Over 100 Arrested Sex Buyers in Seattle Area Online Reverse Sting

In August of 2017, the Bellevue Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office arrested more than 100 people in a large scale reverse sting aimed at online prostitution and sex trafficking.  Over seven days, dozens of sex buyers answered online ads posted by undercover detectives, and exchanged text messages describing sex acts they expected to buy. Police called the investigation “Operation On Demand,”  and buyers were arrested after appearing at a condominium set up as a decoy brothel in the north end of downtown Bellevue, and agreeing with undercover officers to exchange money for sex.  Bellevue Police said they were probably getting several dozen hits on several ads at any one time, and that prospective sex buyers were circling the address of the decoy brothel. In addition to the 110 arrests, 105 cars were impounded, along with two motorcycles and one bicycle. Most of those arrested were expected to face misdemeanor prostitution charges, carrying a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.  The operation involved over 60 officers, and was a continuation of efforts in 2016 to dismantle a large human trafficking ring in Bellevue, which drew buyers from throughout King County and beyond.

In December of 2017, it was reported that misdemeanor charges filed against more than half of the 110 men arrested during were dismissed after it was discovered that police had unintentionally recorded audio between the sex buyers and undercover female officers.  Hidden cameras had been used to document elements of the crime of patronizing a prostitute, but audio conversations between the suspects and undercover officers were also recorded  in 61 of the 110 cases.  State law requires two-party consent to record audio conversations.

Bellevue is a suburb of about 121,000 residents situated to the east of Seattle, across Lake Washington in King County, Washington.  Prostitution and sex trafficking are well-documented problems in the city, and generate an array of serious felonies (such as robbery, weapons offenses, and serial rapists targeting prostituted women) and complaints to police from the community.

Reverse stings have been included in Bellevue’s responses to sex trafficking and prostitution. In 1996 a month-long surveillance of a house in downtown Bellevue led to a raid and the arrest of 11 people involved in a nationwide prostitution ring.  Three men ran the house, including a Kirkland man said to have referred “customers” to the residential brothel.  Three sex buyers from Bellevue, Everett and Seattle were arrested.  Also taken into custody were five women, ranging in age from 19 to 25, from Thailand, Taiwan and Laos, and four were in the United States illegally.  Police believed the women worked as part of a ring that operated in Sacramento, Los Angeles and in Oklahoma.

In March 2013, another operation reveled local brothels in Bellevue operating as part of larger human trafficking networks.  Six people who operated a web of apartments in four states used as brothels were indicted for conspiracy to transport individuals for prostitution, conspiracy to use a communications facility to promote prostitution and conspiracy to engage in money laundering, according to an announcement by the U.S. Attorney.  The indictment was returned following an undercover investigation involving the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Kirkland Police Department, the Bellevue Police Department, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).  The conspirators advertised Asian women for “massage services” on backpage.com, and leased apartments in Bellevue and Kirkland, Scottsdale, Arizona, Chicago, Illinois, and Falls Church/Tysons Corner, Virginia.  The Bellevue portion of the network was discovered when police investigated reports of apparent prostitution activity at a Kirkland apartment complex. The investigation revealed that six people were working together, running a prostitution business utilizing apartments they rented in four different states, and ads placed on backpage.com.  Many of the women who were exploited for sexual services were in the U.S. illegally, having over-stayed their visas, women owed debts of as much as $60,000 to the leader of the prostitution ring, for providing them with the employment opportunities in the United States.

A joint operation in March 2014 by Bellevue Police and the King County Sheriff’s Office to address complaints about increased prostitution at area hotels led to the arrest of 10 johns, including one man alleged to have committed 16 robberies in the Puget Sound region and another man accused of being a prolific identity thief.  Focusing on reducing demand in sex trafficking, detectives posted online ads for prostitution services to draw in men seeking adult and underage prostitutes. One of the men agreed to meet an undercover detective posing as a prostitute at a Bellevue hotel. Officers observed the man in the parking lot and arrested him after he was identified as being possibly armed.  The man later admitted he planned to use a pistol and a fixed-blade knife found on his person to rob the undercover officer and later to 16 additional robberies in the Puget Sound region over the past four months.


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