Shining Light on Seamy world o Esorts
Sex - or at least companionship - is just a call or a click away.
Scores of escort services operate in the Philadelphia area, and in recent years they've become more prevalent, more blatant about marketing - and more difficult to investigate, law enforcement officials say.
While it is illegal to exchange sex for money, escort advertisements take up gobs of space in the phone book and the back pages of alternative newsweeklies, and a chunk of the Internet. The ads promise "lots of fun" and "relaxation," and, in one case, say that "her body rubs will take you higher."
Perhaps one of the most commonly used euphemisms is "companionship." That's what David F. Downey told police he was seeking July 31 when Ashley Burg, 17, was dropped off at his Limerick Township home after he called a go-go dancer he knew asking for an escort.
Downey, 52, has insisted that he never had sex with the Willingboro teen, whose body was found in Northeast Philadelphia, and that while he feels awful about her death, he had nothing to do with it.
The cause and place of her death have not been determined.
Still, as details of her fate emerged over the last several days, her story has pulled the multimillion-dollar escort industry from the back pages to the front pages.
Law enforcement officials say the escort business differs from street prostitution or the illegal activities suspected at some "massage parlors."
For one thing, it's more high-tech, with the Internet and untraceable prepaid cell phones making it more difficult for police to track down service operators. Many escorts prescreen clients to ensure they are not police officers.
To make a criminal case against escorts, prosecutors must prove that sex between the buyer and the seller was the goal from the beginning, not something that just happened after two people met and liked each other.
"These kinds of things are difficult to police, because it's not against the law to pay to have someone keep you company," Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said.
"I think of them as call girls," Castor said of escorts, "but thinking it and proving it are two different things."
And because escorts aren't standing on street corners or operating illegal storefronts, fewer people complain about them. In Camden County, for example, County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said that streetwalkers are seen as more of a problem than escort services.
Generally, Sarubbi and Castor said, officials move in only after receiving a tip or complaint from someone, be it a spouse unhappy with the charges on the family credit card or a hotel owner who suspects something illegal is going on in his establishment.
Castor said that law enforcement officials actively seek out some Internet crimes, such as pedophilia, but must spend much more time focusing on crimes such as murders, rapes and robberies than on escort services.
"If I wanted to have my detectives call up every escort service in the phone book, that's all we'd be doing," he said. "This is the historic problem in dealing with vice crimes. We're perfectly willing to do it, but we don't have the manpower."
Escort services are usually run by men, said Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. James Heins, a supervisor in the Belmont barracks' vice and narcotics unit.
Both men and women work as escorts, but the majority are women. Some escorts work independently; others belong to a service and split the fees, which vary greatly, with an operator. One Web site lists a range of $125 to $340 for one hour of undescribed services.
Escort services are skilled at evading detection. For example, calls to a listed number may go to an answering service, where an operator might set up a meeting time.
"Close to the time, you'd get another call directing you to a hotel," Heins said. "It's a lot more sophisticated" than it used to be.
The operator of one Philadelphia escort service, who gave his name only as Joe, said law enforcement officials usually come down harder on "in-call" businesses such as bordellos than on "out-call" operations at the client's home or hotel.
"They don't leave the in-call services alone, probably because the neighborhoods don't like it," said Joe, who was reached by The Inquirer through a Yellow Pages telephone number listed under Escorts. "Other than that, police pretty much leave escort services alone."
Joe said he started in the business as a driver. Some escorts employ drivers as bodyguards or use drivers supplied by the agency they work for, Heins said.
Joe said he has had his own escort business for four years. He tells friends that he runs an "entertainment business," providing women for bachelor parties. He doesn't have "girls," he said. He employs "contractors."
"I'm not a pimp," he said. "They work for themselves. That's the way I like it."
It's a good living, Joe said, and so far he hasn't had any significant run-ins with the law.
"I might have spent a night in jail when I was a driver, but no convictions or anything."
Nonetheless, escorts don't have a clear ride.
Last month, Upper Merion police, acting on a tip, arrested a man they believe was running an escort service that used several hotels in the King of Prussia area.
Last spring, the New Jersey State Police launched Operation Risky Business, arresting 50 people working for six escort services and 12 massage parlors across the state, including escort services in Cherry Hill and Lindenwold.
Detective Sgt. James Fish, the organized-crime investigator who led the crackdown, said that in the massage-parlor arrests, many of the women were illegal immigrants paying off their debts to traffickers.
The escorts, however, were American citizens: full-time college students, young mothers, store clerks, even a nurse. They ranged in age from 21 to 50.
"We didn't come across any runaways," Fish said. "We had all walks of life that were doing this."
Some escorts are solicited while working at strip clubs because, as one former South Jersey vice cop noted, "they've already met the first criteria - they're from poor families and doing what they have to do to survive."
Heins said that about half of the escorts he has encountered are single mothers. They tell him they are safer with an escort service than walking the streets.
"They do it to be able to support their children and for the lure of easy money," he said.
Joe said that turnover in the business is high but that most of the escorts he knows have children.
"What are you going to do - secretarial work or menial labor at $8 to $10 an hour when you can make a hundred bucks doing escort work?" Joe said. "A lot of women do this. They do it on the side; housewives who do it while their husbands are away."
Others are like a woman who would identify herself only as Nicole, a 23-year-old Philadelphia escort who got into the business a few years ago after a boyfriend's incarceration left her saddled with bills. She initially answered a newspaper ad and worked for someone else but is now on her own, advertising online.
"The main misconception is all girls who do this are on drugs or have pimps or they're runaways or miscreants of the world," said Nicole, who was reached by The Inquirer via e-mail and then agreed to a telephone interview.
"I don't do drugs; never did. I don't steal from people. I don't work the streets. I'm not dirty. I like to think that I'm a respectable person and also an honest person and I'm just trying to make my way in the world."
The work, she said, can be difficult - especially when meeting a client for the first time - and dangerous. She carries mace, and sometimes a knife, when she meets clients.
But the advantages, Nicole said, are the travel (she says she has clients around the country), the quick money, and the flexible schedule. She spends about 10 to 15 hours a week with clients, earning about $200,000 a year, she says.
"I can work when I feel like it, take off if something comes up with my family," Nicole said.
Her family thinks she is a secretary.
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