In the last two weeks, six people have been arrested at three different hotels in Cobb County on prostitution charges and a north Cobb massage parlor has been shut down following arrests for suspected prostitution.
“We used to have problems here in Marietta with girls working the streets … out on a street corner,” said Detective Mark Erion with the Marietta Police Department. “Now we will get an occasional street walker but officers are really good about spotting them.”
Marietta and Cobb police say they do not track data on the number of prostitution-related arrests made each year, but departments in Austell, Kennesaw and Powder Springs reported no arrests in the last 12 months while Acworth reported two.
Repeated requests for the number of arrests from the Smyrna Police Department were met with no response.
A ‘less noticeable’ problem
Erion said that just because residents don’t see prostitutes standing on corners doesn’t mean the “world’s oldest profession” isn’t being practiced in Cobb.
Erion said those who operate in this profession, the prostitutes and their pimps, are less noticeable because so much of the solicitation now occurs online rather than the street corner.
“It’s just easier for them to advertise on the Internet and sit back and wait for the johns (clients) to come to them,” Erion said.
The escort sections of Backpage.com and Craigslist have become popular sites to find the illegal services.
“If you just Google ‘prostitution in Atlanta,’ you’ll find all kinds of websites,” he said.
Once a client makes contact with a prostitute, they will arrange to meet at a hotel, typically along the interstate corridors of 75, 85, 285 or 20. The areas with the worst prostitution problems in Cobb are along Delk and Windy Hill roads off I-75, and Six Flags Drive off I-20.
“We see this type of activity around daily or weekly rental motels,” said Sgt. Dana Pierce with Cobb Police. “They have to have a location of operation.”
He believes that prostitution arrests fluctuate within the seasons, summer being when they see more issues, and hinge on the economy. Since the economy is still recovering from a recession five years ago, many people have turned to sex acts as a way to make money.
“We were up in arrests (this past year) but there is no specific reason for that,” Pierce said. “(Arrests) increase and decrease.”
How police make prostitution arrests
Erion and Pierce said there are multiple ways police can catch those involved with prostitution, including responding to complaints from residents, trolling websites for people soliciting sex and setting up sting operations to catch violators in the act.
The johns are typically harder to catch, but that doesn’t prohibit police from setting up stings focused on them.
“We’ll get some of our female officers to dress in street clothes, stand around and the guys will pull up and proposition them,” Erion said. “If they say the magic words, ‘sex for money,’ then we can arrest them.”
Marietta police can make 20 to 30 arrests during these stings, but they don’t happen very often.
Johns are charged with misdemeanor solicitation of sex or pandering. The fines are between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on how many times they have been arrested, and they face probation. Prostitutes are arrested on similar charges.
The lean punishment is why Erion believes they see so many repeat offenders, especially on the prostitute side.
“We ran a five-day sting a couple of years ago and picked up one girl in one city and two nights later got her in another city,” he said. “(The arrest) doesn’t discourage a lot of them, but some of them are real embarrassed and opt not to do it again.”
The inherent dangers of the career are what discourage many women from the business, he said.
Two men were arrested earlier this year in connection with the murder of 19-year-old Yvonne Denise James, who was killed on Jan. 1 at Howard Johnson hotel on Delk Road in Marietta.
According to the arrest warrants for Ricardo Laron Harris of New York and Ancil Anthony Neil of Austell, James had multiple injuries to her head and face and was drowned.
Neil was reportedly James’ pimp and was charged with concealing her death and tampering with evidence at the scene before calling police to report that “someone had been killed.”
Another problem that has occurred recently is at massage parlors. Employees can be charged with prostitution if they accept money for sexual favors.
Two women were arrested Nov. 5, 2012, and April 24 of this year at the Q Massage off Barrett Parkway after two separate undercover stings at the parlor.
According to the warrant, 44-year-old Jing Wang attempted to engage in a sexual act with an undercover officer after he paid for a massage.
After the two arrests, the business’ health spa license, up for renewal in May, was not renewed.
Child exploitation on the rise
Over the last three years, Erion has been working with investigators from almost 10 other departments throughout the area on the FBI Metro Atlanta Child Exploitation Task Force to shut down child prostitution rings.
The group works to find and rescue children, typically between 14 and 16 years old, who are being sexually exploited.
These kids are “too young to understand what they are getting involved in,” Erion said. “The pimps prey on runaway kids. … There is a lot of brainwashing there going on.”
Erion said the pimps will try to convince the teens that they love and care about them, by taking advantage of the vulnerability a child exhibits.
The group’s most recent sting took place in April during the 2013 NCAA Final Four Basketball Championship.
The task force rescued seven children and arrested more than 20 adults connected to a child exploitation ring.
FBI Special Agent Joe Fonseca, who works alongside Erion on the task force, said they don’t break down their numbers per city or county but they do track the number of arrests, federal convictions and children rescued as a result of these operations.
In 2012, the group made 42 federal arrests, rescued 45 children and helped disband 24 juvenile prostitution and child exploitation rings.
Sometimes the children are returned to their families, but if a child ran away from that home because of unfit parents, they will try to find a home for them elsewhere.
“We are in need of a secure facility though,” Erion said. “We don’t like to arrest our victims, but sometimes they are so uncooperative that we have to do that.”