Sunday March 21, 1999
The John Patrol
Despite the obvious difference in their ages, it's 16-year-old Claudia who seems younger than the 14-year-old she's sharing a smoke with when Oscar Ramos and Raymond Payette arrive.
Both girls tell the officers they're 19 a lie it takes about 10 minutes to dissect. Both say they were questioned by vice only one night earlier.
"You haven't been questioned by us yet," says Oscar, pulling out a notebook.
Under the naked light of the street lamp on the corner of Pandora Street and Victoria Drive, nothing appears the way it really is or should be.
Claudia is wearing a small fake-fur jacket, tight black pants and stiletto heels. A friendly girl with long, blond teased hair, she talks a blue streak from the moment she confesses that her 17th birthday is on Feb. 24.
Christine, the 14-year-old, is cool, playing the part of the hard-bitten street veteran.
She wears a long leather jacket, flared pants and an unbuttoned white shirt barely covering an undeveloped chest.
"I look older, that's why the guys like me," she says later.
She looks 14. And that's exactly why men like Christine.
It's been a little more than a year since Oscar Ramos and Raymond Payette developed the program they're out demonstrating tonight.
DISC Deter and Identify Sex Trade Consumers operates on a simple premise. The two constables wanted a way to keep track of the people in the sex trade.
Their primary target: The men who buy sex. The reason they're commonly known as johns is because they're anonymous, explains Ramos.
Most drive away from their own neighbourhoods to buy sex in an area where they're unknown. North Vancouver, Coquitlam, Burnaby, Richmond, Surrey, West Vancouver johns come to these downtown streets from all over the Lower Mainland.
Payette has asked men if they consider the damage they're doing in terms of drug use, exploitation and crime.
"I don't live here," is the answer he usually gets.
DISC gives the johns a reason to care. Every time a man is stopped in the company of a prostitute, Ramos and Payette enter his name and a detailed description of his car, his sexual habits and anything out of the ordinary into the computer.
Two weeks later, he receives a Dear John letter. The john is no longer anonymous.
The database also contains detailed information about the prostitutes, the pimps, and anyone else who Ramos and Payette encounter who is of special interest to police.
In a transient, secretive and dangerous business, DISC is quickly becoming recognized as a powerful weapon.
Claudia has been moved all around Western Canada in the five months since she met her pimp at an Edmonton mall.
A few days in Regina, a few days in Calgary, a few days in Saskatoon. She says she's falling in love with her pimp.
All this comes out in the 10 minutes it takes to drive from the east side to the emergency social-services building in Kitsilano. Claudia doesn't want to travel in the wagon because she's too scared. She's also scared of going to jail.
Christine, still the tough kid, is in the police van.
Ramos is offering some free advice.
"You have to take the leap of faith here, Claudia," he says. "You can still get out."
Claudia says she's made $3,000 this week.
"And how much do you have in the bank?" asks Ramos.
You fall in love with the pimp. You get pregnant. You get hooked on drugs.
"How many old hookers do you see down here, Claudia?" asks Oscar. "It's not what's going to happen, it's what will happen."
Claudia nods: "Do you think anybody will ever fall in love with me now that I'm a hooker?"
Only a few years out of the police academy, Ramos and Payette felt traditional ways of dealing with prostitution were not working, mainly because they targeted sex-trade workers.
DISC hits the money supply.
If a prostitute is assaulted and all she can remember is the colour of the car her attacker was driving, any john listed on DISC as driving a car that colour can expect to become a part of the investigation.
If the man comes back to the stroll and is caught again, he'll go down as a predator whose desires outweigh his common sense.
"Part of the reason it works is because the john says, 'If I was the police, that's how I'd do it,'" says Payette.
The database has also allowed them to find out exactly who is buying sex from teenagers. Johns come from every level of society. Many are well-educated, well-to-do family men in nice cars.
The partners once came across a Howe Street stockbroker in a brand new Jaguar haggling with a prostitute over $25 for a sex act.
"Your socks are worth more than you're offering that woman," Raymond told the man.
The man said, "My socks cost me $63."
Christine stands at the social-services counter, acting tough. She was in here only two nights ago. Raymond will deal with her while Oscar deals with Claudia.
"I do this so I can eat," says Christine.
Claudia sits by herself as Oscar and a social worker begin trying to track down her family. She says she has parents in Yellowknife, a sister in an Edmonton group home and foster parents in Roddington, Nfld.
Claudia's cell phone rings. The caller may be what police call the main girl: A prostitute who is the pimp's favourite. She watches over the rest of his girls.
"It's hard for me to have feeling for anything any more," says Claudia, tapping her leg nervously. "I get in cars with people I don't know. And it's not like they care about me. They use me for a toy."
Through DISC, Ramos and Payette also track the patterns of prostitutes and pimps. Like most of the johns, many teenage streetwalkers are from the suburbs. Any girl can be a victim.
The main talent of a successful pimp is knowing which buttons to push.
They prey on vulnerability. If you're in a mall during the school day, there's a reason. The pimp will find it. If your parents won't let you stay out late, the pimp offers freedom.
An older man takes an interest in you, he buys you gifts, he buys you clothes, and then perhaps offers to take you to Calgary for a weekend.
Once you get there, he says you owe money for the ticket. You're ashamed to call your parents and it's only once you figure no one will know.
Next the pimp threatens to tell your father what you've done for money. It goes downhill from there.
A few weeks back, the two officers stopped a limousine full of teenage girls. All of them told their parents they were going to watch videos. When they got to their friend's house, they changed into sexy clothes and hopped into the car arranged by a man. The party started on Robson, and ended on the east side talking to a couple of working girls.
Ramos and Payette believe a soft recruitment would have followed maybe an invitation to a party. And the chance to meet some guys.
"Every single parent was shocked they thought their girl was watching a video," says Payette. "And they all left wearing sweaters and jeans."
Christine's story is cracking fast. Left alone with Payette a friendly guy who can look very mean when he wants to the details are emerging.
She and a friend boarded a bus in Penticton two weeks ago. They ended up on the stroll. Christine says most of it is all right, but she's still not really comfortable having intercourse.
A missing-person report has been filed on Christine's friend. The description matches Claudia down to a scar on the jaw and since the search for Claudia's relatives is going nowhere, Ramos decides to phone the missing girl's parents.
Claudia stands in front of Ramos as a father describes his daughter from head to toe.
"Where are the moles?" asks Ramos. "How many?"
Claudia looks confused. Ramos puts her on the line.
"I don't know who Ashley is," she says into the receiver. "I'm not your stepdaughter."
Ramos takes the phone back and apologizes to the father for waking him. He and the social worker call Claudia into a room.
No one at RCMP Yellowknife can find her parents. The sister who lives in a group home outside Edmonton isn't listed with Alberta social services. The social worker in Newfoundland has never heard of her foster parents. And Ramos' patience has worn thin.
His jaw sets, his eyes glare and his voice drops.
"You've been lying to me all night," he says. "I had a father crying on the telephone because he thought you might be his daughter and that's not fair.
"Now I want some answers."
Apprehending teen prostitutes in British Columbia is a race against time and will. Whereas Alberta now has legislation allowing social workers to hold teenagers for 72 hours, the youths here may walk out at any time.
Ramos and Payette offer a safe house for the night and help from social services in the morning. Claudia's constantly ringing cell phone is a reminder of the intimidation many girls are dealing with.
Few girls are willing to press charges against pimps or johns partly out of fear and partly because defence lawyers can make mincemeat out of prostitutes.
Payette and Ramos say the information collected on DISC enables investigators to corroborate an informant's story with details from previous stops. They can tie a pimp or a john to a particular location and time, and that might make the difference for a judge reluctant to act on one person's word alone.
Recently, the partners were instrumental in the conviction of a Burnaby man tried for having sex with an underage prostitute. The 16-year-old gave a statement and stuck with it. On her word, the man was found guilty.
Claudia is in tears. Her real name is Jen and she's wanted on prostitution-related charges in Calgary.
Ramos knew the almost flawless lie would fall apart eventually. He's on the line to Calgary now, trying to extend an Albertawide warrant to B.C., his only hope of holding her. A social worker has reached Jen's father. He's worried sick.
"I'm scared of going to jail," says the girl, crying. Her phone rings again, and she says she needs to go to the bathroom to change a tampon. She's looking out the door.
Jen has a pimple on her forehead covered in a thick cake of makeup. She's pacing on legs that look like sticks in these tight pants.
She looks more and more irritated and less and less naive as the night drags on.
Christine's aunt arrives, along with a cousin. The 14-year-old gets out of her chair, flashing a sheepish grin.
"Her mom is a basket case," says the aunt. "I don't know what to do. I'm waiting for a call 'We have a body, can you come and identify it?'"
In the past year, DISC has been snapped up by police departments around the Lower Mainland and across North America. Port Moody, Abbotsford, New Westminster, North Vancouver, Edmonton, Sudbury, CN Police and Des Moines, Iowa, are all on line as well as the VICLAS system used across Canada to track and investigate crime.
The Vancouver program has gone patrolwide, with all officers who stop johns or hookers now making entries.
The departments are in contact, but the separate databases are not yet linked by secured phone line, which would cost about $50,000.
Because pimps move girls from city to city ranging all the way from Toronto to Las Vegas and Los Angeles Ramos and Payette feel a united database would give law officers across the continent the accurate information they need to slow the trade.
They point to a case last year when they used the system with Calgary police to find a pair of teens flown here from Alberta to work in a sex ring.
The girls disappeared at Stampede after a man offered to fly them to Vancouver for a party.
It's nearly 3 a.m. and there's not much more Ramos and Payette can do for Jen. Calgary police can't extend the warrant until Monday.
The girl promises to stay at a safe house tonight and to let social services buy her a bus ticket back to Alberta tomorrow. She asks how her dad reacted to the call.
"He said he's worried about you," says Ramos.
We leave, and on the way back to the station, Ramos explains that the situation on Pandora and Victoria probably wasn't as it looked either.
Jen was offering Christine a smoke, which is how an offer of protection usually begins: "It's not safe to be out here alone. I know someone who can help you he's really nice."
Ramos' pager goes off, and he phones in for the message. Social services put Jen in a cab. The second the driver stopped, she bolted.
Created: March 21, 1999
Last modified: June 11, 2001
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