Hoping to take advantage of a void in the market after shutting down a string of brothels, Bellevue police and the King County Sheriff’s Office opened their own brothel, setting up a sting in a condo. They wound up making more than 100 arrests.
Two major police operations over the past two years shut down nearly 20 residential brothels in Bellevue — the first involving prostituted women from South Korea, and the second targeting an organized-crime ring that trafficked Chinese nationals into the local sex trade.
Hoping to take advantage of at least a temporary void in the market, Bellevue police and the King County Sheriff’s Office opened their own brothel last weekend, setting up a sting in a condominium a couple of blocks north of Bellevue’s downtown.
Over the course of seven days, dozens of unsuspecting sex buyers answered online ads posted by undercover detectives, then exchanged often-explicit text messages describing the sex acts they expected to buy. They were arrested after showing up at the condo and agreeing to exchange money for sex.
One man offered an undercover officer additional cash for sex without a condom. Another demanded a discount because he had gotten lost on his way to the condo. The parents of a 22-year-old Bellevue man arrested in the sting called police to file a missing-persons report, only to learn their son had been booked into jail.
A large number of technology workers and a local sports-radio personality were among those arrested for investigation of patronizing a prostitute.
By the end of the operation on Friday, police had arrested 110 men and impounded 105 cars, two motorcycles and one bicycle, according to Bellevue police Capt. Marcia Harnden, who leads the department’s special operations group.
The operation was focused on catching men who contribute to the demand for prostitution and drive the highly lucrative sex trade.
Most Read Local Stories
- Coronavirus daily news updates, May 26: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state, and the nation
- How missed 'red flags' helped Nigerian fraud ring 'Scattered Canary' bilk Washington's unemployment system amid coronavirus chaos
- Coronavirus daily news updates, May 25: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the nation
- UW Medicine furloughs 4,000 more workers, citing coronavirus budget hit
- Household size could be contributing to King County's racial disparity in coronavirus cases
“The basic premise is, if there was no demand, we wouldn’t have this problem,” said Bellevue police detective Tor Kraft.
Bellevue doesn’t have a “track” where sex buyers troll for women strolling the sidewalks, as is seen along Seattle’s Aurora Avenue North or Pacific Highway South, which winds through several South King County cities.
Bellevue no longer has storefront brothels fronting as Asian massage parlors after police operations in 2011 and 2012 forced the illicit businesses out of the city, Kraft said.
Up until a few years ago, virtually all of Bellevue’s prostitution activity occurred in the city’s hotels and motels, which is where police have staged prostitution stings, Harnden said.
Then in early 2015, a resident of an upscale apartment building emailed Bellevue police, detailing her suspicions that the parade of men visiting her neighbor’s unit were coming there to buy sex.
That tip launched an eight-month investigation that focused on a group of men who called themselves “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” They operated a website where men posted sexually explicit reviews of their encounters with prostituted women, and created a second website to promote and encourage men to engage in prostitution with South Korean women.
Ultimately, 30 men and two female brothel operators were prosecuted for promoting prostitution, the websites were shut down and 12 residential brothels were closed, The Seattle Times reported earlier this year.
“As soon as the Korean group was taken down, you saw the rise of the Chinese organization,” Kraft said. The prostitution ring became the subject of a multiagency investigation that began with Seattle and Tukwila police but soon grew to include the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the King County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Bellevue, Redmond and Renton.
Prostitution tied to the crime ring occurred in several cities from Seattle to Olympia, as well as in Richland, Kennewick, Wenatchee and Spokane, according to the federal charges.
Of the 31 Chinese residential brothels shut by police statewide, seven were in Bellevue, said Kraft.
In May, federal prosecutors charged six people with conspiracy to use a communication facility to promote prostitution, a charge centered on the group’s reliance on computers and cellphones to facilitate the prostitution of women flown into the area to set up shop in condos, apartments and hotels, according to court records filed in U.S. District Court.
As the two large-scale police operations showed, local sex buyers have become accustomed to frequenting residential brothels where Asian women are being prostituted, Kraft said.
“The point of this operation is to fill the void, so we opened up our own Asian residential brothel … We’re trying to make it as seamless as possible, like we’re a new one popping up,” he said.
One of the men caught up in the sting was Mitch Levy, the sports-radio personality who hosts a morning show on KJR 950 AM, according to a Bellevue police report obtained through a public-disclosure request.
Levy, 50, was booked into jail Aug. 26 before posting $500 bail, and has since been charged with misdemeanor patronizing a prostitute, according to jail and court records.
Levy placed $160 in cash on a bedside table in anticipation of a half-hour of sex, the police report says. Levy told one of the arresting detectives he had played golf earlier in the day and claimed he had come by for a massage, the police report says.
But the report notes “there was no other reason for this suspect to come to the condo other than to purchase sex.”
Seattle Times sports writers had frequently appeared on KJR until the newspaper recently decided to end the practice beginning Sept. 5. The decision is not connected to Levy’s arrest.
Also arrested and charged was Lawrence Masaki, a 58-year-old technology worker from Shoreline who pleaded guilty to second-degree promoting prostitution after his arrest last year in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” bust.
After that plea, Masaki completed a 10-week class for sex buyers and exceeded the 240 hours of community service he was ordered to serve, court records show. He also was ordered to have no contact for five years with any website or business where prostitution services are advertised or offered.
Like others arrested during the Bellevue sting, Masaki didn’t appear contrite, said Harnden, the Bellevue police captain.
“Most of them are not remorseful. Most are worried about what they’re going to tell their wife or how they’re going to explain why their company vehicle got towed,” she said.
Most men also don’t seem to care about the life circumstances of the women whom they pay for sex, Kraft said.
“There’s always some trauma, some victimization, that brought these ladies to this room,” he said. “The men don’t care if they (the women) are beaten or pimped or sex-trafficked … You never know who is going to be behind that door.”