In May, Kenneth Antwan Cody sat at a computer at the downtown Renaissance Hotel and, according to police, booked a room there with a stolen credit card. He also posted an ad on the classifieds website Backpage.com notifying “customers” that he was in town and available for sexual services.
Police later claimed they found in his cell phone text messages to local phone numbers listing prices for sex acts, something they said Cody admitted to engaging in frequently “to pay bills.”
Cody’s alleged crime — promoting prostitution — has caused concern with law enforcement officials in Tennessee and other states in recent months, leading to letters from state attorneys general requesting that websites posting such ads shut down their adult sections because they promote prostitution, and in some cases human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.
On Aug. 24, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper, along with 16 other state attorneys general, called on Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster and founder Craig Newmark to remove the website’s “adult services” ads, stating that the website’s own review of the postings had not done enough to stop ads promoting prostitution, and that it aided in the victimization of women and children in human trafficking for sex.
About a week and a half after that letter, the website shuttered its adult services section with a black “censored” bar over the link to it. William Clint Powell, director of customer service and law enforcement relations for Craigslist, told a House Judiciary subcommittee on Sept. 15 that the company would not resume its adult section ads.
Last Tuesday, another letter from state attorneys general — including Tennessee’s Cooper — made the same request of Backpage.com, asking that the company begin manually reviewing and charging for personal ads to keep adult services postings from appearing in other sections of the website.
Cooper’s office cited a specific ongoing Tennessee Bureau of Investigation case, which so far has resulted in the indictment of two adults charged with sexually exploiting a 15-year-old girl and promoting prostitution.
Through a spokeswoman, TBI Director Mark Gwyn refused to comment on the bureau’s involvement in any such cases.
But in a similar case on Aug. 30, the Specialized Investigations Division of the Metro Nashville Police Department arrested 36-year-old Tyree Walker, of Macon, Ga., and charged him with trafficking for sexual servitude after he allegedly posted an ad on Backpage.com.
Police said the ad promoted an escort service, which undercover detectives followed to an Elm Hill Pike hotel room. There they found two 17-year-old girls willing to have sex for money. The girls, from Macon and Norfolk, Va., were charged with prostitution in Davidson County Juvenile Court.
A local problem?
When it comes to locals posting from Nashville versus transient groups of pimps and prostitutes promoting sexual services on the Internet, locally at least, the numbers are about 50/50, according to Lt. Gordon Howey of Metro police.
And while the ads aren’t all necessarily blatant — “$150 for 30 minutes,” for instance — a few key words and phrases can clue in a detective’s attention. But does that mean pimps and prostitutes are making it easier on vice detectives? Yes and no, Howey said.
His detectives know what to look for, but beyond that, they have to jump through certain hoops before a pimp or prostitute might agree to a retail rendezvous. Still, it’s an easy and lucrative means of self-promotion.
Asked about the proliferation of posting prostitution ads on the Internet, Jeff Hill, senior counsel for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the practice has spread not just in Tennessee but across the country.
“We’ve heard a lot more reports, and … some specific cases of what we think is criminal conduct that was engaged in as a result of postings on both of these sites,” Hill said.
In Howey’s experience, the stream of prostitution cases resulting from Internet ads has remained fairly steady over the past several years. But an offshoot of Internet ad prostitution has slightly increased.
The variation begins with a girl, or someone posing as such, luring a john to a rented room through an Internet posting, only to surprise him with two or three men, probably a weapon and a robbery. The whole setup even dares the john to report the crime to police — as a result, law enforcement officials say, those robberies often go unreported.
Last fall, one trio allegedly took that job one step further.
According to police, Courtney Hambric admitted to placing the escort ad that lured Jiro Kanazawa, of Kentucky, to a room at an America’s Best Value Inn on Brick Church Pike. There, Harold Doss Jr., who rented the room, and his cousin Christopher Doss allegedly robbed and fatally shot Kanazawa. The two are scheduled for trial next year.
While the attempt to curb the proliferation of Internet prostitution ads would ultimately reduce postings on the two major websites, it will also push the cat-and-mouse vice game to other outlets.
“We’ve already seen a little bit of that,” Howey said.
Posting prostitution ads on the Internet won’t go away because “it’s too lucrative of a way of getting your name out there. So other sites will crop up,” Howey added.
One ad posted last week on Backpage.com read: “Craigslist Adult Services closed Permanantly [sic]. Post your ads on Adultsearch.com.”
The back-and-forth between state attorneys general and Craigslist began in 2008, when states first began pressuring the site. But Hill said steps by Craigslist and Backpage.com to prevent such ads weren’t progressing fast enough. And though he acknowledges the ads might just migrate to other sites, he hopes those sites take notice of the two letters.
“We’re hoping that other larger [websites] will hear what we’re saying and do the right thing,” Hill said. “Obviously, there will be other places to go, but hopefully, it’ll make it more and more difficult for people to do this type of thing over the Internet.”