Coast police say complaints about ads for prostitution on Craigslist.com, and recent local arrests linked to the online service, probably won’t stop people from selling or paying for sex.
However, they hope the complaints and the recent arrests at hotels in Harrison and Jackson counties serve as a deterrent and send a message that law enforcement won’t tolerate prostitution or illegal escort services.
Prostitution has gone high-tech, with escort services and prostitutes using the Internet to market their offerings. The sting Nov. 5 targeted prostitutes and escort services who advertised on Craigslist.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to stay a step ahead of them as they find new ways to avoid detection by law enforcement,” said Biloxi Police Capt. John Miller.
Prostitution is illegal but an escort service can be considered a legitimate business if its only purpose is to provide companionship, said Miller.
Biloxi is the only city in South Mississippi with an ordinance that could allow an escort service to operate with a regulated-use license.
“They must have a business location and its office must be open when its clients are on call-outs,” Miller said. “Not a single one is licensed in Biloxi. They don’t want to comply because they know their clients are participating in illegal acts. They’re run by cell phone.”
Prostitution is illegal in most states. However, a review of state laws shows Mississippi is one of the most prostitute-friendly states in America in terms of penalties. But that doesn’t stop area police from working undercover to make arrests. They say they are not fazed by those who believe prostitution is a victimless crime.
Not a victimless crime
“First of all, it’s a crime,” said Miller. “If it’s allowed to happen, crime reports increase.
“It is absolutely not a victimless crime. There’s always the chance of spreading a venereal disease and often times the girls, and sometimes men, become victims of physical abuse or robbery. A lot of the girls do it to support a drug habit. It’s a dangerous lifestyle.”
Prostitutes have no way of knowing if the stranger they plan to meet is “an ax murderer, a person dealing in illegal narcotics or has some type of disease,” said Gulfport Police Capt. Chris Loposser. “You don’t know where these people have been, who they’ve been with or what they have in mind.”
Police want to believe the recent prostitution raids will make a difference. Police said it made a difference for at least one woman who refused to make an appointment for sex because she suspected the caller was a police officer. He was.
Craigslist drew nationwide attention in April after a man in Boston allegedly killed one masseuse and robbed a second one. Authorities said he contacted both on Craigslist and met each at a hotel. Massages are a service often advertised by escort services.
Escort services for years have touted their profession as a way for young people to work their way through college.
“What you typically see,” said Loposser, “is young girls who think it’s harmless but it ruins lives and reputations. They’re not considering the ramifications for themselves, their friends or family.”
“The younger and more naive they are, the easier it is for them to be drawn in with drinks, big money, nice clothes and nice cars,” Miller said.
Mississippi’s prostitution laws have some of the lightest penalties in the nation. The penalty is the same for customers, pimps and brothel owners. The charges are misdemeanors and there are no enhanced penalties for repeat convictions. The penalty is a $200 fine and/or up to six months in jail.
In most states penalties for prostitution range from fines of $500 to $10,000 and jail time of three months to five years. Several states make a third arrest a felony.
Some states have harsher penalties for customers than prostitutes and many states have even stronger penalties for pimps and brothel owners. In Texas a pimp or brothel owner can be charged with a felony punishable by up to 10 years and/or a $10,000 fine.
Prostitution is legal in some Nevada counties. Nevada requires prostitutes to use condoms. They also must be tested weekly for sexually transmitted diseases and monthly for HIV. The brothels are charged thousands of dollars a year to operate legally.
In most local cases, prostitutes typically go to court and pay a fine. Jail time is rare.
So how common is it? Gulfport Municipal Court has heard 370 cases from Jan. 1, 2008 through Nov. 16, said Court Administrator Odell Thompson. The total cost for conviction is $350.50, which includes $150.50 in court costs.
Other ways to advertise
The Yellow Pages phone book has 33 listings for escort services in the three coastal counties.
There’s also an abundance of ads on the Internet via blogs and Web pages.
The Sun Herald called one Biloxi service whose site lists a cell-phone number for “Jessica” and lists $500, $800 and $1,000 and up. What does a customer get for those prices?
A man who answered the phone replied, “Well, you know, you have to discuss that with the girl.”
Another Web site the Sun Herald checked is a “members only” adult entertainment service. It claims to have 46,349 members in Mississippi. Pictures and hometowns identify some of those members as Coast residents.
Several familiar faces were arrested in the Nov. 5 sting. Some are familiar because of repeat arrests with pictures published by the newspaper.
One of those arrested was 20-year-old model Megan Mumley. Photos of her have been on the cover of beachblvd magazine’s April/May 2008 issue and in South Mississippi Living magazine in November and December 2007. She couldn’t be reached for comment.
The 17 arrests and a related arrest this week include long-time escort-service owner Gregory Hagerty, 38, charged when he showed up at the scene of his fiancée’s arrest. Hagerty returned a phone call but declined comment.
Escort-service owner Harry Mark Gonsoulin, 48, was arrested on a prostitution warrant Tuesday in the sting. On Wednesday Biloxi police charged him with violating city codes through his escort business and then searched his home, allegedly finding narcotics and evidence of his escort service.
Gonsoulin also has been indicted on an aggravated assault charge that accuses him of trying to harm a former employee.
Authorities said most of the people arrested in the recent stings work for Gonsoulin.