KIRO 7 was the first to report in September 2013 about the multiple arrests of local men who, police say, had agreed to meet someone they thought was a 15-year old girl to exchange money for sex. Instead, it was an undercover Seattle police detective who posted the online ads.
On Wednesday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told KIRO 7 Reporter Amy Clancy that the year-long operation has so far resulted in the arrest and criminal charges against 45 men.
The details in the online ads, which first appeared in early 2013, have changed slightly over the months: offers of sex with a cheerleader, sex with someone’s young daughter, in exchange for cash. The investigation started with the Seattle Police Department, but now involves law enforcement officers in Kent, Renton, Bellevue and the King County Sheriff’s Office, Satterberg said.
He also told Clancy that no matter where the online ads have appeared or who posted them, the men who answered them committed a crime: “Every one of these 45 men who went and fell into this police trap, they were looking for a real teenage girl to abuse.”
They’ve all been charged with commercial sex abuse of a minor or attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor.
Many of the men arrested have pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence; about 9-months in jail instead of two years in a state prison. The defendants have also paid a $5,000 fine, which Satterberg said will help fund local efforts to get teenage prostitutes off the streets. A conviction also carries mandatory registration as a sex offender for at least 10 years. Of the approximately five defendants who have gone to trial, all have been convicted by juries, according to Satterberg.
But criminal defense attorney Brad Meryhew told Clancy on Wednesday that many of the men arrested are not the dangerous child rapists police and prosecutors charge them to be. Meryhew, of the Meryhew Law Group in Seattle, represents nearly three dozen of the men arrested in the sting.
“The clients that we’ve gotten, for the most part, don’t believe the person they’re going to meet with is a 15-year old girl.” Meryhew told Clancy that “everything about the communications (in the on-line ads) leaves the impression that this is an adult playing a fantasy role, playing at being a 15-year old.”
Meryhew said his clients have told him they intended to ask for identification to confirm the “prostitute” was an adult, but were arrested before they had the chance. Solicitation of a prostitute is a misdemeanor. Commercial sex abuse of a minor is a felony.
Satterberg said, now that the year-long sting has been uncovered, anyone thinking about meeting someone who claims to be a minor for sex should consider themselves in danger of being arrested. Clancy asked whether Satterberg was concerned that news of the sting could now harm the investigation?
“I think the time to get the message out is now because ultimately our goal is not to charge a bunch of people with crimes," Satterberg said. "Ultimately, our goal is to reduce the exploitation of teenage girls on the streets of Seattle."
Meryhew told Clancy that a few of his clients will be fighting the charges at trial in the upcoming months. He may argue that his clients were the victims of entrapment.