The 21-year-old father of a female toddler nervously lingered outside the third-floor hotel room in Temecula.
Minutes earlier, just after 2 p.m. on a recent weekday, he had fired up a joint in his car after parking, as instructed, near the swimming pool.
He walked up to the hotel room but stood, for a couple of minutes, outside the door.
A woman inside the room watched him through the peephole and eventually opened the door.
“What are you doing?” she chided him with a smile. “You’re supposed to knock. How am I supposed to know you’re here?”
Jose, 21, then entered the room.
“Sheriff’s Department!” one of five uniformed deputies in the room, in addition to the undercover female deputy dressed in street clothes, announced.
Jose dropped his head as a deputy handcuffed him.
He had come expecting 60 minutes of sex with a prostitute he contacted on online adult website Dulce, which means candy in Spanish.
But the advertisement was a decoy, and the woman at the hotel door was 14-year Riverside County Sheriff’s Department veteran Deputy Pierson, who, for the last six years, has served on the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. Part of her assignment is to bust “Johns” and prostitutes who aren’t victims of human trafficking.
A few minutes earlier, Pierson, in a text message, negotiated a fee of $220 with Jose, who later would tell deputies he thought several times during the drive to the hotel about turning around and going home.
Pierson told Jose she would knock 10 bucks off if he agreed to bring a “cover” (condom).
Ultimately, Jose agreed to pay her $140 in cash and get her stoned for an hour of sex.
“Some guys will say, ‘I only came for a massage,’’ Pierson later explained to Behind the Badge. “Then I’ll ask them, ‘Then why did why did you show up with a condom?’ That helps (with the misdemeanor criminal case).”
The arrest of Jose, and several others, occurred during a prostitution sting Thursday, Jan. 30, from 2 p.m. to midnight.
The sting, targeting both men who agree to pay for sex and female prostitutes, was part of Operation Reclaim and Rebuild 2020, which in Riverside County ran for four days, Jan. 27-30, in Temecula, Corona, Moreno Valley, Hemet, and Palm Desert.
The Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (RCAHT) operation, which targeted online prostitution, yielded 72 arrests.
Statewide, “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild,” conducted between Jan. 26 and Feb. 1 to coincide with the last week of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, resulted in 518 arrests for various crimes.
Among those arrested throughout the state were 27 suspected human traffickers and exploiters and 266 customers, officials said. Statewide, investigators rescued 76 adults and 11 children from human traffickers.
“Yes, (prostitution) is a misdemeanor; some say it should be legalized, others are against that,” said Sgt. Robert Menchaca of the Riverside Sheriff’s Department’s Problem-Oriented Policing Team in the agency’s Southwest Station in Temecula.
“But I look at the big picture as in the human trafficking portion, where if there’s a need, there’s going to be a demand, and (pimps) are taking women and enticing them to do this,” added Menchaca, a 24-year RCSD veteran who oversaw the Jan. 30 operation.
“And that’s somebody’s daughter who ends up on the (human trafficking) circuit,” he added.
RCSD Deputies Jauert and Vigil, of the Southwest Problem Oriented Policing (POP) Team, served as co-case agents who coordinated the Jan. 30 operation.
In one of three rooms the RCSD used for the sting, Vigil went online to pose as a man seeking sex from female prostitutes who appeared in online escort advertisements.
The goal was to get some women to come to the hotel who are victims of human trafficking. Those who weren’t being forced into the trade by pimps were arrested for prostitution.
Pierson worked out of the same room as Vigil, dubbed the “communications” room.
The Johns and prostitutes were arrested in the “takedown” room.
Arrestees were questioned in the “processing” room before they were hauled off to the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta. If found guilt of soliciting sex, the Johns face a fine or local jail time or both.
It took between four and six hours for them to be released from custody with a promise to appear before a judge at a later date.
In addition to the 72 arrests made by the RCSD, an additional suspect, James Lewis, 23, of Oakland, was arrested for supervising/aiding a person to commit prostitution.
Also during the four-day operation, Riverside County task force members made contact with an adult female believed to be a victim of sex trafficking who was being forced to engage in acts of prostitution against her will. She was referred to victim services for assistance as the investigation into her sex trafficking continues.
Three officers with the Murrieta PD participated in the Jan. 30 hotel sting to observe and assist. The Murrieta PD is considering conducting its own prostitution stings.
Behind the Badge observed four suspects get arrested.
Jose’s texts with Pierson, the undercover deputy, underscore the give-and-take of negotiating for paid sex.
Jose: Are you available? I saw you on Adult Search
Deputy: Yes after 2
What are you looking for, and for how much?
Jose: A good time, I’ll satisfy you as well. Just get me a good price and I got you some tree (marijuana) if you smoke
Deputy: How much time? QV? (for quick visit, 15 minutes)
Jose tells the deputy he wants full service for an hour.
The RCSD opted to arrest the suspects when they entered the hotel room since so many Johns were pulling up and the RCSD didn’t want to scare them off with public arrests, Menchaca said.
“Back when I started,” Pierson told Behind the Badge, “I didn’t even know what human trafficking was. I since have found out a lot of the girls who are victims of human trafficking don’t have any families, are in the system, or living in group homes. This (type of operation) has become a passion of mine. It’s become near and dear to my heart.”
Johns come in all stripes, from minors to executives, Menchaca said.
One recent arrestee was only 17. When he was told to show up with a “cover,” he brought a blanket – clearly unaware of the slang term for condom.
“On one call, we had a girlfriend of a John show up,” Menchaca said. “He had left his laptop open on the kitchen table and she saw (the text messages with the undercover deputy). When she showed up, she asked, ‘Can I bail him out?’”
One of the Johns arrested Jan. 30 said he was married but was in an open relationship and his wife wouldn’t freak out when she learned about his arrest.
“I was going to hook up with a girl,” he admitted to deputies. “I was going to ask her (to perform oral sex on me).”
A deputy urged him to go to a bar instead and pick up a girl there, explaining that many prostitutes are victims of human trafficking.
At one point shortly after he was arrested, Carlos broke into tears after his arrest, telling deputies he was afraid he would never see his 2-year-old daughter when her mother – his wife or girlfriend — found out.
You put yourself in this position, deputies told Carlos.
“I’m having a rough week,” another arrestee told deputies who asked him why he solicited sex – specifically, agreed to pay $60 to have oral sex performed on him.
The RCAHT Task Force said it extends its sincere appreciation to the Temecula Sheriff’s Station, Moreno Valley Sheriff’s Station, Palm Desert Sheriff’s Station, Corona Police Department, and Hemet Police Department for their support in conducting the joint operations.
“Without the commitment of personnel and resources from each of these participating agencies,” the RCAHT Task Force said in a statement, “these operations would not have been met with the same level of success.
“Prostitution is not a ‘victimless’ crime,” the task force continued. “Ninety-five percent of sex trafficking victims are women or children. Those victimized by commercial sexual exploitation frequently have long histories of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse or trauma in their backgrounds.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that one in six endangered runaways reported are likely victims of sex trafficking. Sex trafficking victims are often subjected not only to severe forms of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of their trafficker, but are also frequently physically and sexually assaulted by those that solicit them for prostitution.
Ian Anderson, a Riverside County District Attorney’s Office senior investigator who has been attached to the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force since 2015, said going after the demand side of prostitution is critical.
He recalled a training seminar in King’s County, Washington a year ago in which he learned that there were between 3,000 and 3,500 prostitutes offering their services in the greater Seattle area, but there were about 100,000 potential buyers.
“If we can deter (some of this demand) in our area, then I think it’s a win,” said Anderson, vice president of the Riverside Sheriff’s Association. “We are doing what we can.”
Added Anderson: “In this day and age of social media, when a John answers an ad looking to buy sex and he knocks on that hotel door, does he really know he’s going to meet with a consenting adult, or does he realize his date might be a juvenile victim who is being forced to do this or she will be beaten by her pimp?”
The Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in 2010 to address crimes involving the exploitation of victims via force, fraud, or coercion. These cases often involve the commercial sex trafficking of children, as well as incidents of forced labor, indentured servitude, debt bondage, or slavery.
The RCAHT Task Force is a multidisciplinary task force that combines the investigative resources of both local and federal law enforcement.
The RCAHT Task Force also provides victim services and education/outreach through partnerships with the non-profit groups Operation SafeHouse, Rebirth Homes, and Million Kids.
The law enforcement component of RCAHT is currently composed of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office Bureau of Investigations, Homeland Security Investigations, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Riverside County Probation Department, along with part-time participation of the Hemet Police Department, Riverside Police Department, and Desert Hot Springs Police Department.
Anyone with questions about this operation can contact Sgt. John Sawyer of the RCAHT Task Force at (951) 955-1700, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org