Under Cover, Under Arrest--Part II

On the prostitution lookout.
On the prostitution lookout.

It's been called the oldest profession, but not exactly a welcome one. Prostitutes are walking the streets of Savannah. Maybe you have seen them. maybe you haven't noticed.

Police have been going undercover busting prostitutes. But many times, these women have habits they are supporting, and trying to make ends meet lands them in handcuffs.

A woman stalks the highway along Ogeechee Road. Cars pull up. Men on foot stop and chat. They think she's a hooker.

"We've got an undercover female officer acting as a prostitute," said Sgt. David Gay, who heads up the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department's TRAP unit. WTOC rode along with Sgt. Gay as police went undercover, rounding up prostitutes and their johns.

"It's the seedy underbelly of Savannah is what it is," Sgt. Gay said.

It doesn't take long for one man to be picked up for soliciting a prostitute. Over three hours, four men would be arrested.

"Apparently, a female approached one of our officers working back there and propositioned him," said Sgt. Gay.

Police arrested her, too, slapped on the handcuffs and took her away. The officer picked up a prostitute and he made a case," Sgt. Gay told us.

Time of day doesn't matter. Sgt. Gay says some stings are more productive than others. If they make three arrests, that's good. "We made seven arrests in one night, which is unusual," said Sgt. Gay.

He admits, sometimes he can't help but feel sorry for these women. We taped him questioning a suspect named Michelle.

Sgt. Gay: How many times have you been arrested for prostitution?

Michelle: Oh God, that was years ago.

Sgt. Gay: How many?

Michelle: Three or four or more. That was in the '90s though.

The sergeant's next question is always the same.

Sgt. Gay: You got any bad habits?

Michelle: Cigarettes. Cigarettes and ice water.

Michelle may spend the night in jail, but warns she'll probably be back.

Michelle: I'm basically homeless, so if you see me walking, that's why.

"Almost every prostitute I've seen has some sort of chemical addiction, which is the reason they are out there, to support their habit," Sgt. Gay told us.

Marian falls into that category. A mother of five children, she says drugs forced her to have sex for cash.

Marian: Yeah, this is my first time [being arrested].

Sgt. Gay: You have a habit you are trying to feed?

Marian: Yes sir.

Sgt. Gay: What kind?

Marian: Crack sir.

Sgt. Gay: When you get in front of a judge, tell him that to see if you can get help.

"We've been too nice too long," said Virginia Mobley of Savannah, who has has seen dozens of prostitutes get handcuffed over the years. "It's not a pretty picture. It's not even a funny picture. I'm seeing the same people over and over again."

She says no matter what the police do, the court system is too easy on prostitutes. "They are out in two minutes."

She agrees with Sgt. Gay that drugs are the fuel for the prostitution fire. In each case we witnessed, the women were charging anywhere between $5 and $15 for a sex act.

"For the prostitute to afford a bag of crack, they have to turn four tricks," said Mobley.

"These street prostitutes don't make a lot of money, they don't have luxurious lifestyles," said Sgt. Gay. "A lot of them are homeless, living day to day."

Sex, drugs, crime. Sgt. Gay says the spread of diseases is another disturbing reality.

"A number of officers had to be tested recently for potential exposure to a disease," he said.

Police may want to keep the pressure on prostitution, but they also realize it may be a losing proposition. "You are going to slow it, you may displace it, but it will eventually rear its ugly head again," Sgt. Gay said.

Sgt. Gay says prostitution breeds rape, robbery, drugs and in some cases, murder. But it's only a misdemeanor and that's why so many times Virginia Mobley is seeing the same faces in jail on Saturday and back on the streets on Sunday.

How hard is it for undercover police to make a case against a prostitute depends on the person and how wise they are to what police are up to.

Tonight on THE News at 11, we'll show you what happened when a prostitute propositioned us. Using a hidden camera, we walked the streets of Savannah to show you what is really going on.

Reported by: Don Logana, dlogana@wtoc.com