When a veteran vice detective tried to book a room at the Emerald Motel on Seattle’s Aurora Avenue North last spring, he was told all 28 rooms in the 1940s-era travel lodge were already reserved for the entire summer.
It was the same story at the 42-room Seattle Inn next door.
“Those hotels were charging those girls $200 a night in cash,” he said. “They were making good money there,” tying their business to the pimps and sex traffickers from up and down the West Coast who flocked to a roughly 10-block stretch of Aurora.
The two motels on the west side of the urban highway, just south of North 125th Street, were the site of an open-air sex market that attracted droves of sex buyers and contributed to increased lawlessness — shootings, homicides, robberies, drug dealing and other crimes — in the surrounding neighborhood, according to police.
The victimization of prostituted women and girls, and the violence that came with it, got so bad that the Seattle Police Department and City Attorney’s Office had the two motels declared chronic nuisance properties, a rarely used mechanism in the municipal code that requires a property be shut down until police determine crime has been abated.
The motels were shuttered in August, immediately disrupting the local marketplace and greatly reducing the number of prostituted women seen walking the streets in sky-high heels and barely there clothing. While the chill and rain of fall has seemingly further reduced their ranks along Aurora, the true effect of the motels’ closures won’t be known until next spring or summer, when warmer weather typically sees a return of prostituted women to the area’s streets and parking lots.
That’s because Seattle — which repealed its drug traffic and prostitution loitering laws in 2020 and has seen hundreds of officers leave the Police Department — has gained a reputation as a city where demand remains high, there’s little risk of arrest for sex buyers, and pimps and traffickers can make lots of money from the lucrative sex trade.
Aurora has for decades been the city’s epicenter of prostitution, and it remains a destination for both local pimps and traffickers, as well as those who shuttle women and girls along the West Coast “circuit,” peddling sex here and in cities like Portland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix. At the same time, social-service providers who offer women and girls a path out of prostitution are stretched to capacity and say the men who pay for sex have become increasingly aggressive and violent.
After prostitution activity plummeted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Seattle police and King County prosecutors say the Aurora “track” saw a resurgence in women walking the street, congregating in parking lots and flagging down motorists — while also waiting for men to respond to online ads, and meeting them back in their motel rooms. It was a hybrid system meant to maximize profits.
In the case of one out-of-state pimp arrested in Seattle late last year, federal prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of nearly $73,000 in cash, a diamond-encrusted Audemars Piguet watch, other diamond jewelry and two handguns allegedly purchased with prostitution proceeds, court records show.
The lead SPD vice detective in that case said pimps typically set daily quotas of $500 to $2,000 for each of the prostituted women working for them.
Meanwhile, Aurora has long been known as a “pimp-controlled track” where aggressive recruiting tactics make it extremely dangerous for women who work independently and retain the proceeds from their prostitution, according to the detective and her colleague, whom The Seattle Times agreed not to identify because they both work undercover.
“It’s always made me so angry that these guys are buying expensive cars and jewelry and things like that — and are playing video games all day — while screaming at you while you’re the one out on the street, in the cold,” the detective said. “He’s still the one in control, and it’s infuriating.”
Change in tactics targeting prostitution
The Seattle City Council unanimously voted in June 2020 to drop drug traffic and prostitution loitering laws from the books because of their disproportionate impacts on people of color.
While that decision was made to address longstanding inequities in who police stop, question and detain, SPD leaders say it has limited officers’ abilities to engage with women who are being prostituted, hampering their ability to get to the root of the problems plaguing Aurora.
Since the prostitution loitering law was repealed, “we don’t have any power to question them,” said Capt. Lori Aagard, commander of the SPD’s North Precinct, referring to women working the “track.”
“You’ve legalized it,” added Lt. Joe Osborne. “Prostitution loiter isn’t illegal, so they can walk up and down the street all day long.”
Though Seattle police can still contact women and girls they suspect are involved in prostitution, officers can’t ask for their identification or do anything that makes them feel that they can’t walk away, Aagard said.
And while SPD’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit still conducts sting operations on Aurora, the unit has shrunk from eight detectives and two sergeants before the pandemic to two detectives and a sergeant who splits his time between vice and another unit, mirroring staffing cutbacks across the agency, according to the remaining detectives. They said 20% of the victims prostituted on Aurora and locally online are minors and that they recently encountered two Tacoma girls, ages 16 and 17, being trafficked on Aurora.
“We’re going to deal with the pimps, but tell me: How [do] you do that without engaging with the workers being prostituted?” one detective asked. “You’ve got to have a victim who says they’re being victimized to go after the pimp. You have to be able to build a case.”
(Pimps typically exploit women and promote prostitution, while traffickers do the same to minor victims or adults compelled to prostitute through force, fraud or coercion.)
Audrey Baedke, co-founder and director of programs at REST, a Seattle nonprofit that operates an emergency shelter and offers services and housing for people escaping the sex trade, said there are pros and cons to the City Council’s decision to repeal the prostitution loitering law.
She’s heard many survivors say that going to jail or seeing their trafficker locked up saved their lives by disrupting their prostitution, removing them from an unsafe environment and providing them time to want to make a change and seek help. But others have told Baedke they felt exploited by police and unsafe while interacting with officers on the street, she said.
It’s better to get women into shelter first, where their basic needs can be met, before asking them to cooperate in a police investigation, Baedke added.
“Women have such strong trauma bonds with their traffickers that their emotional well-being is dependent on their traffickers’ well-being,” she said. “If they’ve betrayed the person they love the most while that trauma bond is still strong, they internalize the guilt and that can destabilize them or traumatize them further.”
Because police can no longer question most of the women directly, they shifted focus to businesses facilitating prostitution, with the goal of disrupting pimps’ operations by cutting off access to motel rooms and, by extension, creating conditions that discourage other criminal conduct.
Investigators began compiling data late last year about calls for service and crimes committed at four Aurora motels, then met with their owners and managers to offer public-safety suggestions, Osborne said. While they found significantly less prostitution at the Nites and Comfort inns, where managers routinely reported incidents to 911, that wasn’t the case with the Emerald Motel and Seattle Inn.
The owners of those two properties were given a choice: voluntarily enter a corrective agreement with police or face a lawsuit from the City Attorney’s Office, said Meagan Westphal, an assistant city attorney who works as her office’s liaison with the North Precinct.
The two motels were closed as chronic nuisance properties and given more than 30 conditions to meet — ranging from improved aesthetics and wiring to hiring 24-hour security — before they will undergo a variety of inspections on the path to reopening, Westphal said.
Once the motels are allowed to reopen, the owners must maintain those terms for two years or risk a city lawsuit for breach of contract, said Westphal. Owners are required to proactively work with police to make conditions uncomfortable for people to commit crimes there.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary remedy,” Westphal said. “It’s not a tool we use all the time, and obviously these hotels rose to the level where it was the appropriate remedy.”
It was the same tool police and city attorneys used three years ago to abate criminal activity at the Everspring Inn, the scene of homicides, assaults, prostitution and drug activity that became so dangerous SPD stopped sending detectives into the motel to conduct undercover investigations.
“With the Everspring, once it closed down and was subject to a corrective agreement, we saw a massive reduction in calls for service and complaints from the community,” Westphal said.
Between January 2019 and mid-August 2020, the Everspring generated 577 computer-assisted-dispatch events, which include both officer-generated responses and calls to 911, according to SPD data. In the roughly three years since then, as of early October, the motel at Aurora and North 82nd Street has generated 123 CAD events, which encompass reports of crime and other emergencies.
The Everspring finished serving its two years under police supervision earlier this year and is no longer under a corrective agreement.
The Seattle Inn and Emerald Motel generated 411 and 258 CAD events, respectively, between January 2019 and their closures in August, the police data shows. In the following eight weeks, the motels were the subject of just 12 total incidents.
Renovations were clearly underway on a recent Friday at the Emerald Motel, where construction supplies were stacked on pallets, a dumpster was set up in the parking lot and workers moved in and out of the vacant rooms. One of the motel’s owners declined to comment, unsure whether he could speak publicly about the corrective agreement he signed with SPD.
Things were quiet at the Seattle Inn next door, with no sign of improvements beyond the fences stopping drivers from pulling into the property. The motel’s owners didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
A quarter-mile to the north, a handful of provocatively dressed young women congregated in the Lowe’s parking lot, tapped on car windows and seemingly negotiated with sex buyers before climbing into pickups and work vans that drove off into the neighborhood.
Seeing women and girls prostituted on Aurora is sad and ugly, “but what’s more unsavory is seeing all the pimps — they’re kind of scary,” said Dan Oberloh, whose shop, Oberloh Woodwind and Brass Works, sits just north of Lowe’s on North 127th Street.
“They’re up here trying to recruit. That’s what makes them so hideous — they’re basically slavers.”
Escaping the sex trade
Before the start of the pandemic, the women and girls prostituted on Aurora would most commonly ask outreach workers for toiletries and hand warmers, said Baedke, the REST co-founder.
Now, the most requested items are pepper spray and kubatons — handheld, sticklike self-defense tools that attach to a keychain, she said.
“Buyers became more aggressive after [the start of] the pandemic, likely because their lives felt more out of control and purchasing a human being for sex also makes it more possible to act violently against them,” Baedke said. “So there was a huge uptick in violence from buyers, and we haven’t necessarily seen that taper down.”
REST serves about 600 people annually, nearly 90% of them female with smaller numbers of male and nonbinary individuals. Thirty-six percent are Black and 10% are Native American, Baedke said, even though those demographics account for 7% and 1% of King County’s population, respectively.
Baedke said white men account for the vast majority of sex buyers, and she recalled one young woman of color telling her they pay her for sex “because I don’t look like their daughters.”
“What we know is the more vulnerable someone is in society, the more likely they are to be trafficked,” she said. “And in our society, being young, being female, being BIPOC — specifically Black and Indigenous — makes it more likely for someone to be trafficked because they are more likely to be targeted,” said Baedke, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
The nonprofit’s clients have told harrowing stories about being held hostage, getting doused with gasoline, being beaten or having a pimp threaten to go after a younger sister to force compliance, said Baedke and Mary Williams, a REST substance use disorder professional.
“It’s all-around bad, and it messes with your mind,” said Williams, a sex-trade survivor who escaped her pimp 30 years ago. “Nobody gets out of this stuff unscathed. For most people, it wasn’t a fun, beautiful ride. It was horrible.”