By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/20/2006 7:50:22 AM ET 2006-01-20T12:50:22

Master Sgt. Bruce C. Woodbury, head of the vice unit of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, Fla., would like to be the biggest threat to escort review Web sites, but he acknowledges that he isn’t. Nor is he likely to be any time soon.

The Hillsborough vice unit pioneered the technique of registering with escort sites and posting bogus profiles when it launched Operation Flea Collar in 2002, targeting Big Doggie, which is in its back yard. Vice officers started their own fake Web page in order to join Big Doggie, and they almost immediately were flooded with solicitations for dates.

Eventually, authorities in Hillsborough and in Orange County, who joined the investigation later, brought more than 50 felony racketeering, procurement and obstruction charges against Charles S. Kelly of Tampa, the 300-pound “Big Dog” for whom the site is named; his business partner, Steven E. Lipson of Boca Raton; and 11 others. Police said in charging documents that they were raking in $30,000 to $80,000 a month from facilitating prostitution.

The postings on Big Doggie are protected speech; what the police must produce is proof of actual illegal conduct. That means they need witnesses in open court. But when authorities could not persuade their six star witnesses to give up the confidentiality they had been promised, a judge dismissed the cases against Kelly and Lipson.

“There’s not much motivation on their part” to be witnesses, Woodbury said of men caught up in prostitution investigations. “Frequently, they’re married men, professionals, and they don’t want anyone, including their wives or business associates, to know. They’re very reluctant to testify in open court.”

Big Doggie remains in business, but it’s not very likely that the Hillsborough vice unit will try again to shut it down, Woodbury said, because of the significant strain on manpower and other resources such a sting demands.

“As technology changes and as computer programs become available to the general public that can check driver’s licenses and tag numbers and phone numbers for a nominal fee, it’s very difficult for us to stay ahead of that curve,” he said. “If a bad guy is technically astute and computer-knowledgable, it makes great difficulty for us.”

Multiple suspicions
Notwithstanding Woodbury’s reassurances, escorts themselves presume that rating sites, especially The Erotic Review, are crawling with cops.

“It’s almost like a flare for law enforcement, like: ‘Hey, check me out. Bust me. Or try to bust me,’” said Helen, an escort in the West. “They’ve really concentrated a lot of their effort on Internet directory sites like Big Doggie, Erotic Review, Craig’s List. They kind of go down the list and try to see who they can get.”

“Is it dangerous? Yes,” said Robyn Few, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in San Francisco. “Every police officer has access just like you do.”

In postings on rival Web sites, both The Erotic Review and Big Doggie are widely criticized by escorts and their clients for not alerting their users to the identities of police officers posing as customers.

“DO NOT POST ANY PRIVATE REVIEWS ON THIS BOARD!” says a warning about Big Doggie on the Sexwork Cyber Resource Center, which is based in Phoenix. “It is well known that vice cops read it for leads to sting and entrap even if nothing illegal is being done.”

Executives at Big Doggie did not reply to requests for an interview, but David R. Elms, president of The Erotic Review, said he was aware that police occasionally registered as fake customers on his site.

Elms maintained that it didn’t happen nearly as often as escorts and their customers believed, adding that law enforcement had asked for information about the site’s members only once. The company’s attorneys “worked it out,” he said, providing no further details.

Elms said he had no choice but to keep quiet even when he learned of active stings on his site: “We can’t impede an investigation. It’s a felony.”

In any event, The Erotic Review’s user forums and other channels for feedback mean the site effectively polices itself, he said, so vice officers (in addition to menacing or unreliable clients) are quickly found out. “The community tends to get the word out faster than we ever could,” he said.

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