The Brunswick County Sheriff's Office Vice Unit arrested and charged dozens of people over three days during "Operation Saving Grace" earlier this year. (Source: WECT)
Disclaimer: The people whose arrests are depicted or described in this story are innocent until proven guilty?
The Brunswick County Sheriff's Office Vice Unit arrested and charged dozens of people over three days during "Operation Saving Grace" earlier this year. The goal was to target men buying prostitutes off of Backpage.
This was BCSO Major Laurie Watson's first John operation. "John" is the generic term typically given for the men soliciting these women.
"I actually made that post at 2:30 in the morning and was completely shocked and floored by the response," Watson explained of her undercover post online.
Her timing wasn't off. Prostitutes working in New Hanover and Brunswick Counties will tell you their phones ring around the clock, usually starting before dawn for the clients hoping to stop by on their way to work.
"Within one minute of the post my phone went off," Watson said. "It did not stop, there was no break. I couldn’t even keep up. I couldn’t even respond to them. I honestly felt like I needed a secretary or, in this sense, a pimp to run my phone for me for the amount of individuals that wanted my attention for that day."
Very quickly the undercover agents had to learn to play the part. Despite what we see in movies, real prostitutes don't talk business on the phone, they don't do a lot of flirting, and they use their own abbreviations and language to communicate with clients.
"Some of their terminology like 'QV,' I had to look up some of those abbreviations," Watson said.
"QV" is a Quick Visit, a 15 minute or less sexual encounter. Other terms, like "roses," "kisses" or "donations" are used to talk about money.
Even with a team of vice agents and SWAT members close by, the undercover agents had to brace themselves for whoever the man was and whatever he had planned. On the streets, rape, robbery and assault are all a part of the game for prostitutes. Worried that they will also be arrested or afraid of becoming a target, the women rarely report those crimes.
"This particular guy didn’t want me in the room and for him to lock the door, I had no idea what was going on," Watson recalled about one John in particular.
Watching through a hidden camera the Vice agents saw the man go for the top and bottom lock once he was alone with the undercover female. No sooner had he turned the lock when agents flew out of the nearby room to start kicking down the door.
While his exact intentions can't be known, the agents pulled a knife off of that man and guns off of several others.
"It was a very uncomfortable feeling for the fact that there was two of us that know how to handle ourselves, what it must be like for the young ladies that are in there by themselves and have that same experience and don’t have a SWAT team ready to come in and rescue them, " Watson reflected. "Probably horrific events that they experience in the room with an individual like that. He’s definitely determined when he chooses to lock that door that you can’t make an exit out of."
At a different location, a John used his body to barricade the door when agents tried to get in and arrest him.
The undercover female agents didn't know what to expect of the men who would be arriving at their door that day but within the first few hours it became obvious there's no such thing as a "typical" client.
There were men who looked like "regular" guys with good jobs wearing suits.
"We had a pilot actually call before he flew from one airport, and when he landed in Wilmington called to make sure he could still come," Watson said.
In a few cases, the clients mentioned their children in their initial call.
"One guy had children crying in the background while he was on the phone with me, trying to schedule an appointment," Watson said. "That was very disturbing."
But the client that shocked everyone was Wayne Ayers, the recently retired Deputy Director of the North Carolina Justice Academy.
As Ayers walked into the room he stopped dead in his tracks and locked eyes on one of the female undercover agents. She knew why. She and Ayers had worked together in law enforcement at one point.
The agent, thinking fast, explained that she had a twin sister that Ayers was mistaking her for. The two exchanged stories about all the friends and colleagues they had in common.
Still, Ayers put down $400, started explaining what services he wanted and began to undress.
The Vice agents came through the door and the color drained from Ayers face.
Ayers tried to explain that he was lonely and "not thinking." He was given time to think about it in the Brunswick County Detention Center until bonding out.
Still, everyone at the operation was baffled as to how Ayers had not had better judgment as a member of law enforcement.
"I think it has definitely opened all of our eyes to what a demand there is for it now," Watson said. "I think it’s a battle we are going to have to fight one day at a time but we want to send a message that it is not OK to go on Backpage or Craigslist or any other website and order up these girls for your own sexual demands and desires and we just sit back and let it happen."
At one point, so many men were calling, the agents had to stage them in a nearby parking lot. Each completely unaware that the other men waiting around him were all there for the same girls.
It gives a lot of perspective to just how big this industry is even in the Cape Fear region. One posted ad generated countless calls around the clock.
"You might need to look at your husband, your brother, your grandfather, your son before you sit back and judge these prostitutes," Watson advised.
Typically, when we talk about prostitution we talk about the women and how "gross" what they do is. We often don't turn our attention to the men and rather brush off their involvement as just trying to get a need met.
That kind of twisted logic is part of the reason the sex industry and human trafficking has been allowed to thrive despite being criminal.
For the men, consider yourselves warned. If you come to Brunswick County looking for a little action, it may not be quite the heart-racing experience you intended.