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In a trio of musty-smelling motel rooms on Pacific Highway South, a group of cops made four arrests in quick succession — two businessmen in button-down shirts, a college student who swung by after class and a man in his 50s who paid double to “party longer” with a woman he thought was a prostitute.

Then a lull: For nearly an hour and a half, the cellphones of two undercover Seattle officers, in body-hugging clothing and heavy makeup, went silent.

Finally, one of the officers, wearing five-inch heels and a cleavage-revealing shirt-and-skirt combo, stepped into the bathroom to take a call. “Someone’s here,” she called out to her fellow officers a few minutes later.

A 40-year-old Auburn man walked into her shabby motel room and handed over $80. He then shrugged out of his jacket, skinned off his T-shirt and popped open his pants. Moments later, he was in handcuffs.

The man, a level 3 sex offender who had served prison time for attacking two prostitutes, would end up being their biggest catch of the night.

Last month, the group of Seattle cops — a couple of sergeants, a handful of detectives and the two undercover officers, or UCs — headed south to teach seven Des Moines officers how to run a “hotel op,” an Internet sting designed to catch men who buy sex. Nine men were arrested that night.

Since June, Seattle police and six other King County law-enforcement agencies have been conducting similar stings as part of a program Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is to publicly announce on Wednesday morning. The grant-funded, national program called “The CEASE Network” is aimed at holding men accountable for fueling the demand side of the sex trade — and at deterring them by increasing their risk of getting caught.

CEASE, an acronym for Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation, got its official start in Boston, Denver and Seattle earlier this year, with seven more cities — including Portland, Chicago and Phoenix — set to launch their own initiatives later this month.

Increased stings — the bulk of them online — are part of the effort, known locally as the “Buyer Beware” program, which has an overall goal of decreasing local demand for prostitution by 20 percent in two years.

Another aspect of the effort includes using online ads that pop up when certain keywords for paid sex are entered into search engines, linking to information about prostitution-related penalties and about services for men who need help to stop buying sex.

“The Internet has caused an explosion” in sex buying, said Lina Nealon, the founding director of the Massachusetts-based Demand Abolition, which is providing the $80,000 in funding each year of the two-year initiative in King County.

“The Internet has really made it risk-free to buyers … It’s created a market that wasn’t there before, men who wouldn’t go on the street to encounter someone who was prostituting,” Satterberg said. “They’re comfortable on the computer, and with a couple clicks of a mouse, they can order someone up for sex.”

105 arrests in 3 months

The recent road trip to Des Moines by members of the Seattle Police Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit is part of that larger effort to punish men responsible for financing a seedy system that exploits women and girls already on society’s fringes.

The Seattle Times agreed not to identify any of the SPD detectives, who all work undercover, or publish information on police tactics that could help sex buyers avoid arrest.

Historically, women and girls involved in prostitution were arrested up to 10 times more often than sex buyers, and were three to four times more likely to face prosecution, said Val Richey, the King County senior deputy prosecutor who handles most of the office’s prostitution-related felony cases.

But with an estimated 3.5 percent of Seattle’s adult male population soliciting sex online — 8,806 of them on a single website in a recent 24-hour period alone, according to researchers from Arizona State University — most sex buyers never get caught, Richey said. If they are arrested, he said, it’s usually after they’ve already purchased sex, sometimes dozens or hundreds of times.

With the number of men looking to buy sex so much greater than the number of women selling sex, police and prosecutors, in concert with city attorneys across the county, are already working to flip arrest and prosecution numbers around:

Over three months this summer, for instance, seven police agencies arrested 80 men for patronizing an adult prostitute — a number that equals 75 percent of the men arrested for the same crime in 25 cities across the county in all of 2013, Richey said. An additional 25 men were busted this summer for trying to buy sex with juveniles, he said.

But more than coming down hard on sex buyers, Richey said, police, King County prosecutors, city attorneys and local social-service providers are working together to create “an atmosphere of risk” for prospective johns while doing all they can to get girls and women who are involved in prostitution out of a dark, dangerous life.

Attacking ambivalence

On a recent Thursday night, SPD’s vice unit organized a double sting operation on Aurora Avenue North: Three men were arrested for patronizing a prostitute after soliciting sex with undercover officers, and a suspected pimp was arrested after trying to convince one of the UCs to work for him. Meanwhile, a team of male detectives picked up 12 women and one 16-year-old girl who were working as prostitutes.

The men were all booked into jail, but the women were driven downtown to meet with social-service providers. Three accepted the help being offered and checked into rehab that night, said Seattle police Sgt. Tom Umporowicz, known as “Umpy” to his squad of detectives.

“People think (sex buyers) are just some poor schmoes looking for sex. A lot of people forget how much risk these girls endure — and they do get robbed and raped and beaten on a regular basis,” Umporowicz said.

Perhaps most ambitiously, the local “Buyer Beware” program is also aimed at attacking the ambivalence many people feel about prostitution and the harms caused by the sex trade.

“This is not a crime because it involves sex. It’s a crime because it involves the exploitation of vulnerable victims,” Satterberg said.

As part of the effort to get men to understand that, those convicted in cities across King County of patronizing an adult prostitute will be required to complete a 10-week course similar to a batterers’ intervention program for domestic-violence offenders.

“It’s a deep dive into what they’re doing out there, the impact on their lives and where it came from,” said Peter Qualliotine of the course. He is the co-founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), a Seattle nonprofit that helps connect prostituted women with social services.

“A living hell”

The new, 10-week course — which will include two in-depth interviews and weekly group counseling sessions — will cost offenders $900, with the first men expected to begin the countywide program by the end of the month.

Men who are charged with attempted commercial sex abuse of a minor after going online to arrange sex with underage girls face far tougher penalties and more time behind bars than men who patronize adult prostitutes.

“There are no happy hookers,” said a veteran Seattle detective who has spent more than half of his 45-year career working prostitution cases.

During hotel ops, he is responsible for creating and posting the Internet ads, which promise to make male fantasies come true.

“There are more victims in this crime than any other I’ve investigated … Their lives are a living hell,” the detective said. “The johns abuse them, the pimps victimize them, the drug dealers victimize them, and the normal people look down on them. They’re the true victims of what people call a victimless crime.”

Men who pay for sex all have one thing in common, said another detective. “All of these guys who participate in this look at a woman as a commodity. And if I pay you, you have to do exactly what I say.”

New tactics needed

The Seattle detectives have already done training sessions with a number of police agencies in the county, and have made trips to Eastern Washington to either train officers or arrest perps there. In addition, the King County Sheriff’s Office is collaborating with Renton and SeaTac cops to conduct similar online stings, according to Richey.

“Pacific Highway historically has been an area that’s always had prostitution, but with the Internet … it’s a necessity to change up our tactics to match what’s going on out on the highway,” said Des Moines police Detective Sgt. Dave Mohr, who contacted Umporowicz for help to set up the hotel op.

“This is something new to us and we’re fortunate to have a partner like Seattle to make sure things go perfectly,” Mohr said.

Some of the men who responded to the police-posted online ads during the recent sting in Des Moines were trying to elicit free phone sex. Others set up “dates,” then either got spooked or lost their nerve.

Nine men were arrested for patronizing a prostitute, a misdemeanor charge. One of them was a 39-year-old who was released from prison last year after serving time for robbery and is considered a high risk to commit another violent offense by the state Department of Corrections.

Also arrested was the level 3 sex offender from Auburn: Samuel Rutherford III. He was convicted almost 20 years ago of raping a prostitute, trying to rape another and bashing both women over the head — one with a tire iron, the other with a flashlight, according to court records.

He spent a decade in prison and was considered for civil commitment as a sexually violent predator, but the state dismissed its petition in exchange for his guilty plea in a 2008 prostitution case, court records show.

“Level 3’s are always the most likely to reoffend, and if we can get a guy like that off the street …,” said another detective, his voice trailing. “Man, there are so many girls who don’t know how lucky they are.”

Seattle Times news researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk contributed to this story. Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or