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Groups from around the country have protested and encouraged boycotts

Tempe, AZ|Sex-Trafficking|Add Comment
By: JJ Hensley, Arizona Republic
Groups from around the country have protested

Excerpt: "Backpage.com, an online-classified site owned by alternative-media conglomerate Village Voice Media, whose holdings include the PhoenixNew Times, has garnered national attention for publishing such ads. In response, groups from around the country have protested and encouraged boycotts of businesses that advertise with the media company."

A recently concluded undercover sting started simply enough: A Maricopa County sheriff's detective conducting surveillance on a drug operation noticed odd activities going on at a central Tempe motel.

Detectives commented on their radios about a woman they saw going from one room to another and, later, a man who stood outside several rooms and appeared to be "keeping time."

The operation soon transitioned from drug surveillance to a prostitution sting. Over the course of a month, detectives made nearly 40 arrests for prostitution-related crimes, drug possession and unlawful-weapon possession in an unincorporated area of the county tucked between Tempe and Guadalupe. The investigation led detectives to east Mesa and south Tempe before the operation was complete.

"It's not just the county island, we've done this in other hotels," Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. "I'm sure you're not going to stop this type of activity. Some media attention ... might act as a deterrent to others getting involved in this type of thing."

The operation had the familiar feel of any sting, with detectives making contact with suspects who came to a designated hotel. There, the suspects made contact with an undercover deputy, who secured an offer of sex for money and then used a code word as a signal for other deputies to storm the hotel room.

On a recent weeknight, a half-dozen detectives crowded into a Tempe hotel room to run the sting. Two deputies were assigned to contact women advertising as escorts on the Internet. Within 30 minutes, two women had agreed to spend an hour with the undercover detectives in exchange for $200.

Samantha Siqueiros, 24, was arrested soon after she arrived. She discussed the fetishes of some of her clients and noted that she had been in the hotel room before.

Detectives searching her purse found a medical-marijuana card, a switchblade and paperwork indicating she had attended a prostitution-diversion class earlier in the day in an effort to avoid prosecution for an August arrest in Phoenix.

"I like sex," Siqueiros said when detectives asked how she got involved in prostitution. "It's just easy."

In the ongoing battle between Valley police and prostitution rings, Internet sites advertising adult services have become a valuable tool for police. The sites feature photos of women typically wearing little more than lingerie offering body rubs, massages, escorts and companionship. Police use those ads to generate investigative leads.

Backpage.com, an online-classified site owned by alternative-media conglomerate Village Voice Media, whose holdings include the PhoenixNew Times, has garnered national attention for publishing such ads. In response, groups from around the country have protested and encouraged boycotts of businesses that advertise with the media company.

A law was passed in Washington state this spring that threatened five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for anyone who knowingly or indirectly displays content that offers sexual contact for something of value, if the content includes an image of a minor. A federal judge in July issued an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect.

Liz McDougall, an attorney representing Backpage.com, has said the company will not remove the site. It instead wants to create a framework for adult advertising that can be implemented throughout the industry. It would allow cooperation with local law-enforcement agencies to fight human trafficking while developing a comprehensive approach to adult-services advertisements. The concern, according to Backpage supporters, is that shutting down the site might drive the content to offshore networks outside the reach of American law-enforcement agencies.

McDougall said there is another reason Backpage does not intend to shut down: There is minimal likelihood that any of the women are advertising exclusively on its pages.

"When you talk with people who have used Backpage for prostitution, they will tell you you can't make a living with one Internet resource," she said. "I would be shocked if Backpage is their only source of advertising."

McDougall also said the company has worked with law-enforcement agencies to seek out women police have brought to their attention and provided information from other websites.

"We've found a victim on up to 13 other sites," she said.

Sheriff's deputies did not consult with Backpage's monitors for their operation, instead trolling the site for women who advertised services in an unincorporated area of Tempe near Baseline Road and Priest Drive. The area is outside the jurisdiction of surrounding police agencies and not subject to local zoning laws and restrictions.

The sheriff's deputies also did not identify any minors during the monthlong operation that took place near the Arizona Mills mall. But working through Backpage allowed detectives to contact the women, leading to 10 arrests on suspicion of prostitution, five for solicitation and three for allegedly receiving the earnings of a prostitute.

On the night they arrested Siqueiros, detectives arrested another woman and her alleged pimp, a 20-year-old who told deputies that he had picked up the woman, a friend, earlier in the day at a bus station and used his brother's Mercedes to drive her to appointments around the Valley.

The suspect, James King, was carrying a 9mm gun and ammunition in the car. The $960 he had in his wallet was from work at a local record studio, supplemented by gas money from his companion, he said.

The discovery was indicative of what detectives found in the operation, Arpaio said.

"It's not just prostitution," he said.

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