BANGOR, Maine — When police catch someone selling drugs, both the drug dealer and the buyer often are charged, but historically it’s been a different story when it comes to prostitution in Maine and around the nation.
In Vacationland, where prostitution and prostitution-related arrests statewide have not topped 45 annually in the last decade, the “johns” — the men paying for sex with women — typically are not charged.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday.
That trend was broken recently with the arrest of fitness instructor Alexis Wright, 29, of Wells, who police say secretly filmed the men she had sex with for money. Twenty-one of possibly more than 100 johns have been charged, and earlier this week they were named publicly. More names are due to be released on Oct. 26.
While the spotlight is now on the York County tourist town, police in other parts of Maine say prostitution is a problem and some departments are strategically targeting johns to disrupt the crime.
Brewer police, who have conducted two prostitution stings in the last three years, now are planning an undercover sting to get at johns, Capt. Chris Martin said Friday. Lewiston police Lt. David St. Pierre said his department is already targeting johns.
“They’re approaching cars at all hours of the day and night,” St. Pierre said Friday of woman selling their bodies for money.
Community meetings have been held recently and the police department has partnered with area law enforcement agencies to arrest both the sellers and buyers of sex, the Lewiston lieutenant said.
“In the last couple months we’ve had a handful, six or eight, johns arrested,” St. Pierre said, adding that during one of the stings, “we had four in one night.”
A reverse sting, in which an undercover officer poses as a prostitute, is in the works in Brewer, Martin said.
“That definitely will be an area that we will be focusing on in the future in an effort to affect demand,” the police captain said.
The Wright case led to the largest number of johns being charged in the state in recent memory, and is definitely the largest for Kennebunk, police Lt. Anthony Bean Burpee said Wednesday.
“I’ve been here 14 years and in that 14 years we’ve not dealt with a case of this magnitude or dealt with anything related to [prostitution],” he said. “It’s kind of new territory.”
Kennebunk police detectives did not conduct a prostitution sting, or target the johns, but instead just followed the evidence where it led them, Bean Burpee said. Wright rented a Kennebunk fitness studio, where some of the sex for money allegedly occurred, according to documents filed in Biddeford District Court. Police began to investigate Wright’s activities in September 2011, the lieutenant said.
“This whole thing started from a report that came into us about suspicious activity” at the studio, where Wright taught Zumba, Bean Burpee said.
“Investigations can lead you all over the place. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s taken us into a lot of different directions and turned into what it is today.”
State prosecutors accuse Wright and Thomaston businessman Mark W. Strong Sr., 57, of running a prostitution business from the Zumba studio and office space owned by Strong.
Strong was indicted earlier this month on 59 counts, including promotion of prostitution, invasion of privacy and conspiracy. Wright was indicted on 106 counts, including engaging in prostitution, violation of privacy and failure to pay taxes.
The men who allegedly paid her for sex all have been charged with misdemeanor engaging a prostitute, which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Wright provided the evidence needed for police to pursue her johns with the secret videos she made and detailed records she kept, Martin said.
The two Brewer prostitution stings — one in May of this year and the other in 2009 — focused on the women involved, drug use and links to other crimes, the police captain said. A client list taken as evidence during the 2009 sting did contain some data, but it was not detailed like the one allegedly found in Wright’s possession.
“That type of evidence just wasn’t there,” Brewer police Deputy Chief Jason Moffitt said of the sting three years ago. “We got a first name, or a number. Nothing complete. [We] didn’t have the detailed records.”
Four women and one man were charged in the sting this past May. In 2009, six local women and the owner of a Bangor escort service that had been around for more than a dozen years were caught, charged and convicted of promotion of prostitution in Brewer. The madam, a convicted Bangor prostitute who went by the name “Cinnamon” on Craigslist when she was busted in 2009, required a $175 upfront fee, often charged through a credit or debit card, for her or her girls to show up. When police searched her Orrington home, they found appointment books with names of clients, contact information and credit card slips, but no johns were ever charged, Martin said, because the 21-man department just didn’t have the time or money to pursue the crime.
“It really came down to a question of the amount of resources we could dedicate to that case, time and evidence,” he said. “It was organized prostitution with a madam and our goal was to disrupt that. We met that goal. We made a decision. … We were going to move on with other cases.”
Brewer police are now studying ways to address underlying issues with prostitution, Martin said, because “several of our girls are still in business.”
He said a three-prong approach — stopping the supply, treatment for offenders and demand reduction — is needed. Many, but not all, of the women who sell their bodies have experienced some sort of trauma or abuse in their lives, and they need counseling and other treatments, Martin said.
“We’ve taken on the supply side. We’ve gone after the prostitutes, but we’ve not attacked the underlying problem, so they’re re-offending,” the police captain said. “We have to have treatment. Demand reduction is going after the johns. I think it just needs to be kind of a 360-degree approach.”
Across the nation, nearly 79,000 prostitution and prostitution-related arrests are made annually, according to FBI data from 2002-2009.
“Most arrests associated with prostitution are arrests of the women; about 10 percent are arrests of the men who purchase commercial sex,” states the National Institute of Justice website.
A study of johns by the National Institute of Justice, completed in 1997 by Martin A. Monto of the University of Portland (Ore.), “found that 72 percent of the men surveyed had attended some college. They ranged in age from 18 to 84 years, with a median age of 37, and were less likely to be married.”
“Married clients and college graduates were more likely to want a different kind of sex than they had with their regular partners,” Monto’s report states. “Steady or unmarried clients and noncollege graduates reportedly felt shy and awkward when trying to meet women but did not feel intimidated by prostitutes.”
Some states and communities are now actively publicizing the names and pictures of those accused of buying sex in an effort to combat the crime by means of “shaming.” Fresno, Calif., has a website called “Operation Reveal” that features mug shots of accused johns. Arlington, Texas, has a billboard that features pictures of johns, and Oklahoma City has a vigilante-style “JohnTV.”
Maine had only 14 prostitution-related arrests in 2010, 29 in 2009, 27 in 2008, 45 in 2007, 29 in 2006, 25 in 2005, 29 in 2004, 12 in 2003 and 40 in 2002, according to data compiled by the Maine Department of Public Safety’s uniform crime reporting division.
The data, provided by law enforcement agencies statewide on a voluntary basis, date back to 1994. The highest number of incidents occurred in 1997, when 99 people were charged.
The statewide arrest figures for the state are low, and do not represent the actual number of women selling their bodies or the men willing to pay for sex, said Martin and Portland police Lt. Scott Pelletier.
“This is out there and it’s occurring and it’s prevalent,” Martin said.
Pelletier did not have the exact arrest figures for Portland, but did say: “I can’t imagine it’s real high. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s certainly happening.”
Portland has conducted stings to arrest both prostitutes and johns in recent years, Pelletier said.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with Brunswick, Yarmouth and Bridgton, nabbed 11 people — four prostitutes and seven johns — in an August 2011 prostitution sting, said Chief Deputy Naldo Gagnon.
The sting was set up to catch johns, he said, adding that undercover operations are done every “once in awhile” when time and resources avail themselves.
“It seems like you go to the source sometime and sometimes you go to the other side to curtail it,” Gagnon said.
Law enforcement agencies in Penobscot County rarely charge johns with engaging a prostitute.
“Since 1990, we’ve had seven different convictions for prostitution. None of those involved johns,” Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards said. “It’s very rare.”
“I don’t remember any case” involving charges against a john, said Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy, who has held his office since 1985.
Lewiston police are trying to address the community’s rampant prostitution problem from both sides, but admit that it is easier to arrest the individuals selling sex, St. Pierre said.
“It’s a little more difficult to catch johns in the act,” the Lewiston lieutenant said. “That’s why we target prostitutes. That is not to say we turn a blind eye to the johns — they are part of the problem. It’s just harder to catch them in the act and prove the act was for money.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.