St. Louis, MO

Tactics Used

Auto Seizure
Buyer Arrests
Community Service
Employment Loss
Identity Disclosure
IT Based Tactics
John School
License Suspension
Neighborhood Action
Public Education
Reverse Stings
SOAP Orders
Web Stings

St. Louis, Missouri, a city of about 305,000 along the Mississippi River, has had longstanding, widespread prostitution and sex trafficking problems, since the 1800s if not before.  In 1870 the city passed an ordinance legalizing prostitution, requiring brothels and women who were exploited within them to register with the city.  The experiment was declared a failure and ended four years later when it was clear that most prostituted women failed to register and brothels failed to abide by regulations, and that legalization caused a growth in the problems they had hoped to diminish and contain.  In contemporary times, sex trafficking continues to be a persistent and well-documented problem, and to generate a wide range of related crimes, such as child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, often called “child pornography” in state laws). For example, in December, 2018, a sex offender was sentenced to 22 years in prison for forcing a 15-year-old girl into prostitution (more correctly, sex trafficking) in St. Louis. after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in St. Louis to three felony counts of possession of child pornography. He admitted he forced the girl into prostitution in St. Louis in 2016. He also forced her to perform sex acts on him and filmed them with his cellphone, his plea agreement said. Farmington police were called when the teen reported the rapes to the staff of a hospital. The man had prior convictions for statutory rape and sodomy in St. Louis County and a 2012 federal conviction for failing to register as a sex offender. He violated his probation in both cases and received years more in prison.

The homicide of prostituted persons in the city have occurred for many decades, and has included serial killers specifically targeting prostituted women.  For example, in September, 2022, it was announced that one man was behind at least five St. Louis-area serial killings, including the grisly murders of four women that went unsolved for more than 30 years. The suspect was already serving a life sentence in prison for a St. Louis County murder when prosecutors charged him with four new counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of four women who disappeared from south St. Louis within six months in 1990. All had ties to the same small stretch of Cherokee Street in St. Louis frequented by sexually exploited women, then known as “The South Side Stroll.” In 2021, several prostituted women had been the target of homicide, shootings and robberies, prompting the St. Louis police department to issue a public safety alert. In September, 2021, police responded to a call at the 4500 block of Adelaide and found that a prostituted woman had been shot in the face. An hour later that same day, police found a woman dead on the sidewalk on the 3800 block of West Florissant, which is about half a mile from the scene on Adelaide. Police were investigating a series of robberies that happened that month: a man had met multiple women on Cote Brilliante Avenue, contacting them for sex using the MegaPersonals dating app. After meeting them, he robbed them. All of those incidents happened on the city’s north side. Also in 2021, a couple was arrested for bringing a 3-year-old child to a prostitution transaction, where fentanyl was ingested. In October, 2021, a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for exploiting a child for commercial sexual abuse. Prostituted women from the city have also been targeted by at least one serial killer, Maury Travis, who focused on killing “drug addicts and prostitutes” in the city and neighboring East St. Louis, Illinois. Sex buyers and pimps have also been murdered in St. Louis.  In a study published in 2006, in the St. Louis data, there were 13 “client and eight “pimp” homicides that were prostitution-related.

Among the strategies used to address problems associated with prostitution and sex trafficking are attempts to cut off the revenue stream for these crimes by curtailing consumer-level demand.  From the evidence we could gather, St. Louis has occasionally conducted reverse stings since at least 1991.  In 1991, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office prosecuted over 135 men for patronizing prostitution. Some of the more recent reverse stings have been web based.  For example, in June, 2017, fourteen people were arrested after St. Louis County Police Multijurisdictional Human Trafficking Task Force partnered with other surrounding agencies to target those seeking to purchase sex from potential human trafficking victims. The investigation concluded that 14 people are accused of seeking to purchase sex from potential trafficking victims during the time frame of June 19, 2017, and June 22, 2017, at various locations within St. Louis County and St. Charles County. During that operation, police said they also seized five handguns, methamphetamines, and marijuana. The identities of the arrested individuals were publicly disclosed.

In 2005, police began a new variation on “identity disclosure” tactics: sending postcards to the home addresses of arrested sex buyers “reminding” them that prostitution is illegal and harmful.  In 2012, residents of neighborhoods with high levels of street prostitution informally began posting signs urging “prostitutes and johns” to stay out of their neighborhood.

In October 2012, the city council was considering a proposed ordinance that expands the penalties for arrested sex buyers. Under the proposed ordinance, arrested sex buyers could face fines of up to $500 and be sent to a “john school” program.  A nongovernmental organization, Magdalene St. Louis, was working at the time to advance plans for a john school.  The group’s board  hoped to copy the model of Magdalene in Nashville, Tennessee.  It featured a program that guides women away from street prostitution, provides them with a secure home, and gives them services.  In December 2013, they also planned to offer a john school through the court system for first-time offenders. As of 2022, we do not have documentation showing that the john school was ever implemented in the city.

In April 2014, the St. Louis Police Department announced it would begin using “dear john” letters to deter offenders.  Those charged with trying to buy sex will receive postcards by mail admonishing them for their crime, and providing messages about spreading sexually transmitted diseases, as well as listing their court dates.  The postcards say, “Thanks for your visit to…” and leaving a spot for the location and date of a crime. “The city of St. Louis, its residents and your neighbors would like to remind you that lewd, lascivious and/or suggestive behavior (including but not limited to prostitution, solicitation and prostitution loitering) are a violation of city ordinance and state law.”  Police are rolling out the program in April 2014 in two city neighborhoods — Carondelet and Holly Hills — where residents have complained of prostituted women “trolling for tricks.”  At the time, St. Louis Police Capt. Dan Howard said,

“If there weren’t customers, prostitutes would be out of business, and what we’re looking to do is put them out of business.”

In 2014, police said they planned to routinely provide local news outlets with mug shots of those charged with prostitution crimes to dissuade them from repeating the offenses.

Key Sources

Reverse Stings:

Web Based Reverse Stings:

Proposed John School:

“Dear John” Postcards Sent to Arrestees:

Identity Disclosure:

Neighborhood Action:

Background on Local Prostitution, Sex Trafficking, Child Endangerment, CSAM, Related Crimes (e.g., Drugs, Weapons):

Child Endangerment Associated with Prostitution:

Documented Violence Against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:

Background on Prostitution in the Area:

State Missouri
Type City
Population 304709
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