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Prostitution goes high-tech
Hall County begins cracking down on sex crimes
Poker chips, like these confiscated by the Hall County Sheriff's Department after a recent prostitution bust, are being purchased from pimps by "Johns" for payment to prostitutes.

Some are paid with playing cards or poker chips for 15-minute allotments in run-down houses.

Others arrange motel room meetings after advertising their services on the Internet on Web sites such as Craigslist.

Sex for sale in the Internet age is resulting in more arrests locally, with Hall County's vice cops locking up 25 people on prostitution-related charges so far this year, compared with seven in all of 2007. They include prostitutes, pimps and customers, or "Johns."

"Last year the arrests came from your typical prostitution house or brothel," said Lt. Scott Ware, the commander of the Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad, which also targets vices such as gambling and prostitution. "Most of the arrests this year have come from the Internet, where undercover agents have conversed with them via e-mail."

The Johns, pimps and prostitutes collared in brothels in poor Gainesville neighborhoods have in recent years been exclusively Hispanic, while those snared over the Internet tend to be white or African-American, officials said. The prices quoted have varied widely, from $30 to $400.

Both forms of prostitution are still in evidence in Hall County. Last week, acting on a tip from a confidential informant, authorities raided a Westside Drive home across from the old Lyman Hall school and arrested 22-year-old Maria Elena Zolferio-Diaz of Norcross on a charge of prostitution.

According to a search warrant affidavit, a pimp at the house offered the informant the services of his choice of two women dressed in lingerie, with a fee of $30 per 15 minutes. The money was paid to the pimp, who gave the customer a poker chip to give the prostitute. After the customer's 15 minutes were up, the pimp would knock at the door.

Authorities found 12 poker chips in Zolferio-Diaz's purse at the time of her June 6 arrest, "which leads me to believe she saw 12 customers that day," Ware said.

Zolferio-Diaz, like others arrested recently, was not from Gainesville. She gave police a Norcross address. According to the search warrant, the pimp told an informant that the women in the brothel were "changed out" periodically.

Last year at a Cleveland Street home, playing cards were the currency used to pay the prostitute, authorities said.

Prostitutes don't handle cash, Ware said, because they likely only get a portion of what the pimp is paid. "I can guarantee she's not collecting the full percentage," Ware said.

The penalties of prostitution -- a misdemeanor -- are relatively minor. In the cases handled most recently in Hall County State Court, two women in separate cases posted $1,000 bond and later paid fines and fees of $675 in negotiated pleas with no jail time, court records show.

A man charged in January 2007 with keeping a house of prostitution jumped bond and was picked up this month on an immigration violation. Alberto Santos remains in the Hall County jail with deportation proceedings pending.

Ware said authorities learned after the most recent prostitution arrest that the suspect had previously been convicted in New York of a similar charge and deported back to Mexico before allegedly re-entering the country illegally.

But immigrants aren't the only ones practicing prostitution in Hall County. One woman who was born in Hahira worked as a waitress at a restaurant on Thompson Bridge Road while she advertised her illicit services over the Internet.

Stephanie Marie Debro, 22, offered to have sex with an undercover officer for a half-hour for $150 and was arrested when she went to meet him at a Dorsey Street motel. She later pleaded guilty.

A Tulsa, Okla., woman is accused of brokering a deal to have herself and another woman meet a man in a local motel room for $400. She was arrested Feb. 20 at the motel after making initial contact on the Internet and later being recorded finalizing the deal over the phone, authorities said.

A pimp and prostitute from Florida met an undercover officer at a Friendship Road motel in April after advertising sex for $200 on Craigslist, according to arrest warrants.

In January, eight would-be Johns were arrested on pandering charges after answering Internet ads and allegedly agreeing to pay $100 for sex.

Ware said the numbers for arrests in brothels "have been relatively consistent" with one or two busts each year.

"As we receive this information, we act on it," he said. "I think what has boosted (the arrest numbers) is the Internet," he said.

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