Valley task force cracks down on prostitutes, ‘Johns'

March 24, 2002|By DARREN SIMON

Staff Writer

The time is 10 p.m.

The day, Friday.

It's cold; the wind gusty.

A lone woman walks along Adams Avenue near 12th Street in El Centro. She is pacing in front of a liquor store — waiting, watching.

A pickup pulls up beside her; the driver looking for a little company.

"Looking for a date?" the woman asks.

For several hours Friday night and Saturday morning that scenario played out over and over again.

The woman was one of three undercover officers taking part in an operation meant to strike at those soliciting the services of prostitutes and ultimately get some drugs and drug pushers off the streets.


Friday's operation was run by the Imperial Valley Street Interdiction Team, a multi-agency task force formed to attack illegal narcotics activity from the street level.

According to SIT members, drugs and prostitution go hand in hand. Prostitutes, in many cases, sell themselves to make money to support drug habits and those who seek their services tend to be drug users or drug dealers.

Another goal, according to Tony Lain, SIT unit commander, was to "assist in decreasing the growing epidemic of hepatitis, HIV, chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases in the community."

The operation was done in two phases. The first occurred March 8, during which prostitutes themselves were targeted. The second phase, conducted Friday, targeted the "Johns," those who seek the services of prostitutes.

During both phases there were five arrests.

On March 8, 38-year-old Sandra Padilla was arrested on suspicion of solicitation and agreeing to engage in prostitution.

On Friday, four men were arrested on suspicion of the solicitation of prostitution. They were 33-year-old Gabriel Ortiz of Carson, 28-year-old Angel Olivas, whose city of residence was unavailable, 23-year-old Gerald Sharp of El Centro and 24-year-old Anthony Palacio of El Centro.

All except Olivas were booked into the county jail Friday night and Saturday morning. Olivas was cited and released pending a court date. Information on why he was cited and released rather than booked into the jail was unavailable.

Palacio also was arrested for a parole violation. He had been released from prison two weeks earlier after serving a term for a sex crime conviction. According to one agent involved in the operation, Palacio is a convicted rapist.

Palacio remained in custody Saturday for his alleged parole violation. Ortiz and Sharp were released on their own recognizance after being booked. They are awaiting a court date.

According to the SIT unit, the operation was conducted after it was determined drug-related crimes such as burglary, auto theft and prostitution were on a rise in the motel district along Adams Avenue.

"Operation Street Sweeper" was a cooperative effort between the SIT unit, the El Centro and Brawley police departments, the Sheriff's Office and the California Bureau of Investigation — Sexual Predator Apprehension Team. Agents from the county Narcotic Task Force and state probation and parole departments took part in the first phase of the operation.

During the second phase, female undercover officers from the Brawley Police Department and California Bureau of Investigation SPAT unit posed as decoys.

For more than three hours, starting at 10 p.m. they walked the area around 12th and Adams in wind-chilled conditions

It didn't take long to make an arrest.

From a perimeter around the area, SIT agents and other undercover officers watched and listened as the decoy prostitute struck a deal. One undercover officer was close by, serving as a rescue agent should the deal go sour.

By 10:22 p.m., the first arrest was made. In that case the officer asked the "John," — "You looking for a date?"

"Yeah," he answered.

The agents would watch as vehicles drove east and west on Adams, some slowing in front of the decoys, clearly showing interest. Many of those same vehicles would circle a number of times around the location.

Police had their eyes on the vehicles all the time, watching as the drivers would make right turns onto 12th at Adams, circle east on El Centro and then swing back to the decoy.

Eventually, one would stop and strike up a conversation with the decoy. The conversation was graphic, the deal then set and the arrest would soon follow.

After the operation ended, the female officers agreed to talk to a reporter on the condition their identities not be made public.

They said there is a bit of fear that goes into such an operation because of the unknown element. However, they said taking part in the operation was important.

"From my standpoint we are getting people off the street," said one officer from the SPAT unit who posed as a prostitute.

She added, "I think we are helping the community."

For the SIT unit, the operation was a success no matter how many arrests were made.

"It was a success with the first arrest we got," said SIT unit member Dub Perkins, the operation's case agent. "Even if we didn't get any arrests, the operation would have been a success just by our mere presence."

While no drugs were confiscated, Perkins said by conducting such undercover enforcement efforts, the message gets out, which can lead to a reduction in such crime.

Perkins said the SIT unit will be in that area again, but he did not indicate when. That would be giving away too much information.

To contact the SIT unit with information regarding illegal drug activity, call 339-6333 24 hours a day. Those calling with information can remain anonymous. and can earn a cash reward.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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