On May 12, the Lonoke County sheriff's office arrested two women and one man, all charged with prostitution or the solicitation thereof, in the sleepy, prosperous Greystone neighborhood of Cabot.
The bust grabbed quick headlines. Two women allegedly running an Internet-advertised prostitution business in an unlikely setting was a natural. But questions linger about how law enforcement officials finally made a case to try to stop it.
The final chapter isn't written. Charges are pending, defendants have lawyers prepared to fight them and the outcome may not be as open and shut as many had assumed.
The basics, from a Lonoke County sheriff's news release, are simple enough. Deputies served a search warrant at 105 Ridgecrest Square in the Greystone subdivision. Arrested there were 33-year-old A.E. Samontry and 40-year-old Pornpiemon Phouangmany, U.S. citizens of Laotian descent. A 46-year-old North Little Rock man, Jerry Richard, was arrested for patronizing a prostitute. The investigation began because of complaints from neighbors about the amount of traffic in the neighborhood.
The suspects were quickly released on bond. The offenses are misdemeanors, with relatively minor penalties.
Further reporting raised interesting angles in the case. For one, the man charged with solicitation does not fit the typical john-prostitute profile. He's the former husband of one of the women.
The setting has media appeal. Greystone is a quiet slice of suburbia on Cabot's northwest side, off Highway 5. It's full of new brick homes and borders a country club with a lush golf course. Lawns are manicured, driveways are swept and little bicycles with pink tassels hanging from the handlebars lie on their sides in front yards along the street. It is a far cry from the seamy "strolls" of big cities where prostitutes gather. (Think the gritty portions of Roosevelt Road in Little Rock, a historic hotspot for the flesh trade.)
"I've been with the sheriff's office for 16 years and this is the first prostitution case that I've worked, I guess you could say," says Lt. Jim Kulesa with the sheriff's office. "It was a surprise and the media and public response to it has been, well, I guess everybody thought it was kind of funny. It's not something you see every day."
The women who were arrested have said they were running a massage business out of their home. They do not appear on the state list of licensed massage therapists.
The women have entered not guilty pleas. A sign that once sat on the side of Highway 5 advertising the business has been taken down. Advertisements were also placed on the site backpage.com, one of many Internet site like Craigslist where classifieds and personal ads can be placed, but the Cabot ads are no longer there. There remain, however, many other suggestive ads from women in Arkansas offering massage and other intimate services. (The Arkansas Times has a link to backpage.com classifieds in many categories, but not sexually related ads.)
Kevin Blakely lived next door and rented the house to the two women for two years. He said it's possible the women could have been running a legitimate business, but the circumstantial evidence suggested otherwise.
"Until somebody can prove that they were doing something illegal it's just hearsay," Blakely says. "As we started to really pay attention, because of the frequency of the cars, your mind starts to wonder if it's drugs or what it could be. But after three or four months of watching them you're pretty sure what's going on, because it's always one male in the vehicle and he's always there for 45 minutes or an hour. So after awhile you think about it and you only come to the one conclusion. I think the police feel they have enough evidence."
The Lonoke County case wasn't like most prostitution cases in which an officer goes undercover and waits for an offer to be made. The search warrant was based on conversations with two men who had admitted to paying for sex, but weren't arrested themselves. Kulesa says he doesn't know why.
Little Rock attorney Dan Hancock is representing both women in the case. He says he doesn't know why the men weren't arrested either.
"It seems a little odd that they're arresting my clients as opposed to people who have admitted to paying someone for sex, which is illegal," Hancock says.
Then there's the matter of Richard's former marriage to Samontry. How did deputies conclude that this was an episode of prostitution rather than, say, rekindling of an old flame?
Reggie Koch, a Little Rock attorney who represents Richard, says the two are still, as far as he knows, in a relationship and were not having sex at the time of the arrest.
"We all pay for sex," Koch says jokingly. "I mean, we all pay for sex, right? He pays her every month because he still owes her from their divorce. It's part of their agreement. They have always had, other than when they were pissed off at each other, a relationship."
Kulesa insists the evidence is there.
"We have some evidence to show that it wasn't just [two people getting back together]," Kulesa says. "Basically there was some information that he was actually paying. I can't go into detail on that because it's still a pending case, but we have enough to show there was a financial arrangement made prior."
"I assume they have some information somewhere about something," Koch says, "but my guy certainly wasn't hiring her as a prostitute. I don't know what's going to happen with the girls, but my guy, that's his ex-wife and I think they're going to have trouble. If the district court finds him guilty we'll certainly go to a jury trial and I don't think there's 12 people in Arkansas that will find him guilty of this unless they get something incredibly unforeseen."
Lt. Kulesa says there was more to the case than just statements from the two unidentified johns. He couldn't go into detail because the case is awaiting trial, but said the ads on backpage.com weren't your typical therapeutic massage ads.
"Yeah, it's a possibility [they were actually giving massages to some people]," Kulesa says. "They denied the prostitution charges, but here they were on the Internet advertising with pictures that were pretty provocative. It wasn't someone standing in a white smock with a towel over their arm like a professional masseuse. It was a girl lying on the bed with a bikini bottom on. But I guess that will be up to a judge to decide."
Blakely said both Samontry and Phouangmany were good tenants who kept the place clean and always paid their rent on time. They always paid in checks, he says, other than a couple of times, when they paid their entire monthly rent in $20 bills, which he found a little odd. He says, as do others in the neighborhood, that he hardly ever saw the women living at the house next door.
Jolene Payne lives across the street from 105 Ridgecrest. She was the most vigilant of the neighbors in trying to get something done about the incessant traffic. She continually called the police, sheriff's office and whoever else would listen, until something was done.
"I called everybody and their brother. I literally did," Payne says. "We called the cops for them blocking our driveway. Every time the police showed up we told them, 'There's a John over there right now. Go do something about it.' They kept telling us they couldn't do anything, that we didn't have any proof. I mean, they pay their rent in $20 bills. How is that not suspicious? How is that not proof?"
But, of course, a ready supply of cash money isn't proof of prostitution. Law enforcement officials say prostitution is a difficult crime to enforce precisely because it's so hard to prove, without testimony from, for example, undercover officers.
"Knowing what's going on and proving it are two different things," Kulesa says. "It's hard because you're dealing with an entrapment issue. In other words, the girl has to be the one to bring up the idea of sex for money. If you go in there and you basically tell her, 'I'll give you money for sex,' then that's entrapment."
The Internet has made it easier and more discreet to procure sex for money at private locations. The advertising, however, also makes it easier to track and find potential prostitutes. "Advertising is helpful," says Lt. Terry Hastings of the Little Rock Police Department, "for obvious reasons." But it's still not cut-and-dried.
"If someone says on a website 'anything goes,' then you have to determine what 'anything' means," Hastings says. "If it's involving sex, just because you say that on a website doesn't mean that you're going to get arrested. There would have to be an offer."
The LRPD vice squad stays busy on old-fashioned street prostitution. Since January of 2009, the LRPD has made 268 prostitution arrests, none Internet-related. But Hastings says the Internet is still a useful tool for investigators.
"We do stings quite often where we go out and arrest prostitutes where we use undercover officers for that," he says. "In most cases, that's how it gets done. The Internet stuff is useful information, but other than that, it's just getting out there on the street, figuring out where the prostitutes are and going to arrest them. We use the Internet to track it but we won't reveal to you how we do that."
The catalyst for most prostitution investigations is complaints. In 2007, North Little Rock Police made five arrests related to online prostitution offers, all after receiving complaints. According to an NLRPD spokesman, in the past two years no Internet-related arrests have been made because of a lack of complaints. In April of this year, a White County woman was arrested after sheriff's deputies received numerous complaints about an ad she placed on Craigslist.
The continued prevalence of Arkansas sex offers on-line suggests enforcement is generally a low priority. Other crimes demand more urgent attention. The punishment is relatively slight, particularly against the low risk of being arrested.
Prostitution is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Promoting prostitution is a class A misdemeanor ($2,500 and up to one year in jail). That's a punishment that some don't think fits the crime. Kulesa says if Samontry and Phouangmany don't want to appear in court, they can just pay the fine and leave.
"It's only a misdemeanor, so that's only about a $200 fine [in most cases]. They'll probably just leave. I think they had plans to leave the state anyway at the time of their arrest," he says.
Payne, the neighbor who tried for so long to get the authorities to pay attention, says the punishment isn't enough.
"There should be a heavier penalty," Payne says, "because what's $100 to a prostitute? It's like telling a drug dealer he only has to pay a $100 fine. He's just going to turn around and make it back. And there's kids right there [pointing to the house next door]. You don't need that around your children. There needs to be a stricter penalty. They should have done jail time personally."
But according to John Huggins of the Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney's office, the only way promoting prostitution classifies as a felony is if a promoter uses physical force or intimidation or if a minor is involved.
A trial date has been set for Aug. 19 in Lonoke County District Court. Until then, life goes on in Greystone. The house at 105 Ridgecrest is up for sale and Blakely is eager to have a new tenant. Samontry and Phouangmany moved out shortly after their arrest.
"We told them if they weren't going to buy the house then they needed to move out," Blakely says. "They protested because they said they had done nothing wrong. Of course they were running a business with everyone watching them. So I kinda figured they had to move anyway to continue doing what they were doing."
Payne says she can "definitely handle normal," and likes the absence of traffic. Patton Hawkins, another neighbor, says it's nice to see patrol cars cruising down the streets of his neighborhood, something he never saw before. His family likes the added sense of security.
When Hawkins thinks about his former neighbors he shakes his head.
"Here's another thing about our neighborhood: How many people know their neighbor anymore?" he asks. "Short of a couple of people I couldn't tell you anything about them, where they work or anything. I mean, as long as I don't smell meth or they're not out in the yard doing something bad, why would I care?"