ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
Feb. 10, 2005


Working the street: Prostitutes clash with police, neighbors in Old Town Eureka [photo of woman on street]

On the cover: A prostitute approaches a potential customer in Old Town Eureka.
Photo by Helen Sanderson



IT WAS A COLD AFTERNOON in January when "Ruby," a prostitute who works the edge of Old Town, was walking along Third Street. Dressed casually in jeans and a thick blue sweater, wearing no makeup, the short, somewhat stocky brunette marched briskly down the road.

Ruby -- who preferred not to use her real name for this story -- said that she is "hooking" to support her heroin addiction.

Snacking on gummi worms and circus peanuts, she said that at 44 years of age, she is one of the oldest women working Old Town. Ruby charges $40 for oral sex, $60 for intercourse, and usually asks her "johns" for a tip. "Most of them are nice," she said.

Some are not. One john drove her across the Samoa Bridge last year for what she thought would be a "date," a roadside tryst that would pay for her next fix. Instead, the man hit her and demanded she hand over her money. According to Ruby, the same man, whom she described as a "youngster," took a leather coat from one girl and raped another. "I've been in a lot of situations, but he scared me," she said. "He scared me bad."

As her stories spilled forth the details grew more grim. She talked of a notorious Eureka landlord who demands free sex from his prostitute-tenants, and remembered the September murder of her friend, Lori Ann Jones, a fellow prostitute who was found dead near Grizzly Creek State Park.

Dead friends, scumbag landlords, exploitation, robbery, drugs, assault. One dark story flowed candidly into the next within the span of just a few minutes.

With two stings in as many months -- resulting in the arrests of five sex workers and one john -- prostitution has been under scrutiny from the Eureka Police Department and businesses lately. People who live and work near the edge of Old Town say that they can't stand the pervasiveness of the sex trade anymore, but police, prostitutes and local doctors say that the "oldest profession" is probably here to stay.


Different in the '50s

Eureka Police Capt. Murl Harpham, 71[photo at right], has been working the streets of Eureka since 1957. In his nearly half a century of experience, he has seen the prostitution business change.

[Police Capt. Murl Harpham]"When I started in the '50s very few were involved in drugs. They worked out of homes and out of bars, and they were clean -- no diseases. They were also much more attractive and well-dressed," he said.

In the '60s, the madam/brothel system that had been a Eureka fixture since the 1870s faded, and the women of "ill fame" were moving from bordellos to the curb, specifically along Third Street between D and G, Harpham said.

"You don't see it now but I've seen a lot of prostitutes put their money away, invest it and live comfortably. The ones now on drugs, their money is gone immediately," Harpham said. "I think pretty much 100 percent of the prostitutes who work the streets here have drug problems; speed and a lot of heroin," Harpham said.

Ruby agreed, saying that women are more "dope-sick" these days, and will trade their body for less money because they're desperate for drugs. In the '80s, Ruby said, she could make $500 a night. Now, she's lucky to make that in a weekend.

One local prostitute, who calls herself Paradise, got out of the profession for a time. Harpham first arrested her for soliciting prostitution in 1963. For a while afterward, he said that she became religious and kicked her drug habit. But in May of 2004 -- at 61 years of age -- she was busted again, along with seven other women, including Ruby, police say. In recent years EPD has also arrested Paradise's daughter and granddaughter for prostitution, Harpham said.

Since 1999, 44 people have been arrested by EPD for soliciting prostitution; 34 prostitutes and 10 johns. That doesn't seem like very many. By comparison, in 1968, Harpham arrested 78 prostitutes when he closed up a club.

"A lot of them would travel, circuit with their pimp. They would come to Eureka because you could get more money for tricks. They'd get $20 here and $10 in the Bay Area because in the city there's more competition," he said.

Prostitution stings, Harpham said, are the best method Eureka police has of slowing down solicitation. But sometimes sweeps don't work out as well as the police would like.

[Old Town Eureka at night]

John sting a bust

Sitting in a brown, unmarked police car in a parking lot on Third and L streets in Eureka last Tuesday night, Detective Neil Hubbard described a prostitution sting as a lot like hunting or fishing.

"It's a whole lot of waiting around for just a couple seconds of excitement," Hubbard said.

On Tuesday, that excitement came after two hours of waiting and listening, a little before 8 p.m., when a man driving a black two-door car rolled up to the EPD decoy -- a 20-year-old woman with a microphone hidden inside of a huge cell phone circa 1995 -- as she stood on the Third Street sidewalk near the library. The woman was not a cop, but was hired by the EPD to help with the sting. Manning a recording device disguised in a Naugahyde briefcase was Detective Dave Parris, who sat in a nearby car.

The john, a 58-year-old man from Arcata, negotiated a $20 blowjob with the young woman, who told him to meet her at the Town House Inn on Fourth and K streets. (A rule of Eureka police is that women decoys never get into a car with a john.)

The man drove off, turned toward the motel, and was intercepted by Eureka Police detectives Curt Honeycutt, Ronnie Harpham (Murl's son) and Parris, along with Harpham and EPD volunteer Terry Long.

Taken to the police station in handcuffs, the man was booked, fingerprinted and photographed. The maximum penalty for solicitation,misdemeanor,a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Additionally, an AIDS test is required. If the results are positive, and the john or prostitute is arrested a second time for solicitation, they will be charged with a felony, Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman said.

Honeycutt asked the man if he needed a lift back to his car, which the cops parked on the roadside where he was pulled over. Had they found drugs or weapons in the car it would have been impounded.

An ordinance recently put on hold by the Eureka City Council would allow police to seize and potentially repossess vehicles suspected to be involved in solicitation of prostitution or drugs. Oakland enacted a similar ordinance which is being challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union on constitutional grounds. If Oakland wins the appellate case, Eureka will likely give a green light to its ordinance, Eureka City Attorney Dave Tranberg said.

The john declined the ride, saying he would walk back, and that he had to go straight to work to cover a nighttime janitorial shift.

"It was just stupid," the man said sheepishly to Honeycutt, before heading out the door of the EPD criminal investigation room. He told detectives he had never solicited a prostitute before.


Frustrated neighbors

[Carolyn Stacey in library]"It makes my blood boil to see this going on in the parking lot of a public library," said Carolyn Stacey [photo at right], director of the Humboldt County Library. Four years ago when she came to work here -- at the county's waterfront jewel -- Stacey, 38, said she was shocked to see pimps, prostitutes and johns regularly meeting outside. In the last six months she said, things have gotten worse.

"We're seeing more of them in the daytime. We've had customers complain about being approached [by prostitutes]," Stacey said. "Some of the [johns] tell us that it is their right to sit there because it's a public parking lot. But that's not the case." A county ordinance prohibits anyone other than library patrons from using the library parking lot. Stacey is having signs made that cite the rule.

On the advice of police, library employees monitor what happens in the parking lot, cataloging physical descriptions, car models and license plate numbers. Monthly, they give the vigilante logs to the police.

"It doesn't seem to help anything. I know the police do their best but it's not slowing these people down," Stacey said.

Another neighbor, Ray Thompson, has tried unsuccessfully to shoo prostitutes from his property, an old house that has been converted into four apartments on Third and M streets. Thompson, 65, said he has complained to Eureka City Council members dozens of times and has called police countless times over the past five years. Like Stacey, he has resorted to patrolling the area himself.

"My tenants deserve peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their home, and that's hard to have when hookers are walking up and down the street outside of your front door," Thompson said.

To dissuade johns from cruising the area, Thompson has gone as far as to call the employers of some men who use company trucks to pick up hookers. Once he snapped a picture of a "well-known businessman" in his car as a prostitute climbed into the passenger seat. The man jumped out of his vehicle and confronted him angrily, but didn't get physical.

"I do what I can to keep it from happening around here, but at a point it becomes dangerous," Thompson said.

And he's tired of it.

"When you fight this for so long and things don't get better it's really discouraging," he said.

One Old Town business that has seen a turnaround is the Old Towner Inn on J and Third Streets. The courtyard-style parking lot, trimmed with planter boxes, provided a covert hangout for drug users and prostitutes until management put up a tall chain link fence four months ago. Since then the illegal activity has slowed dramatically, said Inn Manager Jay Hofmaster.

"Now they've moved further down Third Street," Hofmaster said.

But the Old Towner has had a new battle to contend with -- Eureka's Design Review Board, which feels the fence is out of line with the architectural character of Old Town. Management claims that without the fence, their tenants -- who are developmentally disabled -- are at risk, and unhappy.

"The fence keeps [prostitutes and drug users] from being able to flow in. It made it like, 'This is ours; this is not public.' There was a 'no trespassing' sign before but it didn't help," Hofmaster said.

Mark Carter, owner of Restaurant 301 and Hotel Carter on Third and L streets, declined to comment about the solicitation that happens outside of his business. Eureka City Councilmember Mary Beth Wolford and several police officers said that Carter complains about prostitution in the area more than anyone else.

[woman walking on sidewalk]  [woman approaching vehicle]


Word on the street

[Officer Mike Quigley in front of Old Town police annex]Old Town beat Officer Mike Quigley does a good deal of talking to street people, the ones whom most tourists and shoppers try to avoid.

Quigley, a thickset, mustached 47-year-old, knows their faces, their habits and most of their names. If they have a police record or a warrant, he knows that, too. But recognizing them and relating to them are different things. Too much compassion for criminals, he said, is not a good trait for a cop.

"If you have too much sympathy you won't last for six months at this job," he said.

It's true that Quigley does not come off as a sensitive type, but his conversations with people reveal that he is not unfeeling either.

"Have you seen my sister around?" a 20ish woman asked Quigley. "She's been down here in a miniskirt pedaling her ass off on her bike."

"That's your sister?" Quigley said, shocked. "I've seen her around," he said, his voice dropping to a murmur, "hookin' I think."

"I know. I hope to hell we're wrong," the woman continued with a shrug. Her sister, she said, just turned 18.

As the sun started to fade, prostitutes were beginning to arrive on the Third Street sidewalks. Quigley pulled over on the wrong side of the road near the back entrance to the Carson Mansion to catch up with a thin, green-eyed woman with dirty-blonde hair and leathery skin.

"How come every time I turn around I see you out here, Lisa?" he asked her.

Semi-apologetically, she explained that she has bills to pay, that she wasn't eating -- as anyone could tell from her thin frame -- and that she was using heroin, $20 worth a day. Quigley looked skeptical, knitted his eyebrows, but didn't ask her about it any further.

He said later that judging by the way she looked and considering how often she was on the street, Lisa was probably using a lot more than $20 worth of dope a day.

[woman talking to person in truck]She went on to say that her money problems were the result of her appearance.

"I don't look good, even. No one wants me," she said.

Being a prostitute, she said, is not easy.

"I don't like being out here, this isn't my bag you know, this isn't my cup of tea," she told a reporter, her voice hoarse like a cigarette-smoker's, her body language anxious. "Some girls don't care but I just really don't like it. I have sexual hang-ups but I can't talk about this stuff in front of you," she said, referring to Quigley, who looked at his steering wheel awkwardly.

Dr. Wendy Ring, a physician for 15 years with the Mobile Medical Office -- a health clinic on wheels that stops at St. Vincent de Paul's and other places serving homeless people -- has seen a number of prostitutes in the course of her work.

"It's hard on the women, but I'm more focused on what we need to change. We need a good drug treatment center, and they need jobs. They're doing the best they can under the circumstances," Ring said.

Treatment is a common topic among the women Quigley sees. Lisa told him she'd start detox next week. But clearly she had uncertainties and was distressed over the expense of the medication. Buphenorphine -- an alternative to methadone -- is "$100 for not very much of it," she said, about a week's worth. Paying her bills and rent is hard enough.

Mobile Medical Office Director Sally Hewitt [photo below left] said that although buphenorphine is expensive, it usually costs less than what addicts spend on drugs weekly.

[Sally Hewitt]Hewitt, who has been with the medical office since 2002, and before that worked for Humboldt Women for Shelter for 15 years, said that while many of the area sex workers are trying to make fast money, there are usually a number of factors that contribute to their foray into prostitution.

"A lot of [prostitutes] have limited education, and the economic possibilities here are poor," Hewitt said. "Some have children to support, many are involved in substance abuse and more than a few have a male intimate partner who puts them on the street and takes advantage of them.

"It is not a pleasant lifestyle, and drugs might ease the pain of their life situation. Sometimes you don't know which came first, but substance abuse is a big part of the problem, and once they're addicted, other work is not available to them."

The cycle of abuse Hewitt outlined is similar to what Ruby has experienced as an addict and a prostitute.

"I came from a long line of being molested," she said. People started messing with me when I was 5, and I got a lot of fake self-esteem from it.

"Now, when I get clean and sober I feel so inadequate, I feel so uncomfortable, I just have no self-esteem. I know my biggest problem is self-esteem because if you never had it where do you get it from? It comes from the time you're little and the adults around you are telling you that's where you get it, and if you haven't been in that kind of environment ever, it's hard," Ruby said.

Ruby has been in and out of various rehab programs since the 1980s. Last year, she went on buphenorphine, but as she started to get clean the man she was staying with threw her out. It didn't take long before she started using again.

On Monday, she said, she had an appointment with a substance abuse counselor at the Mobile Medical Office, to try once more to quit heroin.

In the meantime, Ruby said she just wishes the cops would leave her alone. "They act like this is the worst crime in the world down here." She said she does not see the harm if she has no sexually transmitted diseases.

Back on the road, Quigley drove past the low-rate motels where he knows many of Eureka's sex workers rent rooms monthly. Walking south on Fourth Street, he spotted another prostitute he knows by name, a small, wrinkly woman, probably in her late 50s, with bright-blue eyes and shaggy red-dyed hair.

Until just few weeks ago he had not seen her "working the streets" in almost 15 years, he said

He told her that he didn't want to see her anymore.

"You won't. You'll see me doing good real soon," she said.

"When's that, Susan? Next week after you start detox?" he asked facetiously.

"Yep, next week after detox on Tuesday. You'll see me doing better all the time. Thank you, Mr. Quigley!" she said, waving enthusiastically as he merged back into traffic and headed toward Old Town.

"I've had these people leaning in my window for 14 years telling me they're starting detox next week. It almost never happens," he said, as he drove back toward the Old Town Police Annex at the end of his shift. "After a while, you stop believing it. But I guess for them, detox is the only hope they have."


A 'positive' person

"Right now I'm just trying to get it together enough to clean up my act," said Ruby, who lives with a male friend in Arcata. "I got through vocational training two or three years back, as a certified heavy equipment operator, and I wanted to go to school and drive semis, that's what I want to do."

Changing her lifestyle might also mean a chance of reuniting with her daughter and two grandchildren, ages 5 and 8.

"[My daughter] hates me and there's nothing to change that. Last time I seen them I was standing in a parking lot, and I go to start walking toward my granddaughter and [my daughter] stepped in between us and turned her the other way. My grandson didn't recognize me until he was halfway through the parking lot and he was crying, going, 'I love you [with] my whole heart,'" she said, visibly stifling her tears. "I write them now but they don't ever write back."

Her ideal life, she said, would be "to have a job, to be a positive person in my community, to be involved in my community and definitely to be involved in children's lives and help them."

Three days after speaking to the Journal, Ruby made it to her meeting at the Mobile Medical Office. Her substance abuse counselor, who preferred not to be named, said that Ruby was starting one-on-one and group counseling, and would soon get a prescription for buphenorphine.


A nationally acclaimed cabaret, "The Sex Worker's Art Show," comes to Humboldt State to dispel both the positive and negative stereotypes surrounding sex work. The show features a variety of San Francisco-based sex workers offering commentary into the notions of class, gender, labor and sexuality. At the Fulkerson Recital Hall, HSU, 8 p.m. Feb. 20. Free. Sponsored by HSU student clubs and the Women's Studies Dept. Call 826-4927 or 826-4216.




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