A few weeks ago, Reason published my investigative piece "The Truth About the Biggest U.S. Sex-Trafficking Story of the Year," which documented how law enforcement in the Seattle area and the media misrepresented the facts in a case that was a lot more about consensual prostitution than it was about sensationalistic, international sex-slavery rings. I sought to show that the highly charged and mostly inaccurate ways that cops, prosecutors, and reporters portrayed the events and the participants (both buyers and sellers of sexual services) exemplifies the ways in which consensual acts among adults are being recast as nefarious and non-consensual acts of villainy, and websites that actually make the sex trade safer—such as Seattle escorting forum The Review Board—scapegoated by law enforcmenet as deviant new tools of exploitation.
Now, one of the major law-enforcement figures in the case has spoken out on a poplar Seattle radio show, and his comments actually underscore my points. The sheriff of King County, Washington, John Urquhart, said my article was not unfair and even "partially true." What he objected to was the supposedly naive and "unicorn-ish" view it took toward prostitution clients; the idea that it was law enforcement, rather than the press, that sensationalized the story; the implication that finding prostitution customers online is safer than out on the streets; and the suggestion that King County could have acted differently considering existing laws.
"Clearly, Reason is a libertarian type of magazine," and "they have a bent toward the legalization of prostitution," said Urquhart in an interview last week with Seattle's Dori Monson Show. Whether prostitution should be legal is "certainly debatable," he added, but it's his department's job to enforce laws as they exist and if Washingtonians don't like it they "should change state laws."
"That's really what we're talking about," said Urquhart. "You're asking me not to enforce state law."
Nobody is asking that. But there is a huge amount of prioritization that goes into police work, and solving crimes where there are actual victims and public-safety concerns should take precedence. Which probably means not concocting elaborate, expensive, and years-long sting operations in order to entrap adults engaging in consensual sexual exchange and then misrepresent this as some sort of major blow against a sinister syndicate of international sex traffickers.
It's worth taking a look at the specific claims, excuses, and rebuttals Urquhart offered to Dori Monson during their conversation on KIRO Radio, including his shocking assertion that The Review Board (TRB) was linked to rapes, robberies, and murder (it wasn't). Once again, the King County Sheriff's distortions are easy to disprove. And once again, his solution to supposed violence in the Seattle sex trade is to drive it further underground.
Blame the Press
"Is there anything to support that it was a major sex trafficking operation?" Monson asked the sheriff outright at one point. "I think the press certainly took that view of it," replied Urquhart, but "whether we or the prosecutor's office promoted that view is up for debate."
Here is the headline of a press release from the King County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) about the case: "Historic Raid Dismantles National Sex Trafficking Website, Shuts Down Brothels, and Charges Multiple Suspects with Unprecedented Felony Charges."
Here's what Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said at a January press conference announcing the bust: "The systematic importation of vulnerable young women for sexual abuse, exploitation, and criminal profiteering has been going on for years and it came to a stop this week." Satterberg also described the women as "true victims of human trafficking."
Then there was the whole January 7th press conference, in which the county promised that the FBI would support an ongoing "large scale human trafficking investigation" to be conducted by KCSO and Bellevue Police. Urquhart, a former vice detective, spoke during the conference about how the internet had changed prostitution and mentioned Backpage.com, a user-generated advertising site friendly to sex workers and reviled by politicians and law enforcement. Urquhart told reporters: "We all know about Backpage.com and how bad it is. [The Review Board] was like Backpage.com on steroids. It was much, much bigger."
It wasn't. Backpage is the second largest classified-ad listing service worldwide, used in hundreds of cities and at least 10 countries, with Dutch headquarters and ads across a range of categories. TRB was an advertising forum for sexual services only, around Seattle and surrounding areas only. Its owner was a local man who knew many of the "escorts" and "hobbyists" who used TRB personally, and ran it on server space provided by a former sex worker.
Monson recently corresponded with a Seattle sex worker who had used TRB before its shutdown. She said "there are lot of local women who just view themselves as independent contractors, they choose that line of work," and choose to advertise on TRB, Monson reported.
The sheriff agreed that TRB mostly provided a way for consenting sex workers "to hook up" with customers. But there was also "a subculture of TRB" involving Korean escorts who "came into this country illegally, or at the very least they stayed illegally," he said. And while these women may not have faced physical restraints or abuse, they were coerced "mentally, economically, and psychologically to continue in this work."
"Well, I'm coerced economically," replied Monson. "You and I are both coerced economically. That's why we're both at work today." Urquhart responded that Monson was "absolutely correct," but the difference is that "our jobs we're stuck in are not illegal."
It's not the only time during the interview that Urquhart inadvertently blames prostitution's criminalization for the problems police set out to solve here.
"I think from the standpoint of 'bondage,' we have this view of some Simon Legree that's beating them up all the time, that they're chained to the wall," Urquhart told Monson. "That clearly wasn't occurring" in the K-Girl case.
But these women…they spoke little if any English, they knew nobody in this country, had nobody to talk to except their other sex workers. They faced the fear of deportation because they overstayed their visas, they were threatened with being turned out if they didn't cooperate. If they weren't good sex workers, if they didn't please the men…then they'd be turned out and they'd be in this foreign country, facing deportation, facing arrest. So that certainly is a type of bondage.
Just to reiterate: the sheriff admits that the women came to the U.S. and overstayed visas deliberately, were neither physically restrained nor abused, and had close ties to a community of other Asian sex workers. They also charged decent rates ($300 per hour was standard) and kept most of the money they earned. This is a form of bondage, according to Urquhart, because if they didn't want to sell sex anymore, their alleged captors would let them go, and as a result, they might be arrested or deported by agents of the U.S. government.
The Case for Street Corners?
Monson told Sheriff Urquhart that, to him, The Review Board sounded like "Yelp for sex work," with both providers and their clients benefiting from the easy flow of two-way info it yielded. "That's exactly right," Urquhart said. And that's why he objected—like with Yelp, people could sign-up and post without revealing their real identities or going through serious vetting. "There was no mechanism to keep [serial killers] Gary Ridgway or Ted Bundy from signing up or being a customer."
He's partly right: Just as there's no surefire way to stop bad guys from joining Facebook, using Tindr, or entering nightclubs, TRB couldn't definitively prevent potential serial killers from signing up.
Nor did it claim to. TRB was an advertising and messageboard site, not a service that purported to pre-screen clients. For screening purposes, sex workers and agencies had their own protocols, which might require first-time clients to produce proof of identity, furnish references in the form of sex workers they had seen before, or be referred by an existing client.
The Korean escort-agencies that the sheriff's office busted were notorious for having especially stringent screening policies.
Still, TRB did help women with safety in its own way. It and other online-ad options allow sex workers to find and screen clients on their own, in their own time, without having to make the sort of split-second decisions required in street solicitation settings (or relying on a pimp). This, in turn, lets them take other precautions, like seeing clients in established (and secure) locations, avoiding riding in cars with strangers, and keeping others apprised of their whereabouts.
Urquhart agreed with Monson's statement that "there isn't a bar in Seattle … that has a firewall that protects people" from serial killers.
"But by the same token the bar or the street corner isn't being portrayed as some way of looking at clients, of vetting clients, of vetting the johns so the girls aren't going to get hurt," said Urquhart. The problem is the "false sense of security that was promoted by TRB."
Urquhart also slammed TRB for offering free advertising to sex workers. "They didn't have to spend money 40 bucks to advertise on Backpage," he complained. "The workers could go to TRB and advertise for free."
No False Hope
Urquhart told KIRO Radio that the sheriff's office "had numerous reports of rapes, and certainly several robberies that were occurring over in Bellevue, and one homicide of one of these Korean workers that occurred, where her body was left in a closet and set on fire. So this is not the idyllic view that the Reason article wants us to believe."
Urquhart leaves out a lot of key facts here, the most important being that none of these cases had anything to do with TRB, Korean escort agencies, or anyone involved in this current case.
The 2015 murder of a "Korean worker" that Urquhart mentions actually involved a Thai woman, Kittaporn Saosawatsri. She was thought to be in prostitution, and her killer—who also robbed her and set fire to her apartment—is believed to have first made contact by posing as a client. But this contact originated via a Backpage ad and the motive was allegedly burglary. The man charged, Song Wang, was in serious debt and implicated in other home robberies.
The other recent incidents of sex workers being targeted for robbery involves a man who gained access to their apartments by posing as an FBI Agent. He and a female accomplice "targeted women they believed would either not report or would not be believed if they did" because of their status as sex workers, according to a case summary prepared by Bellevue Detective Ellen Inman. "Roberts accomplished each robbery with a gun and by impersonating a law enforcement officer, handcuffing the victims and displaying a badge around his neck."
This past winter saw a rash of rapes targeting Seattle sex workers—some involving physical violence and threats at knife-point—but all of the victims were picked up streetwalking on Aurora Avenue. In 2013, John Hauff, Jr., was convicted of raping and torturing a sex worker in a self-made torture chamber in his basement. He also picked her up on Aurora Avenue.
Whether or not online sex ads provide people with a "false sense of security," as Urquhart fretted, it's mind-boggling how anyone could say street-based sex work is a superior alternative. In Seattle, it has a shockingly high body count that dates back decades. Pouring through old newspaper articles, one finds story after story of women raped, abused, and murdered by men who solicited them for sex off Seattle's streets.
Gary Ridgway, whom Urquhart mentioned a few breaths before extolling the virtues of "street corner" sex work, is better known as the "Green River Killer" and has the distinction ofhaving the most confirmed victims by any serial killer in history. Ridgeway was believed to have murdered 49 women in two years between 1982-1984, "most" of whom "had been arrested for prostitution and frequented the Sea-Tac strip," according to a Seattle Times story from 1993.
Ridgway eventually pleaded guilty to 48 murders in King County, and is believed to be responsible for upwards of 70. His victims were overwhelmingly sex workers and teen runaways he picked up off the streets.
These are the streets that King County Sheriff Urquhart suggested would preferable for sex workers than finding clients on TRB, vetting them on their own or through paid bookers, and meeting with a group of regular clients who vouched for one another, went through screening hoops, showered and used mouthwash at the start of each session, and have never been known to rape, rob, or murder anyone.
At least there's no "false sense of security."
Pretty Woman Paradox
"This was not Pretty Woman," Sheriff Urquhart stressed to Monson, referencing the 1990 blockbuster in which Julia Roberts plays the proverbial hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and Richard Gere a wealthy but boorish businessman who falls for her. "That's not how this type of prostitution was occurring."
Later in the interview, Urquhart reiterated: "We were not going after the Julia Roberts, the 'Pretty Women.'"
Perhaps it's been awhile since Urquhart actually saw the movie, but Roberts' character, Vivian, is hardly the symbol he wants her to be. A streetwalker who started as a teenager and has learned the hard way not to trust pimps, she can barely make rent on a crappy apartment she shares with a drug addict and her only hope for a better life is being saved by a wealthy client. When this dude-ex-machina comes along in the form of Gere, Vivian is able to leave prostitution and spend her life dependent on his money.
In contrast, the Korean sex workers, or "K-Girls," described in King County court documents worked independently out of upscale apartments, seeing heavily vetted clients solicited over the Internet rather than through a car window. Their exact situations varied, of course, but many spoke of deliberately coming from Korea to the U.S. to peddle sex for a finite time and save up money for some specified goal. They didn't need Richard Gere to rescue them, because they were making better futures for themselves.
By the end of the KIRO interview, Sheriff Urquhart was backpedaling on earlier statements implying that Seattle's K-Girls had agency. "We were going after the Korean sex workers that we believed, and we believe to this day, that were coerced, that were forced, that had no choice but to work in this particular business under these particular circumstances," he said.
"You believe they had no choice, or you have proof they had no choice?" asked Monson.
"We—" Urquhart hesitated for a moment. "I'll call it proof, yes we had proof. We interviewed these women, we understand their situation. We've talked to them. We did everything we could to get them help."
He'll call it proof. With little clue as to these women's identities, no transcripts or recordings of these alleged conversations, and not so much as a whiff of their statements in charging documents against their alleged assailants, Urquhart's word here is all we have to go on.
And despite the 130+ subpoenas served in this case, the physical surveillance of suspects, the surveillance footage from their apartment buildings, the website and email records seized, the myriad "dates" undercover detectives went on with K-Girls, the client happy-hours clandestinely recorded, and the thousands of pages of TRB posts and private communications cops have in their files…. the best the Sheriff can offer to back up claims of force and coercion is these undocumented, un-utilized conversations. Chats that supposedly yielded "proof" of women being forced into prostitution and yet played no further role in the case.
When I spoke to King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Valiant Richey in June, he made it sound as if police had little interaction with K-Girls they encountered at the dozen raided "brothels." None were taken to police headquarters for further questioning, even though Urquhart claims the women spoke very little English (I guess Korean translators were assigned to all of the simultaneous apartment-raid teams?). Richey said the women were offered the chance to speak with social service agents and some did, but he has no idea what came of those conversations.
"Many of them I think just wanted to leave," he said. And so the county let them leave.
I'm glad King County didn't arrest these women for prostitution, or hold them as material witnesses in order to compel their cooperation. But if we really were looking at a huge ring of organized sex traffickers and these women held the key to taking it down… it seems strange that officers didn't try a little harder to get some sort of usable info or statements from them. If Urquhart and Richey are both to be believed, then King County spent months prepping for the raids where Korean women were "rescued," obtained "proof" through brief conversations that these women had been trafficked and forced into prostitution as part of a sophisticated criminal enterprise, and then just said see ya and never checked back in.
The major fallacy of the Reason article, said Urquhart, is that the men charged with promoting prostitution "were not just the customers … We did not go after the customers of the women. We went after the men that were promoting the prostitution."
But the question isn't whether these men's involvement in prostitution went beyond strictly soliciting, paying for, and having sex (i.e., being customers), which almost nobody (and certainly not my initial article) disputes. Yes, they wrote reviews online, and some met up over beers to swap sex stories. Yes, some vouched for each other as new clients, or recommended specific sex workers or agencies to one another. Yes, in a purely literal way this can be considered "promoting" prostitution. (Legally, it's more of a gray area.) The main point of contention with the charges, however, is whether "promoting prostitution" in this way is deserving of a felony conviction with a mandatory minimum fine of $3,000, not to mention the total destruction of these men's reputations and livelihoods. And the big question is whether this sort of "promoting prostitution" in worthy of large undercover police stings using resources allocated for fighting sexual-exploitation and human-trafficking.
Even on a more direct level, Urquhart misrepresented case outcomes to the Dori Monson Show. "These are all men that hired the best private lawyers in Puget Sound," said Urquhart, and yet they pleaded guilty to the charges accused of them. "If they weren't guilty of that crime, you would certainly bet that at least one of them would have gone to trial," he opined. "And they all plead guilty."
Actually, they didn't. At least two defendants are taking their cases to trial, and two more might, according to the most recent documents filed with the King County Superior Court. The trials are scheduled for January 2017.
Another defendant tried to withdraw his initial guilty plea and was denied. Another defendant would only accept a plea deal using an Alford Plea, which essentially agrees to the state's conditions without admitting guilt in any way.
It's also important to realize that all but one defendant initially entered not guilty pleas and were planning on fighting the charges. But after one lawyer pressed the county for specifics on how the promoting prostitution statute applied to his client, all defendants were threatened with additional charges and sex-offender status if they didn't accept a plea deal. Those who fell in line were able to avoid much or any time in prison, will not have to register as sex offenders, and will not have to endure the continued publicity of a trial. For those opting to fight the charges, the state withdrew the plea offer and tacked on extra counts of promoting prostitution as well as a "sexual motivation" enhancement charge.
At the end of his interview with KIRO Radio, Urquhart said he didn't "think anybody's rights were violated" by King County's investigation and still believes it was a good call to pursue the case as his office did. "When women are being prostituted out, when they're held here against their will—either physically or mentally—then we need to help them. We as a society need to help them and that's what we did."
Who exactly was helped is unclear, however. Not the women who relied on TRB to find customers from the comfort of their homes. Not the "rescued" K-Girls whose temporary living-quarters were seized and client-bases destroyed before police simply sent them on their merry way to go forth and prostitute elsewhere. And certainly not the men who will have felony histories for daring to discuss prostitution in private message forums. King County did get to seize $9,000 from one Korean sex worker, along with a guaranteed minimum of $3,000 from each man who pleads guilty to promoting prostitution. It should far from cover the costs of the investigation and prosecution, but factor in all the good publicity King County got for their efforts and it's clear who the only winners are.