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Police gear up for seedy side of Games

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While state and federal agents fret about potential terrorism during the 2002 Winter Games, local police agencies are preparing for a separate underlying current of Olympic crime.

Already, local law enforcement agents have witnessed an influx of circuit girls ? women who travel to major events, such as large conventions or sporting events such as the Super Bowl, for the purpose of soliciting prostitution ? and their pimps looking to fleece the Olympic crowds.

"We're sure (prostitutes) are coming to town. They're looking to (the Olympics) as a cash cow," said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Darren Carr.

As for drugs, one undercover detective said the street value of trendy club hallucinogens like ecstasy could increase five-fold during the Games.

It's all part of what may become the Games' seedy underbelly co-existing with the Olympics' cleaner, more visible surface next month.

Salt Lake City vice cops say circuit girls, who usually work out of cars or hotels, have been in the city "testing the waters."

Celia Ferguson, who was tossed in the Salt Lake County Jail earlier this month for solicitation, has witnessed the circuit-girl influx.

"There's quite a few here," she said from jail. "There's been more lately. Probably about a 30 percent increase."

Some circuit girls ride in cars on busy drags like State Street, giving hand signals ? like baseball managers ? to prospective clients, Ferguson said.

Additionally, the girls work out of hotels, usually accompanied by pimps.

To fight this influx, Salt Lake cops have been cracking down.

"They're trying to get all the prostitutes off the streets during the Olympics," said Christine Christensen, who spoke from jail. She's worked as a prostitute for five years. "They're arresting them now to avoid them being out during the Olympics."

Pimps are being targeted as well.

For the first eight months of last year, Salt Lake police arrested six pimps for investigation of exploitation of prostitution. During the month of September arrests doubled. Investigators learned those pimps were in Salt Lake City specifically to scope out the area before the Olympics, said Sgt. Bryan Bailey.

But increased arrests haven't deterred other pimps and prostitutes from entering the city.

"We're spending a lot of time on active investigations," Bailey said.

Most of the pimps arrested in September came to Utah via Las Vegas, Bailey said. Salt Lake police are gathering intelligence from vice cops in Portland, Seattle and Denver, other cities in the circuit, he said.

Pimps who are arrested will be charged with a second-degree felony, Bailey said. If detectives discover underage girls are working for the pimps or if a woman is being coerced by violence into prostitution, then federal charges may be added.

"If you come here to exploit prostitution, you may end up in our prison for a number of years. You're not going to be able to get to the next town," said Sgt. Dwayne Baird.

Pimps will not just be serving time but their pocket books will be hit as well, Bailey said. Already money and cars have been seized in recent arrests.

Six years ago prostitution was a significant problem in Salt Lake City before police aggressively patrolled it. Bailey said that same aggressive attitude used in 1996 will be employed against Olympic exploiters.

But because word has already gotten out that Salt Lake City is aggressively cracking down on prostitution, many pimps are setting up shop in hotels in outlying jurisdictions, he said.

"Some towns that have never had prostitution problems are seeing it now," Bailey said, adding that Salt Lake police have been asked by other jurisdictions for help.

Another sign that many prostitutes are in town for the Olympics is the increased number of escort service advertisements in newspaper classified sections. Both Salt Lake police and county deputy sheriffs say there has been a noticeable increase.

Christensen agrees that escort services will be big Olympic profiteers.

"There's a lot more (prostitution) going through escort services than there is going on the street," she said.

By Utah law, escorts from licensed businesses aren't allowed to solicit sex. They are permitted to strip but, according to state law, the customer must stay 5 feet away. Still, police and those in the business say more than that, including prostitution, often goes on behind closed doors.

But as police and streetwalkers point toward escort services as the Olympic cash cow, those in the industry aren't so sure. "I have absolutely no idea what business is going to be like during the Olympics," said one escort service owner who asked to remain anonymous.

There are concerns among escort services that their women might be denied entry to upscale hotels for security reasons and that normal business clientele might avoid Salt Lake City during the Games, thus depleting the normal customer base.

Beyond prostitution, drug sales may also become part of the underbelly.

One narcotics officer told the Deseret News that, because of demand, ecstasy dealers are reportedly planning to sell pills that normally cost $20 on the street for $100.

The increase in demand also means investigators will be looking for increases in supply.

"Drug dealers run like any other free enterprise," Carr said. "They're attempting to stock up."

E-MAIL: preavy@desnews.com ; bsnyder@desnews.com