This article is the second in a series documenting the sex trade in Indianapolis. Read Part 1, “Becoming Carmen,” here.
Author's Note: This story contains explicit language and descriptions of real prostitution cases. Reader discretion is advised.
INDIANAPOLIS -- “It was just something I took a dare on I guess,” Ron tells me.
It was four days before Christmas 2016. Ron was driving down 10th Street when, in his telling, he spotted a woman who immediately caught his eye.
“I waved at her and I thought she would be somebody I’d like to meet,” Ron says.
Ron pulled his car over and, after a brief conversation, exchanged numbers with the woman. He was on his way to the shop to get some work done on his car, so he only had a few minutes. They discussed meeting later that day.
That meeting didn’t happen, but Ron did text the woman, who told him her name was “Sunny,” at 7:38 a.m. the next day to say good morning. Both Ron’s account – and the official police account of his eventual arrest – agree on that point.
Out of the 44 men arrested in Indianapolis last year on charges of soliciting a prostitute, Ron was the only one who agreed to talk to me. He did so on the condition I not use his full name.
The texts between Ron and “Sunny” continued until January 3, when they finally agreed to meet. According to the undercover detective who eventually arrested Ron, it was clear immediately that he had a particular kind of meeting in mind.
“He claimed he was heading out of town [Dec. 22, 2016] for a funeral. He texted that he would be back Monday, if not sooner and asked twice if I lived alone,” the detective wrote in her affidavit. “I replied that I was staying at a hotel, but generally stayed from place to
place. He then replied, ‘Okay we talk about twenty is ok.’”
The detective noted that she recognized the question as asking her how much money she’d need to meet up with him.
“I asked then, ‘To f*** or head?’” she wrote. “He replied, ‘To f***.’”
Ron, according to transcripts of texts with the detective, then asked her to meet him at his place.
“I will pay you double if you were to come to my place,” Ron wrote. “I don’t do hotels. Had a friend who set up at a hotel [sic].”
Ron then told her he’d give her a ride, and buy her something to eat first.
“It will be like a date,” Ron said.
Ron also told me he thought he was setting up a date. He says “Sunny” being a prostitute was “the furthest thing from my mind.”
The texts continued until January 3, when Ron and Sunny finally arranged to meet. She asked him if he was “down with at least 40” – their agreed upon fee for sex. He said he was.
They arranged to meet at a Ricker’s gas station. When he arrived, Ron patted his pocket and told Sunny he already had condoms. She asked for $3 to buy cigarettes from the gas station before they left.
Before she walked in to the gas station, Sunny asked Ron, “Are we gonna get it on?” He replied with an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” She signaled for her backup.
Like many of the men arrested for soliciting a prostitute in Indianapolis last year, Ron eventually reached a pretrial diversion agreement with prosecutors. The agreement meant he wouldn’t spend any time in jail and the charges against him would be dismissed after he completed 40 hours of community service.
Ron, for his part, acknowledges that he didn’t contest the charges and that he signed the agreement. He still claims he didn’t think Sunny was a prostitute.
“But,” Ron told me before our conversation ended, “I did hear that anybody who’s on 10th Street you shouldn’t talk to anyway.”
An Unequal System
Indianapolis police arrested four times as many “Sunnys” – the real Sunnys, the women who are prostituted every day on Indy’s streets – as Rons in 2017. It’s not because there’s a lack of demand.
Over a two-day reverse sting on Valentine’s Day dubbed, appropriately, “Operation: Cupid’s Broken Arrow,” IMPD Southeast District narcotics and flex officers arrested 10 men for soliciting prostitutes – almost a quarter the number of men arrested on the same charge in all of the previous year.
It easily could have been more, said Southeast District’s Sgt. Christopher Kibbey.
“Honestly, if it had been a little bit warmer and we’d had a little bit more manpower, we probably would have doubled what we did,” Kibbey said. “There’s no shortage of johns and prostitutes in that corridor.”
Deputy Chief of Investigations Chris Bailey, who oversees the department’s vice unit, wasn’t surprised the department arrested four times as many women for prostitution as men for soliciting last year. But, he said, those numbers aren’t where they should be.
“The chief’s directive to us if that if we have a proactive investigation unit, most of our investigations need to be geared toward reducing violent crime,” Bailey said. “And while prostitution itself is not a violent crime, the people that are engaged in that do have information that can help us and lead us in the direction to prevent violent crime.”
At least a quarter of last year’s soliciting arrests ended in pretrial diversions that saw men avoid charges altogether, usually after 20-40 hours of community service. Another quarter ended in guilty pleas – but because soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor, the penalty is low. Bailey said he’d like to see changes on that end.
“We need to be holding these folks more accountable,” Bailey said. “That’s a misdemeanor. Most of the time they end up with a plea bargain or diversion. And that’s fine for a first offense, but maybe not a second offense. We need to be more strict on the johns and that may help us reduce the supply on the street.”
As it stands now, a review of the affidavits filed in all of last year’s solicitation arrests leaves the inescapable impression that the men looking to buy sex from prostituted women don’t see their actions as criminal.
‘Not Just a Creepy Man’
It was 11:30 a.m. on Halloween, and the temperature was hovering around the freezing point. Undercover IMPD vice officers were conducting reverse stings in the 4300 block of Washington Street. One of the unit's female detectives, posing as a prostitute, noticed a man was idling at a corner, window rolled all the way down, staring at her.
Eventually, he did turn westbound on Washington Street and began to drive away. Trusting her instincts, the detective called in the car’s plates. Her instincts turned out to be good: A block later the man’s Chevy turned the corner and circled back toward her.
Sensing she was about to get a bite, the detective walked northbound, toward the corner of Washington and Euclid – one of the corners where a woman named Maria, a real prostitute, had been arrested a month earlier.
The driver of the Chevy, later identified as 77-year-old Ernest Roach, pulled up to the detective. He opened the conversation with little doubt about what was on his mind.
“Do you got panties on?” he asked.
Later, in a probable cause affidavit, the veteran vice detective would note that even she was a little surprised by Roach’s opener.
The detective demurred at first, and then, not knowing how to respond, asked, “Do you want them?”
Roach said no. Then he asked if she had a place.
At that point, the detective noted, she realized he was “not just a creepy man, but one who was attempting to solicit me for prostitution.”
The detective indicated that she lived in a nearby apartment complex, and asked if he had $20 for her. Roach, according to the affidavit, said he would as soon as he went to the bank. He told her he would meet her shortly. He then asked her, according to the detective, if she wanted to have sex.
Having heard enough, the detective signaled for her backup to come arrest Roach.
While he was being handcuffed, Roach expressed how upset he was, according to the affidavit. Not at having been arrested for prostitution – just at having been arrested on Halloween “after he had just ‘spent all this money on candy.’”
As of publication, a charge of making an unlawful proposition remained pending against Roach. Court records show a pretrial diversion agreement was filed in the case in December.
Less Than Human
“Men understand they have their mothers and their sisters and their aunts, but they see [prostituted women] as below them,” Stefanie Jeffers says.
Jeffers, 47, is the founder of Grit Into Grace – a non-profit that helps women engaging in street prostitution who want to leave that life. It’s a journey she had to make herself more than a decade ago when her job as a stripper devolved into after-hours meetings at hotels to be paid for sex.
“Because they are not held to the same standard, it’s OK to purchase sex,” Jeffers said. “It’s OK to abuse these women. It’s OK to do whatever they desire with these women to satiate their own needs. It’s OK because they’re 'less than.' And they’re not.”
Countering those perceptions of women is one of the primary goals of so-called “john schools” – programs, in many cases court mandated, designed to force men who purchase sex to confront the reality of what that decision means for them, for the women involved and for the communities where they live.
In a 2012 report on john schools around the country, the National Institute of Justice outlined 11 common “erroneous beliefs” the programs sought to counter in men who paid for sex. Those beliefs included:
- Denial or ignorance of the risk of contracting STDs or HIV through purchased sex;
- Denial or ignorance of the negative impact prostitution has on the neighborhoods in which it occurs;
- Ignorance of the links between street prostitution and large, organized systems of sex trafficking;
- Denial or ignorance of what motivates men to solicit prostituted women;
- The mistaken belief that the women they hire care about them, and that they are in some kind of relationship with them;
- Denial or ignorance of the anger, revulsion or indifference that many prostituted women have while they are having sex with johns.
Until 2015, when the Marion County Community Court closed its doors, Indianapolis had its own john school called the “Red Zone” program. The program provided a pretrial diversion option for certain offenders to take a three-hour class, including a community impact panel, and do five hours of community service in the neighborhood where they tried to purchase sex.
The National Institute of Justice’s study noted that such community impact panels were important for the people who actually lived in affected communities to convey to johns what happens after their transaction is complete.
“Residents argue that johns ‘can do their business there and leave,’ but residents have to stay in their neighborhood and deal with the aftermath,” the student said.
In one instance, the study notes, a community representative asked whether the men in the class were arrested in the neighborhood they lived in. Of the 27 men present, none had been.
An analysis of 2017’s arrest records showed fewer than 10 of the 44 men accused of trying to purchase sex in Indianapolis were arrested in their own neighborhoods.
Use the map below to see where alleged johns were arrested in 2017 (red), and where their home addresses were listed (green):
Use the map below to see where alleged johns were arrested in 2017 (red), and where their home addresses were listed (green):
Those men ranged in age from 28 to 81. They came from as far as Elkhart. Some of them, like Ron, were on their way somewhere else – the car shop, the bank – when they decided to pick up a prostitute. One was driving a marked company truck when he was arrested.
The john school study said the evidence suggests such programs reduce not only recidivism, but also overall commercial sex activity. The study found that no city in the country spent more than $3,500 per class to conduct its john school.
Breaking the Pattern
That far more women were arrested last year for their half of the prostitution equation than men were is perhaps not surprising. Even the language of the charges police arrest suspects on is centered around women.
Johns arrested in reverse stings face preliminary charges of “patronizing a prostitute” (later, in a courtroom, the charge will be the even more impersonal “making an unlawful proposition”). When accused pimps are arrested – and only three were in all of 2017 – they face a charge of “promoting prostitution.” That, at least, carries a maximum sentence of 6 years in prison.
Both prostitution and patronizing a prostitute are Class “A” misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
In many of the community impact panels held at john schools around the country, though, community members tell men who pay for sex about the real toll of their actions.
“Members of the communities emphasize that johns contribute to the problem, or in fact are the chief cause of the problem,” the study notes, “since without ‘customers’ there would be no prostituted persons or pimps.”
Jeffers says she wants men like Ron, who see prostitution as a $20 or $40 “dare,” to know what they leave in their wake.
“These women are someone’s sister, someone’s aunt, someone’s mother, someone’s child,” Jeffers said. “Nobody grows up thinking this is the way they want their life to turn out. And it is not enjoyable to sell yourself to someone, to a stranger, for money. It’s just not. Whether men think that it is, or they think that it doesn’t cause harm… it does. It is not something that, once they’re done with them this ends for them and they just move on to the next john. This is something that absolutely alters their life. And it could be forever if they don’t get help.”