Crime & Justice

In areas plagued by crime, prostitution remains difficult to prosecute and a distant priority

Many of the prostitutes who pick up clients in Walnut Park live in the Traveler's Inn motel in Huntington Park.
Many of the prostitutes who pick up clients in Walnut Park live in the Traveler's Inn motel in Huntington Park.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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This is fourth last in a five-part series on prostitution in Los Angeles. See part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 5.

Lt. Victor Clay of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department took my call one day. The very next day, he got a complaint from Jesus Villa, a young anti-street prostitution activist from Walnut Park. So on a recent evening, he invited us both for a behind-the-scenes view of the department’s work attempting to stem prostitution in the area.

“If we do pro-active police work, most of the time it’s a band-aid," said Clay, seated inside his Century Station office. "This, I suspect, will be a band-aid, because of course prostitution is what, the oldest career known to man? So, I thought, if we’re going to do this, and spend so much manpower, so much money—it’s a one-shot deal, I gotta call you both out.”

Villa showed Clay a list, compiled by another local resident, of steps the sheriffs could take to stop prostitution. The lieutenant took the list and read it over, then laid out his priorities.

“OK," Clay said, sizing up a hypothetical scenario. "If there are 20 prostitutes out there, and 4,000 gang members, you can imagine where I’m going to put my focus.”

And with that, we headed out in a patrol car. Villa, a 23-year-old college student, looked overwhelmed. We were driving in the back seat with Shawn Von Arx and Mike Evans, two veteran deputies who know every street, alley and hideaway in Walnut Park.

Von Arx and Evans met working in the jails. For the past 10 years they have focused on community policing in this area of South L.A. They are best friends who make joking references to themselves as the ‘70s TV cops, “Starsky and Hutch.”

Von Arx got a radio message from an undercover cop, and we headed to a nearby corner. There were four sex workers gathered near a taco truck, but Evans said, they couldn’t have arrested or fined them.

“See them all hanging out there?" he said, pointing to the taco truck while driving slowly past it. "But see, that’s what makes it bad, because legally, 'Hey, I’m just eating tacos!' We all know what they’re doing. But it just doesn’t work that way in court. The first time the guy talked to them at the car, that’s when someone should’ve gone over there to stop them.”

In other words, they couldn't arrest them unless they could make a solid case that someone was soliciting sex.

Soon after, we were parked near the major boulevard, waiting for that next radio message. Finally, another call; a prostitute was seen getting into a john’s car. Von Arx rushed in their direction. We found the couple inside the back seat of an SUV—and when Von Arx ordered them out—out came a young, underage guy. He claimed he didn’t know he’d picked up a prostitute. Evans said this was typical.

“The girls will tell you, 'Yeah, I’m working,' they’re not going to lie to you. The men, they lie all the time." So Evans and Von Arx will get this kid for driving without a license, as a juvenile, because he would not admit to anything.

This is how hard it is to arrest johns: In the past six months, the sheriff’s sub-station for this area has charged only one person. Unless a john admits to solicitation, much of what Evans and Von Arx present as evidence won’t hold up in court. On the other hand, the prostitutes will get a fine of up to $100 and up to six hours in jail.

Then, another radio call had Evans speeding through Walnut Park—heading to a notorious motel that charges by the hour. Von Arx stopped a man at the entrance who was appeared to be talking to a sex worker. He got the man to give him his fingerprints, electronically, then ran the suspect’s information through the patrol car computer.

"If they have been arrested it’s pretty quick," he said. "He has, because the first thing he said to me was, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have any warrants right now!'”

Again, the woman was given a small fine, but it wasn't yet clear if the man would face charges. The operation ended with another three hours of chases. All in all that day, eight patrol cars, including the one manned by Evans and Von Arx, arrested nine prostitutes and one john.