Miami Vice: Inside 'John Stings' and Escort Stings

FBI and police target prostitutes, pimps and johns in undercover operations.


March 21, 2008 — -- There are an estimated 100,000 arrests for prostitution every year, but how do law enforcement officers infiltrate the underground world of the commercial sex industry? And who are the johns behind the tidal wave of demand fueling the commercial sex industry in America?

The FBI and the Justice Department operate "Innocence Lost," a federal initiative to combat sex crimes against children through domestic sex trafficking or child prostitution.

Innocence Lost has task forces set up in 23 cities around the country.

Miami was one of the first 13 cities assigned a task force, "not because of the weather, but it has one of the highest levels of juvenile prostitution in the country," said Sgt. Kelly Sullivan of the Metro Dade Police Department Innocence Lost Vice Task Force.

The FBI works with local law enforcement to plan stings targeting pimps and to rescue minors, but they also conduct "prostitution reversal stings" targeting the johns.

ABC News was granted rare access to a john sting on the streets of Miami and to an escort sting in a high-class hotel.


On a warm Friday night -- the day of the week chosen because it's pay day -- the so-called john sting was set up in a rough neighborhood in North Miami near a "track," or an area known for street prostitution.

"They usually put us out when it's dark," said a decoy named Nicole. "More johns come out after work, after dinner, after they spend time with their family, they come out."

About 70 officers gathered for a briefing at the mobile booking station set up in a parking lot. One officer described the plan for the night.

"We're going to rotate [the girls] around -- we'll have two to three girls at a time."

"Most of you know them," the officer said, referring to the five decoys who were about to change into their "uniforms" for the sting. "Those of you who don't, take a good look at them, they will be dressed differently."

The women put on heels, revealing clothing and makeup. "I'm trying to make it seem like I got punched in the face or something," said one of the female officers, named Nikki.

"Because when I work in this particular area they always think I'm a cop because I look too clean. I'm trying to get the street look a little bit."

"They also look at our teeth, and if we have most of them, they know that we're cops anyway," another decoy officer explained. "So we try to distract them with other things."

While the decoys dressed, undercover agents headed out to the sting location to "sweep" for the real prostitutes and to get them off the streets.

The agents found several women working the streets, most with crack in their possession and one who was visibly pregnant. One woman named Carol offered two officers sex for $40 each and was arrested on the spot.

Once a sting begins, the decoys are under constant surveillance by the police. After a john pulls over and names an act and a price, the decoy signals the teams of cops who then arrest the johns.

On this night, the johns arrived almost immediately and takedowns were shouted over the police radio: "All right, Marilyn's got one in the hole. A white male, a 4x4 blue Chevy. He's with Marilyn right now. White male. He's going westbound, westbound."

The arrested johns were identified by their name, the act they allegedly agreed to and the price and brought back to the booking tent where they were searched and swabbed for DNA.

"One of the main purposes of this detail is to get DNA on file from a lot of these sexual predators," said Lt. Steve Czyzewski , of the Miami-Dade Police Department. "It's a real effective crime-fighting tool."

On this night, the johns represented a wide range of races, backgrounds and ages -- men wearing anything from dress shirts to aprons were picked up, driving anything from BMWs to bicycles.

Joseph, 32, offered a decoy $20 for oral sex, and as he waited in the booking line he became visibly upset. When asked whether his wife or girlfriend would find out, he replied "my fiance" and started to cry. His wedding was a couple of months away.

"When you get to jail, you just need to be cool," said the narcotics captain. "You can't be acting up like this, all right? Because they're going to eat you up and spit you out. You get a hold of yourself. You are lucky you didn't go out and get a disease and bring it back to your fiance."

Many of the johns denied trying to solicit the decoys, offering various excuses, but others recognized the gravity of what they'd done.

Jeffrey, 25, was brought in and the cops joked he was a Brad Pitt look-a-like.

"I think I made a mistake," Jeffrey told one of the cops. "I think this is a good thing. I think it's a real-life consequence to an action. Something that usually doesn't happen. "The whole vice and the legal ramifications of prostitution and solicitation to me, it's amoral."

"I have two kids, a baby momma, I was going to see my kids tomorrow morning, give some money to my kids," said another young man named Carlos. "It's all about my kids, you know, I just f-- up. You know what I mean? It's about my family, my kids, I love them."

Later in the evening, a gun was recovered in one of the johns' cars.

"He was soliciting the girls, so that's how we came across his car. We searched his car because of the arrest, and saw the gun sitting right there," said Czyzewski , of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

After midnight, Czyzewski ended the sting. "Everything went good tonight, we got a gun and the final count was 62," he said. "We recovered one gun and nobody got hurt."

The school bus full of johns pulled out of the booking center and headed to the jail, where the johns would remain until they were released at 5 a.m. before being arraigned later that morning.

Many of them would attend a John School -- a class for first-time offenders -- and the charges would be dropped. The female prostitutes who were arrested didn't have the same option, and some say this is a glaring double standard.

"Right now we're seeing it's highly unlikely that [former New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer is going to be charged with any solicitation component," said Rachael Lloyd, the executive director and founder of GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services).

"He's a 48-year old white male with power and privilege. If he was a 13-year-old girl from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, he'd be arrested. If he was, you know, a 40-year-old woman addicted to drugs [on] the south side of Chicago, he'd be arrested. I mean, in every city [you see] the disparity between how many women and girls are being arrested and how many men who are doing the buying and purchasing are being arrested. And I mean what are the consequences even if they are arrested? For a lot of guys it's a slap on the wrist, a fine."

The penalties may not be severe enough but the solicitation stings in Miami seem to be making a difference.

"During the operation one of the citizens approached me and was very thankful for the fact that we were here cleaning up his neighborhood, because it's just frustrating for the citizens to be having the johns coming in and out, the prostitutes, with that comes obviously the guns and the problems and the littering and so forth," Czyzewski said. "So, it's just really rewarding to see that what we do doesn't go completely unnoticed in the community's eyes because basically, that's what we're here for, is to clean up the community."

But prostitution isn't just a booming business on the rough streets of Miami, as ABC News found out when it went behind the scenes at an escort sting at a hotel.

Escort stings are designed to lure underage prostitutes to a hotel where they will be taken into custody. The sting was conducted jointly by the Innocence Lost Minor Vice Task Force, including the FBI, MetroDade Police Department and Miami Police Department.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that out of the 1.6 million runaways every year, 40,000 of them end up in the commercial sex industry or being trafficked for the purposes of prostitution in the United States. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children are involved in child prostitution.

During the sting, an undercover cop poses as a john seeking sex with underage girls in a hotel room. After the girls accept money and offer sexual acts, they are arrested and questioned, and if their pimps are located, they too are arrested.

The top-secret operation takes months to line up, and on the day before the sting, the officers attend a final meeting headed by Lt. Andy Glass, and the FBI Miami Task Force.

"The overall goal is for us to identify juvenile prostitutes, and of course, ultimately identify their pimps," Glass said.

The Miami-Dade vice squad searches previously targeted Web sites and escort services, and then the undercover agent "Bob" places calls to escort services the police suspect employ underage girls.

"There is a lot of false advertising when it comes to escorts," Sullivan said. "A lot of girls post younger pictures, or sometimes post a picture of a woman who is more attractive than them."

"I'm trying to get a hold of Star for this evening," Bob said to one agency over the phone. "Well, hey, she's the star. What time's good for her? Well, I tell you what…could she be here in an hour? OK, so what time could she be there? OK, be here by 9, 9 o'clock. She'll be my star at 9."

Bob set "dates" with a number of women to come to the hotel room during the next few hours. The FBI and Miami vice asked us not to report on all of the sting procedures to preserve the confidentiality of the operation.

The first woman who arrived immediately called to check in with her agency.

According to Sullivan, "in most cases they are calling their pimp, usually if they work for an agency, they will call the agency to start the clock for the hour."

After an hour, if the girls don't answer when the pimp or agency calls to let them know the time is up, "they assume it has been a sting and there person has been arrested." All three women who came to the hotel room called their agency upon arrival.

"To be quite honest with you, this is the first time I've ever really done something like this," the first young woman told Bob. "I'm very new at this. I've only had, like, what, two customers?"

After just five minutes she started to take her pants off.

"How much do you charge for two hours?" Bob asked.

"For two? Well depending, an hour is $250, so probably like $450," she replied.

When the police had enough evidence, officers came in the hotel room to arrest the woman and bring her to another room for questioning. It turned out she was not in fact underage, but in her early 20s.

Soon after, a second woman arrived. She was 23, and after entering the room she seemed to survey it, even going into the bathroom.

"They are looking for obvious signs of police presence," Sullivan said. "Their main concern is getting arrested. They will look for monitoring equipment, anything that says police."

The second woman told Bob that she got involved with escort services after working at a strip club in Atlanta, where the VIP room strippers performed sexual services for men.

"I like sex, sex is my favorite thing," she said. "Just the sex part. But I don't, I don't normally kiss with like tongue or anything like that."

After she agreed to the act and accepted money, she was taken out of the room by police wearing just underwear. The undercover officers searched her clothing, as procedure, for contraband, or weapons.

Bob asked the third girl who arrived how much money she makes in a good week.

"It depends on how many calls you get a day," she replied. "Like today, you're my second person, I saw one person in the morning and I haven't seen nobody all day. ... Yesterday I saw four people and the day before I saw five, so it varies."

She said she uses the money to care for her son and for everyday expenses such as rent and bills, and was shocked when the police came into the room. "Oh no. Wait, can I get my skirt?" she exclaimed.

The women were questioned by the Miami-Dade vice squad and FBI, and they were all arrested for solicitation of prostitution. The second woman who arrived agreed to do an interview and asked that she be called Katie to protect her privacy.

Katie said she fell under the control of an abusive pimp.

"I met this guy and he was all sweet and nice, and you know, acted like he wanted to be my man, and take care of me and everything like this, so I decided to, and when I went to his house one day with him and he asked me to stay, it was a totally different picture," she said.

The pimp had two other girls working for him, and Katie says that "we were very controlled by him. ... I cooked his food. ... You know, helped him put on his socks and shoes -- it was ridiculous. And at that point, he had hit them; he hadn't hit me yet, but I had seen him hit them so I was afraid to leave."

Katie says her pimp physically abused her often, until she finally escaped.

"I think that girls want to be loved, a lot of these young girls, they want to feel some sort of love, something's gone wrong in their homes, something's gone wrong with their family and they want that love," she said. "When [the pimps] catch these girls young, it's so easy for them to manipulate them and make them feel like they're the only thing they have."

"I know of one girl who's been in the business since she was 13 and she's 17 now and I don't think that girl has feelings anymore. ... She's been doing it for so long," she said. "She wants to be a singer, and she wants to do all these things and she's very talented, but I don't see her ever doing it because this is all she knows."

ABC News Producer Eric Strauss and Producer Katie Escherich contributed to this report.

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