A 60-foot yacht moored on Lake Union, a swanky Belltown condo and a dingy strip club on Aurora Avenue North have all served as venues for undercover police operations in recent months, all aimed at tamping down prostitution activity in the city.

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The street entrance to Dancing Bare on Aurora Avenue North is marked with the neon image of a woman in high heels reclining in a cocktail glass.

The dingy strip club may seem a world away from the pricey yachts moored on Lake Union or a swanky Belltown condo, but the three sites have all been a part of recent police operations aimed at tamping down the local market for commercial sex.

While women once walked the track on Aurora from Seattle Center to Shoreline, prostitution activity over the past several years largely has been contained to a two-mile stretch between North 85th and North 130th streets. But the proliferation of online sites advertising a host of sexual services has forced police to get creative, even as pimps have grown savvier and customers more cagey in a time of increased enforcement.

“It’s a whole new game now … It’s move and countermove,” said Sgt. Tom Umporowicz, who supervises a squad of detectives assigned to the Seattle Police Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit. “Back in the day, it was harder to hide.”

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At Dancing Bare, customers pass dusty racks of sex toys, adult movies and well-worn Playboy magazines to move into the club, a dark and dirty space where a small stage is ringed in red Christmas lights. Tucked in a back corner is a private lounge area, where worn leather love seats face mirrored walls.

Until about a year ago, Dancing Bare didn’t rank as a high priority for Umporowicz and his squad. But after a reported shooting in the club and one in the alley behind it, Umporowicz said, he began receiving tips and complaints that nude dancing wasn’t all that was being offered there.

Umporowicz sent in an undercover detective who ended up working occasional shifts as a manager and DJ. Umporowicz and other detectives also posed as customers.

Their investigation led to the arrests of the club’s owner and manager in early March, and both have since been charged with promoting prostitution. A dancer also was charged, accused of selling heroin to one of the detectives, according to Umporowicz and court records.

“That’s what I like about Tom — he has a lot of creative ideas and some other things up his sleeve,” said Umporowicz’s boss, Lt. Jim Fitzgerald. “On top of it, we’re trying to hit the johns from different places, different angles, in different precincts when they ask for help.”

Umporowicz said his squad needs to constantly change up tactics to attack both the demand side of prostitution and businesses that act as magnets for prostitution, such as Dancing Bare.

“I haven’t seen a lot of people who are not damaged in this life,” said Umporowicz. “If you’ve got prostitution, you’ve got drug dealing. And if you’ve got those two things, you’ve definitely got gang activity, and that fuels other crimes. It’s all connected.”

On a January morning, Umporowicz drove to a Lake Union marina, unsure whether his idea of setting up a floating sting op on a borrowed 60-foot yacht would even work. His hope: That a luxury setting would attract wealthy sex buyers who would be less suspicious of a sting at the unusual location.

“If something doesn’t pan out, you feel like crap because you’ve spent time and money and nothing happened,” Umporowicz said. “That’s police work.”

As Umporowicz, Fitzgerald and a team of detectives gathered on the boat, a couple of other detectives were back in the vice unit’s offices, preparing to go live with online ads offering the sexual services of an undercover female officer aboard the yacht.

“It looks like something out of a ‘Scarface’ movie in here,” one detective commented, taking in the light wood interior of the 1980s-era vessel, with a large leather sofa, flat-screen TV, and liquor bottles lined up on the built-in credenza.

Over the next several hours, the squad made a handful of arrests, including a 34-year-old California man who was about to be married.

Meanwhile, the detectives back in the office were dealing with technical problems: Their ads kept getting removed from one site, and they struggled with a new payment system — using gift cards and bitcoins, a virtual currency — to post ads on backpage.com, since American Express, Visa and MasterCard no longer allow use of their credit cards on the site.

“It’s a nightmare, trying to figure out how to keep our ads up and running,” Umporowicz said. He explained that on backpage.com, in particular, “you have to pay to play,” spending more money to keep ads refreshed so they don’t get lost in the sheer volume of posts.

In the early evening, the undercover officer’s cellphone fell silent, so Umporowicz went online to scope the competition — and decided to shut down the sting operation hours earlier than he’d planned.

“We just noticed a stable of stunning blondes from Las Vegas are in town,” Umporowicz said. “They’re each charging $1,500 an hour. They’re dominating backpage right now.”

A couple of weeks later, the squad conducted another sting operation, this time in a seventh-floor condo of a contemporary brick-and-stucco building on Second Avenue.

Umporowicz and his team arrested 30 men who came to the condo over four days in February.

But Umporowicz estimated arrests are down 50 percent compared with hotel stings last year. That doesn’t mean demand has decreased, he said.

“A lot of hobbyists are going to regulars,” said Umporowicz, using a term for frequent sex buyers who are increasingly returning for sex with women they’ve already vetted. “They’re being more careful now, cagier.”

At Dancing Bare, Umporowicz sent in an undercover detective, who had the task of befriending the club’s owner and manager, brothers Jerry and Michael “Mickey” Woodhead, both in their 60s. Soon, the detective was working sporadic shifts as a sometime manager and DJ.

“The environment and vibe inside (the strip club) was desperate, dirty, sad and soulless,” the detective recently said in an email, though he declined to discuss details of his assignment.

In early March, word also leaked to the media that an off-duty Seattle police officer had been placed on paid administrative leave while police and the FBI investigated his alleged association with Dancing Bare. Umporowicz said he cannot discuss a separate investigation being conducted by a different unit.

The Woodhead brothers have been charged with second-degree promoting prostitution, accused of encouraging and coercing dancers into performing sex acts in the back lounge and taking a portion of their earnings, charging documents say.

The brothers each spent a night in jail before Jerry Woodhead posted $20,000 bail and Mickey Woodhead was released with conditions.

Jerry Woodhead, who according to public records also owns porn shops in Lakewood and Bremerton, declined an interview request.

Umporowicz said at least a couple of women at Dancing Bare didn’t even bother with the pretense of dancing and simply moved off Aurora and into the club to continue working as prostitutes.

Some of the Woodheads’ employees were also involved in narcotics dealing, Umporowicz said. King County prosecutors have filed three felony drug charges against a 31-year-old woman who is accused of selling the undercover detective $1,200 worth of heroin, charging papers say.

Though Dancing Bare shut down for the night, the business remains open.

“Our stuff is undercover and covert and it takes time to build a case, so people think nothing is being done,” Umporowicz said.

 

Related video: Tougher tactics stinging sex buyers

SPD’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit and the Des Moines Police Department run a hotel sting operation to arrest prospective sex buyers answering online ads. Read more. (Bettina Hansen and Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)    

But he said he feels a duty to the public to target those who benefit from prostitution as well as “dirty businesses” that help prostitution.

“We want to be compassionate to the people who are sucked into the life,” he said. “If you’re not enforcing it all, you’re just shoveling sand against the tide.”