They met at a nearly empty parking lot outside a vacant office building on Watt Avenue in North Highlands.
The man drove a light green minivan, parking in a spot facing away from the busy street. The two women, both undercover deputies posing as prostitutes for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, walked over to his car and began talking to him.
“All right, I’ll see you in a little bit,” one of the women said a few minutes later, her words relayed to nearby deputies through a hidden microphone. “We’ll meet you in the back, OK?”
A deputy speaking over the sheriff’s radio scanner said the man agreed to pay the woman $20 for oral sex. As he pulled out of the parking spot and made his way to the back of the nearby Carl’s Jr., a squad of Sheriff’s Department cars drove in and took him into custody.
The arrest Wednesday was part of a countywide human trafficking sting conducted by several local law enforcement agencies that besides the Sheriff’s Department included police from Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Folsom and Rancho Cordova. The Sacramento District Attorney’s Office oversaw their efforts.
In total, 39 people were arrested for various crimes in connection to the sting, the District Attorney’s Office said Thursday morning. That includes six loitering-for-prostitution arrests at the Watt Avenue location, seven soliciting-for-prostitution at the Stockton Boulevard location and seven soliciting-for-prostitution arrests in Citrus Heights, where officers conducted a hotel operation.
Some caught in the sting were arrested for other charges, including loitering with the intent to commit prostitution, drug possession or violating probation.
The sting was the biggest conducted by local law enforcement in recent history, according to John Sydow, a sheriff’s detective assigned to the Special Investigations and Intelligence Unit who has focused on human trafficking cases in the county over the past seven years.
“We hope to spread the word that Sacramento is not going to tolerate this kind of activity,” he said of the sting. “It's going to be a little piece at a time.”
The agencies specifically targeted people looking to pay money in exchange for sex, often referred to as a “trick” or “john.” Two locations, one along Stockton Boulevard near 56th Street in south Sacramento and the other along Watt Avenue near Winona Way in North Highlands, were chosen for the street or “stroll” portion of the sting.
There, undercover officers posed as prostitutes and walked along the street, talking to people who appeared to be interested in soliciting sex. The sting also included an online portion, in which officers posted fake ads and told possible clients to meet at hotels in Folsom, Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova.
Someone convicted of soliciting a prostitute can face up to 180 days in jail, be subject to searches and receive an order to stay away from known prostitution hotspots in the county, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Sydow said that generally deputies are looking for enough evidence that someone has contacted another person with the intent of exchanging money for sexual acts, agreed to do so and then acted on the agreement.
The sting came after members of the Sacramento Together Against Human Trafficking Coalition, which is made up of local law enforcement agencies and community groups, voiced a need to crack down on sex trafficking in Sacramento County, the District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
Sydow said businesses and residents near where much of the illegal activity takes place regularly file complaints with the Sheriff’s Department. That includes people who live and work near Watt Avenue in North Highlands, where the Sheriff’s Department conducted its portion of the operation.
“The women are out here offering themselves on this piece of Watt Avenue because they know this is where the customers will come,” he said. “The customers are out here looking for women because they know this is where the women are going to be.”
Though the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday could not provide data on how many people have been charged with solicitation for prostitution, Sydow said the Sacramento region sees a higher rate of human trafficking compared to other cities in the state.
“We have a lot of traffickers here, and we have a lot of trafficking victims,” he said. “Some of them are local victims and suspects, and a lot of them are from out of town.”
Beth Hassett, executive director of WEAVE, a local organization helping women escaping domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, said many of the people her group sees are young girls who have been in and out of the foster care system. They often have an inherent distrust in law enforcement, making their cooperation with detectives trying to prosecute a pimp difficult.
“It’s really about making contact with the girls and building a relationship that is very client centered, very victim centered and that allows them to trust somebody,” she said. “Often, the only person they’ve bonded with is the person who has actually exploited them.”
Sydow said the Sheriff’s Department plans to conduct smaller-scale prostitution stings more often, despite the additional number of deputies needed to complete them and the added risk that undercover officers face while talking to possible clients.
“We’re going to continue doing these operations until it makes the effect that we want it to make,” Sydow said.