviewing some of the women involved and studying its online reviews, Parodi found that A-1 Pleasures first opened for business in an apartment near Diablo Valley College sometime in 2001, earning its employees the fond nickname “the DVC girls” (although none of the girls was associated with the community college). Then it enjoyed a brief stint in an apartment off Treat Boulevard in Walnut Creek, before setting up in the $1,600-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in the 259-unit Legacy.
On January 13, 2005, about a month after an undercover officer visited the apartment and was solicited for sex by one of the women, the police raided A-1. Officers found Watts sitting in a chair in the living room, three cell phones in front of her, her laptop sitting in a nearby alcove.
Also seated in the living room was a mortgage banker who had accompanied his friend, a Danville real estate agent, to the apartment. The real estate agent, who later told police his wife was pregnant, was getting naked with a woman in one of the bedrooms.
Police confiscated appointment ledgers, $2,300 in cash, sex toys, K-Y Jelly, and the “ho stacks” (high-heeled platform shoes), skimpy nurse costumes, and wigs that filled the apartment’s closets. During the search, calls continued to come in from clients, and a doctor in scrubs showed up at the door. He had left work in San Francisco and was stopping in on his way home to Benicia.
The police arrested the four A-1 employees on duty that day, as well as the Danville man, on suspicion of solicitation, a misdemeanor. All five were cited and released. If they are prosecuted, their convictions would probably result in small fines or community service. The police aren’t likely to pursue solicitation charges against any other A-1 employees or clients, Parodi says. Because none committed crimes in the presence of an officer, getting a misdemeanor conviction would be challenging at best.
Watts was arrested on suspicion of pimping and pandering, a felony, and was released after posting $50,000 bail. Parodi says he is pursuing more serious state and federal charges against her and her 64-year-old husband, Ernest, who has described himself as a retired longshoreman. The possible charges include money laundering and income tax evasion. Police also seized the couple’s bank accounts, which contained about $50,000, and searched their four-bedroom 1970s tract home in a family-friendly Fairfield development, where officers found another $10,000 in cash.
When Watts was arrested, she refused to say much to police. And she did not respond to Diablo’s requests for an interview. The only thing Watts did say, according to Parodi, was that she believed she had created a safe working environment and was providing a public service.
A Drop in the Bucket
A-1 Pleasures may be gone, but other such operations are proliferating. It’s even thought that because the Internet allows women to turn tricks without walking the streets, it has made the profession more appealing to women who might never have considered it otherwise. When Crystal posted her first ad on a Bay Area website three years ago, she says she was one of 75 or 100 women on the site. “Now there’s close to 400,” she says. “There are so many girls doing this.”
“What the Internet has done is lower the bar for entry into the adult market,” says “Red,” a former high-tech professional who in 1997 founded myredbook.com, Northern California’s most extensive adult-services site. “You will see single moms, students, out-of-work dot-commers. These women would not survive one day on the street. The Internet makes it easier for them to come and go as needed.”
Indeed, Diablo spoke to one woman with a day job at a nonprofit who simply posts an ad online when she decides she wants to work. “I work on an as-needed basis,” she says. “[I use] the extra money to travel or to pay for school.”
Another woman, a single mom, decided to try prostitution after she got frustrated searching for a “regular” job on the Internet. “I was looking around Craigslist at the jobs listed there, and had already faxed 10 or so résumés out that day, so I decided to check out the ‘erotic’ section,” she says. “After looking over a few ads, I said to myself, ‘Heck, I could do that! That’s all guys want from me anyway, I might as well get paid for it!’”
As more and more sex sellers use the Internet to move into the suburbs, police worry that prostitution’s traditional companions—drug dealing, violence, organized crime, human trafficking, and the exploitation of minor girls—will soon follow.
Some of the prostitutes being advertised on the Internet are, in fact, underage girls, says Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kelly Miles. “The old profile of a prostitute is a crack addict, out there to feed a drug habit. Now you’ve got a bunch of young girls. They’re just out there to make money.” Parodi agrees. “One of the recent trends has been the use of juveniles” in Internet-based prostitution operations, he says.
Police also say that massage parlors up and down Interstate 680 offer the ministrations of women recently arrived from Asia (who may have been smuggled here and forced into sex work to pay off debts to crime gangs). These are places that, according to clients posting on online message boards, many men know well. The establishments offer regular massage, but they’ll throw in “happy endings,” such as manual stimulation and oral sex.
Contra Costa Sheriff’s Detective Andy Van Zelf says he’s probably helped bust 25 such establishments in the past few years, including several in Lafayette and Danville. Walnut Creek police have also been busy dealing with these businesses. Just this past October, they busted three within the city limits. One was only half a block from Las Lomas High School. According to its Internet reviews, employees would strip down to their underwear and touch clients sexually.
Click and Go, Part two
As the inventory of women advertised and being reviewed online has grown, so apparently has the client base.
Clay Allen is the president of Avenue Resource, a Danville-based nonprofit that counsels couples recovering from a spouse’s affair. He says he is witnessing an exponential increase in the number of families devastated by a husband’s dalliance with prostitutes.
Daniel Beaver, a Walnut Creek marriage and family therapist, says the Internet makes some men less fearful about visiting prostitutes: They realize they can use their personal computers, in the privacy of their own homes and offices, to quickly locate women just one or two freeway exits away. “It’s the accessibility. It’s seductive,” he says. From running the license plates of cars seen at A-1, Parodi found that more than half of its customers were likely married.
To combat the prostitution boom, police from Pleasanton to Pleasant Hill say they are stepping up efforts to investigate Internet-marketed prostitutes. At least one apartment-based operation in the San Ramon Valley that may approach A-1’s level of customer traffic has recently been investigated. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has assigned two detectives to monitor the Internet for prostitutes working out of hotels or apartments.
But police admit that it’s not possible to pursue legal action against every local hooker or massage parlor advertising online. First of all, it’s not illegal for prostitutes to post ads, and even if they’re clearly exchanging sex for cash, it’s nearly impossible to prove who posted the ad and whether they intended to follow through. To charge a woman with solicitation, an officer must witness her engaging in an “act of furtherance,” such as removing her clothes or pulling out a condom, says Contra Costa Senior Deputy District Attorney Dara Cashman. And even if they do bust her, the solicitation charge is still only a misdemeanor.
Police do have the option of going after sex shops that are disguised as massage parlors administratively. That means they can investigate if the establishment and its employees have the proper licenses to offer massage-therapy services. If not, police can shut them down or deny operation permits, which is what happened to one Pleasant Hill massage parlor in 2004. Of course, this strategy doesn’t work against prostitutes working out of private apartments—as was the case with A-1 Pleasures.
Tom Parodi is finishing up the A-1 investigation, preparing a massive report for prosecutors to review and to determine what charges will be filed against Watts—the alleged madam—her husband, and anyone else. He hopes to have the report ready for the district attorney’s office by early summer.
In any case, even if Watts is convicted and her operation stays shut down, it’s only a matter of time before others take her place. In a series of busts just this spring, Parodi’s department arrested several prostitutes working out of a Concord hotel. In each of the women’s rooms, Parodi says, police found an important tool of the trade: a laptop, the screen lit up to the woman’s own ad.