Special report: Gang members turn from selling drugs to selling girls for sex

Second in a series

Drug dealing can be lucrative, but some gang members who sell drugs get tired of standing out on the street all night, at risk of arrest simply by possessing the drugs they’re selling. So, they become pimps and make their girlfriends work all night instead — selling sex.

Pimping can be very lucrative, and both federal and local law enforcement agencies have seen a trend of gang members getting involved in controlling girls under the age of 18 through violence, making them sell themselves, and keeping all of the profits.

FBI Task Force Officer Ryan Larson said the reason for the change was simply economic. From the pimps’ perspective, he explained, “I sell crack, I sell it, it’s gone, I sell a girl, she’s still there.”

“If a pimp has two girls, say each one does two dates, that makes $600 a day, times 30,” Larson said. “The average pimp can make $18,000 a month for two girls doing two dates a day.”

One recently convicted pimp was making $30,000 a month from the girls who were working for him, Larson said. Juan Alexander Vianez, 26, of Lakewood, was sentenced in federal court to 20 years in prison in September.

“Pimping out girls gets me money, which gets me respect,” gang member Shawn Clark, 21, wrote in a confession, according to Seattlepi.com, before he was sentenced in December to nine years in prison for his role in a West Seattle prostitution ring. “And if I’m respected as an associate of West Side Street Mobb, then the gang gets more respect… Next to money, respect is all that matters.”

His brother, Deshawn “Cash Money” Clark, 19, sentenced in January to 17 years for his role in the prostitution ring and the first to be convicted under a new state human-trafficking law, apologized.

“I know what I did was wrong,” Clark said to King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North, according to Seattlepi.com. “I apologize to the women in this case, to their families, my family, to everyone.”

How it works

Pimps prefer to recruit girls who are runaways or who are wards of the state, FBI’s Larson explained, meaning that one of the things that keeps them in the life of prostitution and attached to the pimp is that they don’t have anywhere else to go. The average age of entry for girls into prostitution is 13 in the United States, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

Even when girls do have relatives to go back to, a return often isn’t possible. “I called one mother and I said, ‘I don’t want to take your daughter to jail, come get her.’ She said she’d file a complaint if I didn’t stop harassing her,” Larson said.

“These girls need to be loved, and this is what the pimp provides, and they start dating, and then bam, they turn her out,” Larson said. “They’re street psychologists and therapists. They get the girl to believe that dream, and they work them until they’re done.”

He said that understanding that girls who have been involved in prostitution are victims is a difficult notion to grasp because when they get arrested, they don’t act like victims. Uncooperative, they swear at officers and say that they don’t need help. “Even myself, three years ago, I didn’t realize the dynamics of the domestic nature of the situation. I would have thought that she’s an unruly runaway that is prostituting,” Larson said.

“In reality, she’s the worst victim of domestic violence you could imagine, being manipulated, made to sleep with these nasty old men.”

Estimates of how many underage girls are involved in prostitution vary: A study by anthropologist Debra Boyer called “Who Pays the Price” found about 250 girls working as prostitutes who were known to Seattle social services providers. Boyer estimated that 300 to 500 girls total were working in the Seattle-King County area. Lt. Eric Sano, commander of the vice and high-risk victims unit of the Seattle Police Department, said that he believes the number to be closer to the range of 800 to 1,000 girls involved.

Sano said that gang members have been getting more involved in pimping in recent years, a dangerous trend because they’re more prone to violence both with the girls and with rival gang members.

“They’ve grown up in an era that glorifies the gang lifestyle through rap music, video games, movies and TV shows,” Sano said.

Police believe several shootings last year were between gang members over control of prostitutes and turf, culminating in the shooting death of Mario Spearman on April 13, 2009. [See security-cam video below of shooters’ getaway.] Four men were convicted of his killing in September 2010.




The gang members who pimp prostitutes tend to be less organized than what law enforcement would call an “organized crime family,” Sano said. “The gangs are usually a little less formal, although there is usually one member that is the ad hoc leader,” he said. Each pimp has between one and four girls that he controls. One of the girls becomes the “Bottom Girl,” a street term to describe the girl closest to the exploiter, and she also ends up recruiting or coercing other girls to prostitute themselves. 

Another reason some gang members get involved with prostitution rather than drugs is that a girl can be coached to say that she’s a cousin, friend, etc., of the pimp if she is questioned by police, while illegal drugs are illegal regardless of what kind of explanation they give to the officers, Sano said.

FBI Special Agent Tarna Derby-McCurtain said that federal authorities have been getting more involved in prosecuting pimps in recent years, even in cases where they can’t prove that the pimp moved across state lines. If a telephone or computer is used in the crime, or if the pimp buys condoms for a prostitute, that shows that there was interstate commerce. (Condoms aren’t manufactured in Washington state.)

Derby-McCurtain said federal prosecutors take on four or five of the worst cases of pimping each year in Western Washington. Recently, a former Army Sergeant, Sterling Terrance Hospedales, 27, was sentenced in federal court to 11 years in prison for sex trafficking juveniles. According to a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he had lured one girl out from Wyoming and set up a Lakewood apartment where the girls were living and servicing customers. Derby-McCurtain said that sentences in the federal system tend to be longer, with defendants serving 80 percent of their time, as opposed to 50 percent in state prisons.

More advanced pimps who travel with their girls are known as “circuit pimps,” meaning that they travel around every few weeks, taking the girls to the large cities in the West. Derby-McCurtain said Washington state isn’t the most profitable place to run a prostitution ring – demand is higher in Las Vegas and Reno. Also, when a major sports event like the Super Bowl takes place, circuit pimps from all around the area will come with their girls.

Why some teens become pimps

Money is the major motivator for why pimps control and turn out girls, but one Seattle non-profit organization believes that there are other factors, and is trying to reach out to them. New Horizons Ministries in Seattle goes out on the streets with teams of counselors to talk with prostitutes and with pimps. Sheila Houston, director of Outreach Services, said that about half of the females they talk with are under 18. Many pimps, too, are quite young and need to be helped.

“If you have boys that are 17, 18 or 19 doing this, there is something wrong. There needs to be some kind of rehabilitation,” Houston said. She cited lack of money, lack of education and poverty in the African-American community as reasons that young men are getting involved in the trade.

Looking at it from the perspective of a woman of color herself, Houston said, she had to consider the challenges that African-American young men go through when they’re raised. “Some of them didn’t have a father figure in the home telling them what it means to be a man.”

Houston said that pimping should still be prosecuted as a crime, but she thinks that sentences of 26 years are excessive.

She added that there isn’t enough emphasis in the law enforcement response being put on the customers of prostitutes, some of whom are raping, beating and sodomizing them. One thing that New Horizons does is help prostitutes put together a “bad date list,” containing names and descriptions of customers who abuse prostitutes. The list usually has about 15 names on it.

Sano said that in his police work, he’s heard arguments that pimps aren’t all hardened criminals, but those arguments don’t sit well with him.

“People say, ‘Oh, these pimps, they’re just victims of society.’ But, once you start assaulting, raping people, torturing people — you lose your victim status,” he said.

Leslie Briner, associate director of Residential Services at YouthCare, a Seattle non-profit organization that runs a home for children recovered from prostitution, said that she does understand Houston’s point that many pimps are themselves youths who don’t think about the consequences of their actions.

“It’s really easy to villainize these guys,” Briner said. “I absolutely agree . . . that villainization of the pimps is because of racism and classism.

“Pimps are oftentimes folk heroes in their communities because they’re the ones with resources in their community,” Briner added. “They have money.”

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Prostitution among Youth in Case Management (Year 2007)


Case Manager                                     Total # Caseload        # Youth in Prostitution —————————————————————————————————————–

YC Juvenile Detention Case Manager        118                                    58

YC HIV Case Manager                                 23                                      9

YC Home of Hope                                        36                                      3

YC Orion Case Manager 1                           34                                      4

YC Isis                                                         30                                      4

YC Orion Case Mangr. 2                              50                                    15

YC Pathways                                               25                                      1

YC Passages                                               35                                      6

UDYC Case Mgr. 1                                       45                                      8

UDYC Case Manager                                   75                                    24

YMCA WZ                                                     35                                      4

SEYFS                                                        150                                    13

Spruce St CRC 687 66

YC Straley                                                   40                                      3

YC Casa/ORR                                              27                                      0

YC Shelter                                                 118                                    20

                 TOTALS                                 1,528                               238

Agency Key – YC=YouthCare, UDYC=University District Youth Center, YMCA WZ= YMCA Working

Zone, SEYFS =Southeast Youth and Family Services. Source: “Who Pays The Price?” report, Table 3.


This series is being made possible by your donations via Spot.us and directly to PostGlobe which receives no grants nor government money and relies on tax-deductible donations. Photo sources: New Horizon Ministries, Craigscrimelist.org, Girls are Not for Sale

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Special report: Gang members turn from selling drugs to selling girls for sex

Special report: Controlled and abused teens exploited in prostitution trade can’t get out

Special report: Buyers of child sex are ordinary guys doing something illegal

Voices of the exploited… ‘Make every day of your life count’

Prostitution sweep recovered 23 children; hundreds more still stuck in “The Life”

Teen prostitution: Prevention tips and warning signs

Lost and found: Home provides place for sexually exploited teens

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