Police search for hookers online, on streets

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LEWISTON — He said his name was Jason Hilliard and he was in town for a conference. He was stuck at a local hotel for the night and could use a little companionship.

The man calling himself Jason Hilliard went to work. He browsed the classified section of the local paper and took a peek at Craigslist.

“I saw your ad,” he said after placing a call. “I was hoping we could get together tonight.”

For the next five minutes, Jason Hilliard sat on the motel bed trying to hash out an agreement with the young lady who called herself “Kylie” in the personal ad.

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At last, a plan was in place. She would call at 6:30 p.m. and he would provide his room number. After that, they could negotiate a price and get down to business.

“OK,” he said into the phone. “I’ll see you then, kiddo.”

He smiled and looked very much like a weary businessman on the road — the yellow, button-up shirt, slightly wrinkled, with tie removed. The black slacks, a day’s worth of beard on the cheeks. No sign of a wedding ring.

“We’re all set,” he said to the others in the room. Then he started scanning the ads again and dialed a new number.

Jason Hilliard is actually Lewiston police Cpl. Tim Darnell, who typically spends his days investigating liquor violations. This night, he was bait in the latest police sting targeting prostitutes who do their business through online or newspaper advertising.

In the adjoining motel room were several other officers. Sgt. Marc Robitaille was there to help coordinate the operation and keep equipment — the motel room was set up with hidden cameras and microphones — in working order.

Officer Tom Murphy was there. The sting was his operation and he fretted over each detail. It’s not enough to simply entice prostitutes to a motel room, he said. Everything had to be done with precision so that the case could be prosecuted in court.

A burly, Maine Drug Enforcement undercover agent was there as well. He and Murphy were the take-down team, the officers who would arrest the women as soon as they offered sex for money. They were also on the lookout for any men — pimps, as they are called — who might come by.

“If someone comes in and tries to broker the deal, we’ve got to be ready for that,” the undercover agent said.

There was also the possibility that a pimp would lurk outside the motel room, hang around the lobby or sit outside in a car. The officers had to be aware of who they were dealing with at all times.

The safe word was “aspirin.” Had Darnell uttered the word, it would have meant there was trouble and the other officers would have come running.

But before any of that could happen, Darnell had to convince one of the suspected prostitutes to come to his room. It was not as easy as it sounds.

Several of the women who ran personal ads were already set up in hotel rooms in other cities. They would not make the trip to Lewiston.

One local woman said she had her children with her and could not leave them unattended for an hour or more. She also would not come to the hotel.

Then there was Kylie, who said over the phone that she was already doing business at another motel. She agreed to make the short trip over to join Hilliard in his room. The cost of her companionship, she said, was $200 per hour.

But that alone was not enough for police to make an arrest.

When Kylie came to the motel room, the other officers were hunkered down in the adjoining room, watching and listening with the surveillance equipment, ready to pounce.

At first, it appeared Kylie would take the bait. But then, after speaking with the “weary businessman” for three or four minutes, she appeared to grow suspicious. Darnell sprawled on the bed and told her he was just a computer guy in town for a conference. He let her pat him down for a wire. She did and found none.

But in the end, Kylie walked out. For reasons unknown, she was not convinced that the man in the motel room was legitimate.

Police had to let her go.

“We were a little bit unlucky tonight,” Murphy said.

It’s the nature of the business. Police might nab a handful of suspected hookers one night but walk away empty-handed the next. Murphy said police efforts to target local prostitutes through advertising would continue.

Meanwhile, the man named Hilliard was retired for the night. Darnell lost the slacks and yellow shirt. He slipped into blue jeans, a ratty coat and a baseball cap turned backwards.

Meet a working Joe, looking for a little action after a long week on the construction site.

For the rest of the night Friday, police were out downtown, looking for street-level prostitutes rather than those found in the personal ads.

The different varieties require different strategies: Darnell spent the rest of his night driving through the downtown, waiting for a streetwalker to approach him and make an offer. Here, police said, there was likely to be less nuance and more direct interaction.

“The prostitutes we find in the personal ads are typically more organized,” Robitaille said. “On the street, it’s different. Often, we find that the prostitutes here have a drug dependence. They come right up to you.”

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