THE ESCORT TRADE : Date-for-Hire Services Used as Cover by Thriving Call-Girl Rings, Police Say
At his Buena Park home--his silver-gray limousine, red Cadillac convertible and gold Corvette parked outside--Alfonso Lopez baby-sat his telephones.
They were the lifelines to his businesses, Adams Discount Limo Service, A & A Carpet Cleaning and Adams Answering Service. But police say the firms existed in name only to mask Lopez’s true enterprise--prostitution.
Police and prosecutors allege that until his arrest last year, Lopez, 43, was one of the kings of Southern California’s illicit escort services, the man behind names like “Exotic,” “Chi Chi,” “She,” and “Adam & Eve” escorts, as well as five different Yellow Page ads with telephone numbers that ultimately led back to him. The calls came from men looking for $150-an-hour dates.
Law enforcement officials say that Lopez’s operation--with more than 50 women bringing in hundreds of thousands of tax-free dollars a year--was among dozens of such illicit escort services currently flourishing from San Diego to San Francisco. The combination of a moneyed clientele and spotty attempts by police to catch illicit operators, authorities say, has enabled this multimillion-dollar call-girl industry to thrive statewide.
Escort services depict themselves as legitimate businesses licensed to provide a dating service for men who want a dinner or evening companion. But while police and prosecutors stop short of alleging that every escort service is a front for prostitution, many law enforcers say they can’t recall ever encountering an escort business that was a legitimate dating service.
Escort service owners interviewed by The Times said they cannot know or be responsible if sex is the end result of the arrangement.
Alfonso Lopez, for example, who with his girlfriend, Wendy Haskin, is scheduled to go to trial in April in Orange County Superior Court on 41 counts of pimping and pandering, said outside a courtroom recently: “I just have an answering service. What they (women) do after is their problem. I have no authority over what goes on.” Allan H. Stokke, a Santa Ana attorney who has represented several escort owners during the last 15 years, argues that police and prosecutors often fall short of proving their case against escort operators, despite the convictions they may win.
“I think that what they (police) should be able to show is that the operator was participating in some way in setting up the sexual activity, and that he’s sharing in the dollars,” Stokke said.
“Some operators have issued strict instructions to the women not to participate in sexual activity,” he said. “Males and females being what they are, many of them still do it. And then somehow or other the police feel that they can still prosecute in that situation.
“Whether the owners actually know what went on, or whether they can only be expected to assume what went on is really the issue.”
Ruse for Call-Girl Rings
Still, others who have worked in the business say escort services usually serve as a ruse for call-girl rings.
“If they were just a dating service they’d say that,” said Sydney Biddle Barrows, the celebrated escort-service owner, best-selling author and descendant of the Pilgrims who was dubbed the Mayflower Madam at the time of her 1984 arrest in New York.
“Any man that thinks he is not going to get a piece of action when he is paying $150 an hour or more should have his head examined,” Barrow, 35, said in a telephone interview.
Recent court cases in Orange County and interviews with admitted former prostitutes and madams in the county provide an insight into the shadowy world of the illicit escort business.
One former prostitute who did some of the hiring at the now defunct Cover Girl Escorts in Santa Ana told The Times that sex for money was never talked about, particularly over the telephone, in case the unschooled customer or prospective escort turned out to be an undercover police officer. Part of the “game,” she said, included having women sign a contract promising not to commit acts of prostitution while they worked, and advising them that if they did anything illegal they would lose their jobs.
Knew What Was Going On
“They would giggle,” said Ellen Marquardson, who averaged $5,000 a month as a prostitute for Cover Girl, which was shut down by police in 1982 as a prostitution ring.
“Everybody knew what was going on. We just didn’t discuss it. There was an unspoken code,” said Marquardson, who now lives in Seattle.
Two months after Anaheim and Newport Beach police arrested Great Company Escorts owner Richard Blay (Roman) Eshun in October, 1985, several prostitutes told how they came to work for his escort service.
Sandra Jones testified at Eshun’s pretrial hearing in Orange County Superior Court that she first met the 36-year-old Pasadena native in February, 1985, after she answered an ad in a local newspaper for “young, attractive females wanting to work for an escort service.”
Agreed to Meet
Jones said that the two agreed to meet at his office the next night. Eshun, she said, instructed her to go to a restaurant in Tustin, and to call him again from the pay phone for further directions. Jones added that Eshun “wanted to make sure that I understand that it was a dating-type service that I was going to be working for. I expressed that I understood what he was referring to.”
She pulled up to a business complex, Jones testified, and sat in her car until Eshun appeared at the top of the stairs and let her in.
Jones, who was granted immunity from prosecution on prostitution charges by the district attorney’s office in exchange for her testimony, said that Eshun explained that her cut of the $150-an-hour fee would be $70 and told her what kind of clothes she should wear on a call. “He then asked me to stand up and walk over to him to see how my figure was. . . . We proceeded to have sexual intercourse on the carpeted floor,” she recalled.
When questioned by Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth O. Chinn, Jones testified that prior to engaging in sex with Eshun, he told her, “Something along the lines of: ‘Well, let’s see how you are. I’ve got to know what I’m offering, you know, before I can put my name on the
Didn’t Use Own Name
She added that Eshun instructed her not to discuss any type of sexual acts over the phone, in case it might be a police officer, and told her not use her own name on the job. Later that night, Jones, who worked under the name “Cassandra,” went out on her first call, which she said included sex.
Jones testified that she talked to Eshun about her clients on several occasions, especially when the encounters were out of the ordinary.
“There was a gentlemen who liked to wear panty hose and leotards and high heels at an office building off Newport Boulevard that I discussed with (Eshun). . . . I told him I was shocked. . . . He thought it was great that I should experience something so bizarre.”
Jones added that Eshun wanted the women to at least call him if anything unusual was requested, “as in whippings, tyings up, or things like this,” because there would be an additional charge.
Jones said she continued to work for Eshun until June, averaging three to four calls a night, and that she had sex with 95% of the clients she saw.
Another prostitute who worked for Great Company Escorts--and who also was granted immunity in return for her testimony--said during the preliminary hearing that Eshun had given her advice on how to get repeat clients. Susan Cuthbertson told the court that when she asked Eshun why other girls were getting more customers than she was, he suggested she could be “more nasty,” offering her clients less orthodox forms of sexual pleasure. Cuthbertson, adding that she didn’t remember filling out any employment papers during her interview, said she, too, had sex with Eshun during their initial meeting.
Services Sell Fantasy
Eshun, who was convicted of eight counts of felony pimping and pandering last month, bristled at the accusations against him and argued that escort services sell a fantasy and provide men with companionship only.
“There is no one girl that I ever in anyway asked to do anything illegal,” Eshun told The Times during an interview before his trial. “I suspected on occasion that they did (have sex). It is also true I don’t go up to every customer and ask them if they are going to date her. I don’t attempt to destroy their illusion.”
Police are skeptical.
“The pimp or the person running the service is always trying to sit back and say, ‘I didn’t know what they were doing. It was an escort service as far as I was concerned. They’re going out to dinner or to a movie or someplace like that,’ ” said Anaheim Police Detective Ed Konieczny. “And I say, I never knew of anybody who goes to a motel, has dinner and goes to a movie, and is back in less than an hour.”
Law enforcers say they are hard-pressed to control this clandestine industry mainly because illicit escort service operators cleverly distance themselves from the actual crime. Many owners use intermediaries to try out and hire the prostitutes, arrange to have payments dropped off at post office boxes and use the telephone company’s sophisticated call-forwarding service to insulate themselves from the day-to-day business, all of which makes it difficult to link the owner to the exchange of sex for money in hotel rooms miles away.
The Orange County district attorney’s office, for example, alleges that while Lopez obtained telephone service for his four escort services listing a small commercial business complex in Santa Ana as the address, customers’ calls in fact were forwarded electronically to either his Buena Park home or the homes of two of his associates. When an Anaheim detective executed a search warrant of the Santa Ana business complex, all he found was “a large switchboard operation.”
“You are going to be calling a number in a city somewhere, but its either an answering service or call forwarding,” explained Lt. Tim Simon of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “You never know where you are actually calling.”
Police say escort services range from small operations with only one or two women working for them to large ones run like corporations.
One large-scale escort service was owned by Joseph Alan Harvey, who oversaw one of Orange County’s most profitable services until he was arrested in 1982 and later convicted of pimping.
Documents filed in Orange County Superior Court show that Harvey employed as many as 184 escorts, six female telephone operators and a business manager between February, 1980, and July, 1981, deriving an annual income estimated at $1.5 million.
At the time of his arrest, Santa Ana police seized computer discs, more than a thousand cards with customers’ names and addresses, and even an employee handbook for the women. Police said that Harvey, who holds a degree from Iowa State University in aerospace engineering, operated his prostitution empire out of three offices and his Irvine home.
“I never met a more organized businessman in my life,” said Rebecca Erdman, who said she worked for Harvey in 1980 and 1981, first dispatching prostitutes to their calls and then as the madam, assigned to hire and help manage the business.
“We had girls assigned to shifts, just like a regular business. During those hours you had to be home or on a beeper.”
Erdman, now a sophomore at Cornell University, said that when a man called asking for an escort, the computer would spit back whether the man was a repeat customer, if he was approved for checks, if he was violent or whether the caller was a known prankster or a vice officer.
“A lot of kids would call and not answer their doors just to see what a hooker looked like,” Erdman, 27, said.
When a woman was dispatched to a call, she explained, “We would plug into the computer that Bambi was going to see Joe Smith at 2 p.m. If she didn’t get there by 2:15 she would be fined. Joe wanted to run this like a ship. Everything on schedule.
“She would call us when she arrived. On the screen there would be all the information, what time she got there, what time she left, how long she stayed. At the end of the day the computer would pump out bills and statements for the girls with how much they earned and the number of clients they saw.
“People in Orange County should realize this goes on next door to you. This is your husband or your daughter.”
Typically, escort service customers can pay with cash, credit card or check. A one-hour call usually costs $150, with the escort getting $100 and the service $50.
In order to confuse police--and spouses--the name of the business that appears on the customer’s credit card slip is rarely the name of the escort service, Erdman explained. Harvey used the name Custom Design.
“The bank had no idea what this was,” Erdman said. “The only reason we would use that was in case the wife gets it, she wasn’t going to have a fit.”
In addition to the computer, Harvey, 41, kept meticulous card files.
A box of more than 1,000 alphabetized index cards which prosecutors presented as evidence in Harvey’s trial noted every man’s name, phone number, place of employment, and the times, dates and places he saw an escort.
Another box contained names of women who called looking for work, with notes scribbled across the card such as “too heavy,” “too old,” or “sounded a little afraid of going to men’s houses.”
The employee handbook included company rules and “tips to be tops,” such as:
- “Dress as if you were going to be on TV. This is what our clients expect. Old blue jeans don’t get it.”
- “Do not let (handbags) out of your sight--you may be ripped off but you are still responsible for your service fees.”
- “Always carry at least one roll--$5.00 in dimes--at all times. If you have a home number, keep your bill paid.
- “After each and every call, separate the service fee from your own money as it is very important to have your fees turned in on time.”
- “One day (off) a month will be the limit without a doctor’s excuse.”
Escort services began to appear in California during the late 1970s, under names such as The Body Shop No. 1 and 2, Land of Ladies and Holiday Girl. Today, one can find escort services listed in Yellow Pages in virtually any California city, from Palm Springs to Burbank--with such names as Coconut Moons, Executive Suite, Personal Touch and Nikita, You Will Never Know Escort Service.
When a reporter recently telephoned 17 escort services listed in a local newspaper, requests for an interview were denied. None of the people answering the calls was willing to say where the service was located or who the owners were.
A man who answered the telephone at one escort service in Orange County told a reporter, “Hon, no one’s gonna talk to you.”
No ‘Typical’ Operator
Law enforcement officials say the operators are as diverse as the clients who use them.
“I couldn’t give you a profile of a typical escort operator,” said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace Wade, who prosecuted the county’s illicit escort services operators from 1981 to 1985. “I’ve seen ex-cons in prison for murder, a woman who operated a day-care center and needed extra money, and a 65-year-old retired woman who during her heyday traveled all over the world. You never know who you’ll run across.”
With most vice detectives devoting more of their attention to cracking down on the more visible crime of street prostitution, police and prosecutors acknowledge that the probability of illicit escort operators being caught breaking the law is low.
Furthermore, to win a conviction, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the escort owner knew the women were engaging in sex for money and financially profited from their sexual activities. This is not always easy, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Chinn.
Pattern of Prostitution
To make a case against an escort service, police must make several arrests to show a pattern of prostitution. To do this, undercover officers typically rent a room in a hotel and arm themselves with a fake out-of-town driver’s license, business card and airplane ticket in order to allay suspicion. When the escort arrives, the officer first pays her. She then calls the service to say she has the money in hand, that she is safe and will call again when she’s leaving. According to police, once the escort makes a sexual overture, the undercover officer signals his colleagues who are waiting in the next room or nearby to come in and make the arrest.
Because this type of prostitution takes place all over the county and the surveillance is time-consuming, cooperation from other police departments is necessary.
In Lopez’s case, the initial tip came from Riverside police, according to court documents. By the time of his April arrest by Anaheim police, however, the Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Newport Beach police departments had assisted in the investigation, as did the Sheriff’s departments in Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.
Equally frustrating to law enforcers is that Lopez allegedly continued to operate while he was out on bail. Anaheim detectives re-arrested him in August for allegedly committing the same pimping and pandering crimes for which he was awaiting trial. Meanwhile, callers who recently dialed the numbers for “Exotic” “Chi-Chi” and “Adam & Eve” escort services were told escorts were available.
Chinn, who last month successfully prosecuted Eshun and who will attempt in the months ahead to prove his case against Lopez and others, concedes that he faces tough odds. Just keeping track of key witnesses is difficult, he said.
“Prostitutes usually move a lot and on occasion are not the most reliable witnesses,” Chinn said.
Asked whether the successful prosecution of several pending cases will make a dent in the Orange County escort business, Detective Konieczny, like his counterparts around the state, observed with resignation, “You shut one down, five more open up.”
Added Chinn: “All that’s needed is an ad in the paper, a telephone with call forwarding, a pencil and paper and you’re in business.”