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Leslie entertains clients in her Pembroke Pines home. She pays more than $100 a month to post her full-page ad on Eros.com but says the cash she makes easily offsets the cost. "I make good money," she says. "I'm busty and unique, and I do a lot better than most other girls out there. And I like my job and intend to keep doing it. I'm 40-something. I'm not one of these young, dumb, drugged-up girls who do four or five calls a day until they can't do it anymore." She's completely independent, laughing when she's asked why anyone would choose to give 30 percent of their takings to an agency. "Why do you think? 'Cause they're lazy!" And why would any escort advertise on-line using her own photographs? "They just don't know any better," says Leslie, whose ads show her physical charms but not her face.
With the Internet as a screening device and with increasingly savvy business practices and due caution at work, the industry is, as far as law enforcement is concerned, more slippery than ever. In 2002, a Florida State's Attorney investigation called "Operation Flea Collar" went after the principals of Bigdoggie.net in an effort to shut down the Tampa-based escort-ad clearinghouse. But the sting operation -- with vice detectives infiltrating the site, setting up fake ads, and then collaring would-be johns in an effort to bring down the top tier of the organization -- failed. The prosecutors' efforts to keep secret the identity of confidential informants fell apart, resulting in a prominent Tampa city council candidate dropping out in disgrace, and the case lost traction. The well-publicized snag headlined a host of other hurdles, and in December 2002, a judge dismissed most of the charges against Bigdoggie's alleged owners, Tampa resident Charles Kelly and Boca Raton-based Steve Lipson. Yet the bust was international news, and the process exposed Web-based prostitution commerce in a public way. The subculture had been outed.
Luke Lirot, a renegade Tampa attorney who has built a reputation defending the rights of strip clubs, escort agencies, and head shops, calls the state's prosecution of escort agencies "a shortsighted cultural phenomenon. The arguments they give about why this should be illegal don't hold water in this day and age. We're a long way from Florida being progressive enough to realize these restrictions do more harm than good."
Lirot, who represented Kelly in the Bigdoggie case, understands why people like Silverburg are under such pressure to remain anonymous. "The minute you take a public stance on this, you're immediately targeted by law enforcement," he says, frustration in his voice. "If someone wanted to become visible on this issue, they would be targeted so quickly."
Thus, a massive and silent industry continues earning and investing money with little interference from police -- unless they become as big as Arthur Vanmoor. "When we said he grossed $6 million a year, that was probably a conservative estimate," says Sgt. Gary Daughenbaugh of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's vice unit that helped bring the Dutchman down. "That was only what we could document."
Vanmoor was deported to Holland on October 13, following his conviction on RICO charges in May 2004. Fort Lauderdale's authorities' successful prosecution came on their third try. The first two times, he weaseled out with nothing more than a small fine and a plea bargain, but the final time, Daughenbaugh says, "things finally went the right way.
"Owners are difficult to [prosecute]," he adds. "They insulate themselves so well, and you have to prove that they had actually knowledge of the girl committing the act, having sex. That's their defense; you have to get over that hump. It's very difficult."
Last year, Daughenbaugh says, "we arrested at least three [escort agency owners] or they left town." But the escorts themselves and the "independent girls" like Leslie are tough to prosecute.
"It is hard," Daughenbaugh says. "We either set up a sting operation in a hotel, after we've made pre-arrangements on the phone or Internet." And as court documents from both the Bigdoggie.net case and the Vanmoor arrests plainly show, the hotel-room stings are, because of restrictions on what officers posing as johns can do in negotiating with a prostitute, highly problematic. In the Bigdoggie case, cops actually ended up paying confidential informants to receive oral sex from escorts -- a big no-no, as it turned out.
That leaves South Florida morality squads expending most of their energy on the easiest targets -- streetwalking prostitutes, those who are the most unregulated, drug-addicted, and likely to carry sexually transmitted diseases. Police in Hollywood, Dania Beach, and Fort Lauderdale have easy pickings along Federal Highway threading through their towns, where most hookers congregate.
"Among the street-level girls, we made 162 [arrests in 2003], and 31 of those were felonies," Daughenbaugh says, explaining that a new Florida statute says that "if you're convicted twice for prostitution, the third time, you're charged with felony." At the same time, he adds, Fort Lauderdale cops arrested 87 johns during reverse sting operations. Policing curbside prostitution is easier and presumably offers a legitimate public service. On the other hand, calling every escort with an on-line advertisement, Daughenbaugh concedes, isn't worth the time.