Tyler Williams testified in a Seattle courtroom last month that he was sad and lonely when he posted an online ad seeking sex with “a hot teen.”
He said he suspected he was trading emails with a cop, but he still showed up at a South Seattle fast-food restaurant in August 2013 with condoms and $100 to pay for sex with someone he thought was a 15-year-old girl. Turns out he was right.
But he told jurors he was just “playing along” and had planned to turn himself in to police.
“Who brings a wad of cash to a surrender?” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Val Richey asked during Williams’ trial in King County Superior Court. “Trying to pick up a kid for sex is a crime and in this case, it’s as simple as it seems.”
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It took the jury 30 minutes to return a guilty verdict against the 27-year-old Iraq war veteran for attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor, a felony charge increasingly used by King County prosecutors to go after men who seek out juveniles for sex.
“This crime ain’t going away. In fact, it’s going to do nothing but get worse,” said a detective with the Seattle Police Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit.
The detective, his sergeant and other cops assigned to the unit were at a news conference Wednesday at Seattle City Hall as Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and other officials announced the local “Buyer Beware” program that aims to reduce local demand for prostitution by 20 percent in two years.
In announcing the county’s participation in a national program aimed at attacking the demand side of prostitution, Satterberg said law-enforcement and social-service agencies are working together to “bury the notion, once and for all, that prostitution is a victimless crime.”
Educating the public is a big step toward attacking men’s sense of sexual entitlement and the public’s indifference to a harmful, violent crime, he said.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart, Deputy Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and Des Moines Police Chief George Delgado also attended the news conference announcing the local “Buyer Beware” program, along with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, City Councilmember Tim Burgess and other local officials.
While police and prosecutors are still going after violent pimps who profit from prostitution, sex buyers represent “a much larger group that faced virtually no risk” in being caught, Satterberg said. “We’ve just increased the risk.”
Noel Gomez, a sex-trafficking survivor and co-founder of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), recalled being arrested while the cop who pulled her over joked with the man who had paid her for sex.
“He handcuffed me and me only. Then he went through my purse and took out my money,” returning the money she was paid to the customer, who was sent on his way, said Gomez, who was first pimped out as a juvenile. “Nobody cared that when I went home, I’d be beat by my pimp because I had no money” and then sent back out on the street to make some more.
Gomez called for additional services to help women and girls reintegrate into society — services that weren’t available to her when she was trying to get out of the life.
While police throughout King County have arrested pimps for sexually exploiting minors — with many of them later sentenced to 15, 25 or 35 years in prison — it’s a lot harder to catch buyers in the act of paying juveniles for sex, Seattle police Sgt. Tom Umporowicz said in an interview.
That’s why his detective poses online as a juvenile prostitute and also responds to ads posted by men looking to have sex with girls — like the one posted last year by Williams.
For some of the men, trading emails and photos with someone they think is a juvenile is enough of a thrill — so the detective focuses most of his attention on the handful of men who commit to meeting up with someone they think is a minor.
A North Seattle man emailed the detective for more than two weeks before arranging to meet in Belltown on a Wednesday afternoon last month. He said in his emails that he’d be riding a motorcycle.
The vice detectives staged themselves around the meet location, keeping eyes on a young-looking female officer in jeans, a pink sweatshirt and flip-flops who was used as a decoy to flush their suspect out.
When a man on a motorcycle called out to the decoy officer, a detective got on his police radio and signaled an arrest team to move in: “Take him! Black motorcycle, black helmet. Go, go, go,” he said.
Later, after 34-year-old Brian Peters was taken into custody, the detective commented: “He was really dodgy. He did his homework on how not to get caught … he thought he’d covered all his bases.”
Peters, who has since been charged with attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor (CSAM), was taken to the vice unit’s offices, where the detective said Peters gave a video-recorded statement in which he admitted to paying for sex before and said he planned to take the girl back to his place.
Peters, whose motorcycle was impounded, even brought along an extra helmet for her to wear.
According to Richey, the senior deputy prosecutor who handles most of his office’s prostitution-related felony cases, 77 men have been charged with CSAM or attempted CSAM since early 2013. Of those, 34 have been charged since the beginning of this year.
Most of the men have taken Richey up on his standard plea deal, which first requires them to submit to — and pay for — a sexual-deviancy evaluation and polygraph.
So long as the evaluation shows a man hasn’t had “hands-on contact with a minor,” he is allowed to plead guilty to felony communicating with a minor for immoral purposes and second-degree promoting prostitution, said Richey.
As part of the plea deal, he must also agree to spend eight months in custody, pay a $5,000 fine, register as a sex offender for 10 years, complete sex-offender treatment, and, beginning next month, attend a 10-week, sex-buyer intervention program, Richey said.
Only a handful, like Williams, have decided to take their chances at trial — and juries have found each of them guilty.
Those convicted by juries are also required to pay fines and register as sex offenders, but they face a standard sentence of 15 to 20 months in prison.
Williams is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
During a brief hearing earlier this month, defense attorney Sam Wolfe indicated he will be asking Judge William Downing for an exceptional sentence below the standard range.
Downing said he was a little surprised by the sentence “a first-time offender like Mr. Williams” faced and questioned if it was possible for him to avoid prison time.
“Of course, we don’t have a victim at all in this case … It’s a fictitious child with a Seattle police officer sitting at the keyboard, playing that role,” the judge said.
Richey later said he plans to object to any departure from the standard sentence.
“We don’t believe he is any less culpable because a police detective showed up to meet Mr. Williams instead of a 15-year-old child,” he said. “It is very tempting to look at the problem of demand on a case-by-case basis and say, ‘Oh, this guy doesn’t seem so bad or that guy doesn’t seem so bad; he just made a mistake.’
“But the problem is that there isn’t just one guy here or there who does this — there are literally thousands. The systemic exploitation of women and children is built on the sum of all those individual decisions by men to go out and buy sex,” Richey said. “The demand creates the exploitation.”
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654