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Prostitution stings point to larger trend as state battles opiate crisis

Last modified: 4/8/2015 5:42:16 PM
The prostitution sting last week in Nashua drew headlines for the high-profile name of one of the 10 men it netted: David Wihby, Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s newly resigned state director.

But the operation was significant for another, less splashy reason: It marked at least the third organized crackdown this year by police departments in response to complaints about ongoing prostitution in their communities.

When Jerry Gappens, the general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, was arrested in January after a 19-year-old woman entered his SUV in downtown Manchester, it was part of a weeks-long enforcement campaign prompted by reports of salacious behavior in an area frequented by young children on their way to school.

Gappens pleaded guilty to lewdness; Wihby has only been charged.

In February, some half-dozen Concord police officers descended on a city hotel as part of an effort to lure johns through online advertisements. The operation was unsuccessful, the department said, but, like the others, it points to a trend that has at least remained constant as the state continues to buckle from opiate addiction.

“We’ve been getting a lot more street complaints than before, and we relate that directly to heroin,” said Nick Willard, assistant chief of police in Manchester.

It’s hard to know whether prostitution has actually grown in cities like Manchester and Concord, and other parts of the state – complaints alone do not necessarily indicate larger fluctuations.

Lt. Tim O’Malley said the Concord police have been receiving more reports of prostitution but do not yet have the arrest numbers to signify an increase. The February sting was the first in recent memory, he said.

“We’re not naive to think it’s not happening here,” O’Malley said.

The sex business has been a focal point for years as state and federal officials work to combat human trafficking and the role of abuse and exploitation, especially among young women. In 2013, former New Hampshire attorney general Michael Delaney launched a commission to change the way law enforcement deals with victims.

In Manchester, officers now formally question prostitutes about their motivations to determine whether they have been victims of sex trafficking. It can occur, for example, when addicts are pressured to perform sexual acts as a way to pay off their dealers, or if they are under 18.

Concord has a similar, albeit less formal interview practice, O’Malley said.

Prostitution has long been punishable in New Hampshire as a misdemeanor. Human trafficking was only recently made a Class A felony.

Solicitation is done today primarily online, using websites like Craigslist and Backpage. Law enforcement officials say they occasionally get tips from people flagging suspicious ads, particularly those that could involve underage victims.

But as awareness spreads and law enforcement acquires additional tools to combat the trade, many note that the state is still sorely behind in terms of drug treatment and safe houses for victims of sex crimes.

Willard said women are often reluctant to give details about their illicit employers for fear of retribution.

“We need to give her a safe place to be able to go after that is not in the same city,” he said.

Amanda Grady Sexton, public policy director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said any solution will depend on tighter online controls and better efforts to curb opiate addiction. She also noted that many states, including Massachusetts, have designated services for people who are trying to leave the sex trade.

“We have nothing of the sort here,” she said.

The state does provide counseling for female inmates and various resources for those affected by domestic violence, Grady Sexton noted, but it makes no specific allocations for victims of sexual assault or sex trafficking – which, she added, is often intertwined with prostitution.

“I challenge anyone to point to an example of someone working in the sex industry who has not been the victim of coercion, force or threats to their life,” Grady Sexton said.

Crackdowns like last week’s are meant largely as deterrents. Jim Testaverde of the Nashua police said prostitution and drug use are not the only concerns – both often lead to other violent crimes.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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