RPD sting brings in prostitutes off 23rd street

on November 1, 2012

Officer Amit Nath and Officer Gary Lewis of the Richmond Police Department stand in wait near their squad cars in a nearly empty parking lot on the corner of Barrett and 25th Street. It’s around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and the street lights are on, but they’re so dull they barely cast shadows of Nath as he walks away from the open door of his Crown Victoria, to better hear the radio feed through his ear piece.

Lewis stands a few feet away, face set in stone as he also focuses on the car radio. Both officers wear dark RPD uniforms, down to their black boots, and only when their badges catch the artificial light from the street lamp do they stand out.

“Has anyone reported the girl missing?” Lewis asks through his hand-radio.

On the other end of the line, Sgt. Ruth DuCharme answers. DuCharme, the head of the RPD’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Unit, is the leader of tonight’s prostitution sting. This time RPD officers are focused on 23rd street, a popular hot spot for “working” girls in Richmond. Although they are arresting prostitutes, officers say they’re more interested in getting to the men and women managing the girls.

Already two other officers, Officer Daniel Campos and Officer James Moody, have picked up a working girl off the street, a 15-year-old who tells them she was kidnapped from her hometown and brought to Richmond to work. Lewis now wants to know if they can confirm. The girl is at the police station and is being talked to by advocates from STAND!, an organization that seeks to help women and children affected by domestic violence and/or abuse.

DuCharme says she’s going to check in with Campos and Moody, who are with the girl at the station, and says she’ll meet up with the Lewis and Nath later. With a slight blip of static the radio goes silent. A blue glow stays constant on Nath’s face as he checks in with his community contacts to see if they have any information to share that could help with the sting.

Lewis passes the time by leaning against his SUV, wiping down the barrels of a solid black shotgun illuminated by his marked Chevy Tahoe’s interior light.

Later in the evening a dark colored Impala pulls into the lot. It rolls to a stop in between Nath’s car and Lewis’s SUV, its headlights bright.

The door opens and DuCharme climbs out. Her brown hair is pulled back into an efficient ponytail, and she’s wearing a dark tank and light washed blue jeans that won’t make her stand out from a crowd on this murky Richmond night.

DuCharme has been working surveillance on 23rd Street, scouting in an unmarked car and communicating back to the rest of the team when the “girls” are about to go off to a side street, or if they appear to be arranging a “date.”

DuCharme radios back to station to check in with Moody and Campos again. After a quick overview with the group on people of interest and leads, she heads back out to her lookout post.

About 15 minutes later her voice comes over the radio to inform Nath and Lewis that one of the girls is going off the main street. Instantly the officers jet to their respective vehicles, peel from the stagnant lot, and head for 23rd. They only take back streets. No lights, no sirens, just the revving of the engines as they make their way near the strip.

They turn a corner near a group of apartment buildings, slow to a stop, and find a woman leaning against a chain link fence. Lewis parks and approaches the woman without a break in his stride.

Before he even gets to her, she sees him, and shouts out, “I just went to the liquor store.”

After the woman is walked over to Lewis’s SUV, she says her name’s Vicki. She’s in her mid-30s, and medium height — white high heels with cork-colored wedges give her an extra few inches. She has on a sleeveless racer-back pastel shirt with cutouts on the front that expose the area from her chest to above her bellybutton. Her legs are covered by dark-washed jeans. Dark hair, pulled into a tight high bun, puts more focus on the large thick gold hoop earrings that jingle slightly when she moves.

“I love being me,” she sings, after setting her small black purse on the hood of Lewis’s car. The nearly blinding spotlight of the patrol vehicle brightens every sharp edge of her face.

A tattoo on her right shoulder says ”Property of Papi,” with intricate and feminine curved designs laced through the text.

She says she remembers Officer Lewis from a time he raided one of her hotel rooms.

“I got no warrants right?” she asks into the open air. No one answers. Nath shines a flashlight on her purse as Lewis talks through his car radio.

Nath asks if she has a phone. Vicki replies that she left it at home, because it died, and assures him she’s being truthful. She says she heard about the stings and was going to take the backstreets, and later move on to San Jose.

“I’m trying to get out of here,’” Vicki says to Nath, her angular jaw line and sharp thin nose tense in exasperation. “I don’t want to make your jobs any harder.”

“I don’t like being out here,” she continues, slouching. “I hate this with a passion.”

She lets it be known that she doesn’t want to go to Martinez, which is where the county jail is located, and where the girls will be transported.

“I don’t want to go through the whole process,” she says. “Imma be so upset.”

Nath says that in human trafficking and prostitution cases the Richmond Police Department has set its sights more on the pimps or madams than the prostitutes. The men and women controlling the girls are the height of the hierarchy; Vicki, sitting in the patrol car in handcuffs, can help.

“We just want to get these guys off the street,” Nath says.

“I should’ve taken your advice about staying off the streets,” Vicki says to Nath, as she bends her head to get inside the backseat of the cop car. She says her boyfriend maced her in the face, and won’t let her see her son.

She’s lived in Richmond her whole life, and started “working” as an 18-year-old, she says.

When asked why she started, she looks to the floor of the cop car, sighs, and says resignedly that she thought she was in love with the father of her child. Her sentence trails off after that.

She changes the subject and says she doesn’t like talking to the other girls, and that they’re all about drama.

“I’ve always been by myself,” she says.

Minutes later they’ve arrived at the station. Fluorescent lights glare overhead in the holding area, which looks similar to a birdcage with bland tan square links meeting with tan walls separating the spaces. Here the girls are booked and put in cells to await transfer to Martinez. Vicki sits in a wooden chair and squirms uncomfortably in the silver handcuffs.

She begs Nath to let her go, and says that he’ll never see her on the streets again if he does.

He sits down in a chair across from her, paperwork in his hands, and runs down a list of questions.

“Do you have any mental health problems?” he asks.

“No,” Vicki replies, “I need some help though.” She chuckles to herself.

Her smile turns to sheepish embarrassment when Nath asks if she has an ad on a website where working girls can advertise their services. The site includes phone numbers, locations, graphic photos, and reviews from previous customers.

He finds her ad, and she slumps down into the chair, but soon perks back up when Officer Moody walks in. Vicki smiles and apologizes to him for being here again.

Two more girls come in with Moody, and are brought to a nearby holding cell. Both appear to be in their early 20s.

“Again?” Nath asks one of them as they walk through, and both women smile before continuing.

One has light skin, blonde hair twisted in a partial French braid, with red lips and winged eyeliner. She sits nearby and fidgets with the end of the braid nervously, every once and a while pulling an unruly stray hair behind her ear. She has light gray almost-white ruffled shirt, with peach polka dots, and dark jeans. Like Vicki she is donning high wedges with a cork colored heel.

The other has dark skin, and dark hair pulled into a loose and messy ponytail. No makeup, wearing a plain white long sleeve shirt, and dark jeans with premade rips. Flip-flops slap the ground harshly as she walks to the cell.

Vicki mumbles to herself, “Please God don’t slow my roll.” She rocks slightly back and forth, waiting as Nath finishes paperwork at a nearby counter.

She’s one of six girls the RPD arrested that night for prostitution, including the minor who has now been returned into the custody of her foster parents. The department says it receieved information from the sting that could help in other investigations. Presently, RPD is working on filing cases for prostitution on the girls taken in that night.

An officer walks Vicki over to take photos for records, and her fingerprints are recorded as well. Tears fall silently down her cheeks, as she starts to cry while they finish the last few fingers.

Afterwards she sits on a wooden bench, staring off into the space at the counter, and abruptly smashes her head into her hands.

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