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.
"From time to time, we do go out and arrest those girls," he says, "but it's not a priority for us. It's something we do as one of the responsibilities of vice squad." For a unit that must monitor child pornography, check out adult nightclubs, enforce liquor violations, investigate extortion and murder for hire, as well as play a role in the joint terrorism task force, prostitution tends to get pushed down on the list of priorities.
Still, cops like Daughenbaugh are well-aware that the Internet has supplanted traditional tactics of the flesh-marketing trade, especially localized ones. "It's amazing to me how many girls are out there prostituting themselves," he says.
Websites that review, discuss, and advertise the escort services usually do so with a disclaimer: "Money exchanged is intended for companionship only and modeling services. Anything else that may or may not occur is a matter of personal choice between two consenting adults of legal age and is not contracted for, nor is it requested to be contracted for in any manner. This is not an offer of prostitution."
Despite the professions of innocence, the effect of such sites on the prostitution business have been revolutionary. In a relatively short time, the Internet has helped take prostitutes off the streets and placed them in the digital maze of cyberspace, revolutionizing and protecting the industry. Many site operators and webmasters, authorities say, are educated opportunists turned computer geeks, eager to peddle women on-line with their newfound HTML or Dreamweaver skills.
While newbie escorts can post small classifieds for as little as $20 a month on the web, national sites like Cityvibe.com and Bigdoggie.net (yes, it's still operating) contain local subdirectories for cities coast to coast that cater to the upscale. Banner ads for multigirl agencies with 954 area codes abound on Eros' Miami link, featuring photos of women with eye-popping physiques and descriptions of hair color, height, weight, measurements, and more.