Monday, March 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
- Prospect of harsher sentences is on the horizon for Las Vegas pimps (11-02-2012)
- Sex trafficking of children: Las Vegas’ deep, dark secret (11-01-2012)
- Las Vegas is ‘ground zero’ for child sex trafficking, Metro vice officer says (09-20-2012)
- A journey from good student to underage prostitute (04-02-2012)
- One woman’s escape from human trafficking (04-03-2012)
- Woman shares story to save others from sex trafficking (10-01-2011)
Alisha was 17 years old when she was kicked out of school, lost a basketball scholarship and subsequently was recruited into prostitution by Raymond Sharpe.
Sharpe, by that time, was already a pro at picking up teenage girls and trafficking them throughout the country as prostitutes, according to court records. For years he had honed his radar for the weak and vulnerable, carefully crafting his combination of emotional and physical control to keep his prostitutes in line. His litany of arrests – and less frequent convictions – did little to deter his commitment to a life of crime.
A year into her servitude, Alisha ran away. Sharpe tracked down Alisha’s younger sister and called Alisha. Sharpe was with Alisha’s sister at an ice cream parlor. The threat was clear. Alisha returned to the fold.
Alisha met Sharpe in 1996. It was not until July 2011, after Sharpe beat Alisha, threatened to kill her and she fled from her home wearing nothing but a thong, that Sharpe was headed to jail for good.
Police, prosecutors and academics who focus on sex trafficking and pandering say the details of Sharpe’s case are all too familiar. Pimps control their world with brutal cruelty, can maintain networks while incarcerated, sometimes earn millions a year and frequently are difficult to bring to justice.
In the wake of the Feb. 21 shooting on the Strip, in which both the alleged shooter and one of the victims were suspected pimps, numerous questions have arisen about the criminal subculture of sex trafficking and pandering.
“Las Vegas is selling sex every which way,” said Alexis Kennedy, a UNLV professor of criminal justice who studies sex trafficking. “That’s what we’re selling in this city, indoors and outdoors; everything is represented. It is a multibillion-dollar industry, and we are only able to identify and work with a portion of that.
Photos and videos on social media of men flashing wads of $100 bills, driving luxury cars and surrounded by women make the lifestyle look appealing. But looks can be deceiving.
“We shouldn’t judge the institution based on some glamorized info we get from media,” Kennedy said. “The levels of violence and the nature of this subculture is not what we’ve been presented in the media.”
The Clark County District Attorney’s Office said it prosecutes a couple of hundred cases related to sex trafficking each year. That may only be scratching the surface in the local sex trade.
Although the members of law enforcement, the justice system and academia interviewed for this article were not asked to comment specifically on the Strip shooting, an ongoing investigation, their insights help to shine a light on the lives and methods of pimps, a sector of society with which few law-abiding citizens ever come in contact.
Setting up shop
Pimps can be found across the United States. They frequently operate in more than one city.
“Typically (pimps) are going to have networking abilities already established in any city before they arrive,” said Lt. Karen Hughes of the Metro Police vice squad. “A lot of times the pimps don’t just come to Vegas and live here; they come to Vegas and they work their girls out of Las Vegas, but it might not be their resident state. Las Vegas is a destination for many, many, many pimps.”
For recruitment, social media has been a boon for pimps, expanding their reach and taking their overtures off the streets.
“Social media is huge right now, and that’s been the biggest change I think over the last five years,” Hughes said. “It’s become such an easy venue to communicate … a Facebook or MySpace or any other social-networking site where people can connect frequently is going to be a recruiting angle for them.
“Let’s not make any mistake; they still are going into traditional venues like areas where kids are going to be most vulnerable — schools, places where kids congregate — and they are going to look for particularly young girls who are disconnected or disassociated from stable families and are looking for acceptance with someone.”
Once the recruitment ends, the “grooming period” – earning the woman’s trust and laying out the rules of procedure – begins.
“They offer friendship and kindness. They may sell it as protection or love, but the idea is: ‘I’m in your corner. I’ll help you survive.’” Kennedy said.
The girl is told how to act, how to spend money, how to interact with clients and how much money is expected at the end of each night. Often the girls are “branded,” Kennedy said, with tattoos like bar codes, the pimp’s name or alias, or perhaps something as simple as a symbol, a single dollar sign on the inside of the woman’s forearm.
Typically the pimp has a “bottom girl” who is the most trusted and will participate in the recruitment and training of other women.
Pimps frequently run legitimate businesses on the side. Sharpe was CEO of All in One Motoring, a car-rental business.
“A lot of pimps will have legitimate businesses,” said Liz Mercer, a prosecutor for the Clark County District Attorney’s Office who handles sex trafficking cases and helped prosecute Sharpe. “(Sharpe) had an automobile rental company, and it was very much a network with other pimps. Sharpe rents cars, and another pimp has an audio system company and installs amazing audio systems in the cars. A lot of the front businesses have to do with the music, fashion and entertainment industries.”
Day jobs aside, authorities say pimps draw their real income from sex trafficking.
“Defendant has clearly made a living as a pimp for over 26 years,” the sentencing memo from the Clark County District Attorney for Raymond Sharpe states succinctly.
Sharpe, according to court records, had a history of pandering dating to 1985. Time and again Sharpe would be arrested and either escape charges or serve a fraction of his sentence and return to his criminal lifestyle within a year or two.
Rule your roost
Control is king in sex trafficking, and although pimps may woo women into prostitution by showering them with gifts and expensive cars, they always control the money. Any honeymoon is inevitably short-lived.
“Once these young women get caught up in that lifestyle, there are a lot of degrading acts, as you can imagine, and there’s also that shame and guilt that goes along with it. They don’t value themselves any longer,” Hughes said. “Manipulation is huge. ”
If manipulating the mind isn’t enough, pimps will turn to manipulating the body.
“Violence is a very big part of the subculture, and specifically when the rules of engagement that are established are broken,” Hughes said.
In 2002, Alisha reported she had attempted to flee. Sharpe tracked her down and, while driving on Blue Diamond Road near Decatur Boulevard in his Mercedes Benz CLK430, he reportedly opened fire on the car in which Alisha was the passenger.
A case for attempted murder was dismissed due to the lack of witness cooperation, records show.
“Sexual assault is an absolute part of it, the beatings, the torture,” Hughes said. “And when I talk about torture, I’m not talking about small things. They cut the girls. They whip the girls. They use chains. They use cords. They use irons. They use all kinds of different mechanisms to instill absolute fear so these girls don’t turn on them and so they don’t report the criminal activity.”
In another prominent case tried last year, court records describe gang member and pimp Ocean Fleming becoming irate over the loss of a prostitute, his “bottom girl” whom he had built “from the ground up,” to another pimp.
Fleming, according to court records, took out the loss of one of his higher-earning prostitutes on those who remained, abusing them more than ever.
Dodging detection and incarceration
Sharpe, according to court documents, used at least 22 aliases, six dates of birth and nine Social Security numbers during his criminal career.
Pandering and sex-trafficking cases are notoriously hard to prosecute, with victim cooperation the most challenging part, prosecutors said.
The women fear for their lives – and the lives of friends and family – if they testify against their pimp. Sentences for pandering can be light, and even those convicted will spend little time in a jail, a fact that does not escape prostitutes who have seen the worst of the violence.
In Nevada, pandering an adult with force is punishable by one to five years in prison; pandering without force is punishable by 18 to 48 months in jail. Bail amount is tied to the level of the felony, and pimps who are arrested on such charges can quickly come up with the $5,000 bond that accompanies a charge of pandering without force. That’s a relatively small amount equal to some prostitutes’ nightly take, prosecutors said.
In fact, Alisha, who had tried numerous times to get away from Sharpe during her 15 years under his control, was not cooperative in the trial in which Sharpe ultimately was found guilty and sentenced to 13 consecutive life terms, prosecutors said.
“The detectives do the best they can for victim maintenance,” said Noreen DeMonte, Clark County chief deputy district attorney. “Cutting off contact between the pimp and victim is crucial but difficult. If they are in jail, they’ll use other pimps to get to the witnesses. Pimps are so manipulative. They tell the prostitutes they love them and want to be with them. The victims feel guilty and are afraid of retaliation.”
Since 2009, Metro Police has fielded a pandering investigation team within its vice unit, one of the first of its kind in the country, Hughes said. Detectives on the team routinely spend a year or more gathering enough evidence and witnesses for a pandering case. Pimps frequently have set up in several cities and can be hard to track continuously. Victims usually come forward as witnesses only when they have reached their nadir.
“Right now there is a huge amount of energy just within our community to find safe houses and to find resources and services (for victims). That way when we do have a victim that we rescue from that life, we don’t have any questions about where we are going to take them and how we are going to be able to provide a healthy path for them to get back into regular society,” Hughes said. “I think communities across America are really wrangling with that right now.”
This year, the Nevada Legislature is expected to discuss changes to the state’s pandering laws, altering language, providing for civil suits against pimps by victims, toughening penalties and strengthening forfeiture provisions.
At Sharpe’s house the night of his arrest, July 2, 2011, Metro Police found numerous gutted cars and a cache of weapons including an AK-47 and an AR-15. When Alisha told Sharpe she had called police after being beaten, he responded that he would shoot her before they arrived. Metro did respond in time however, and their knock on the door distracted Sharpe long enough for Alisha to escape out the back.
Sharpe was convicted by a jury of 13 counts related to running prostitutes, including first-degree kidnapping, pandering and living off the earnings of a prostitute. Prosecutors successfully argued that Sharpe should be sentenced as a habitual offender, and a district judge gave the pimp 13 life prison sentences.