El Cajon Blvd. Neighborhood War on Hookers Is Paying Off

Times Staff Writer

The law-abiding citizens of the Mid-City area remember watching the hookers strut in front of the bedroom display at Lloyd’s House of Fine Furniture. Or how they would hustle people walking into Goodbody’s Chapel mortuary, down the street on El Cajon Boulevard.

Then there were the days on Esther Street when the prostitutes would jump into passing cars. In their wake, Marty Fowler remembers leaving her tidy 1940s bungalow in the morning to find 15 to 20 used prophylactics on the curb and sidewalks.

“You have to understand that (it) is very upsetting to see your neighborhood being taken over,” said Fowler, an ebullient woman who helps run her husband’s pool-cleaning business from home.


“Our children on this street would be dropped off on the corner from a school bus at the very same time that a prostitute would be let out on that same street corner by a john,” she said.

Now the boulevard is quiet. The battle zone is calm.

Marty Fowler and her comrades have prevailed, rallying to repulse the latest invasion of prostitutes along El Cajon Boulevard. A police sweep last week has moved the working girls elsewhere, but there is no rest for riled residents.

The community is meeting and planning. Residents turned out 400 strong--and angry--to confront public officials Feb. 23 in a town hall meeting about prostitution and related crimes.

Businessmen on El Cajon Boulevard, from Park Boulevard to Fairmount Avenue, are forming “watch groups,” with one store or shop owner per block responsible for encouraging fellow merchants to call the police when they see prostitutes. There is even talk of taking out newspaper ads to publicize the names of men arrested for soliciting prostitutes.

In addition, there is a growing movement to apply political pressure on city and county officials to ante up for more jail space so hookers who are arrested are incarcerated, and not sent back to the streets.

Led in part by Brian Bennett, principal of Blessed Sacrament School, this movement spawned a street demonstration against prostitution on March 1, and prompted Bennett to appear recently before a City Council committee to advocate the additional jail space.


Now Bennett and Fowler have been named to an anti-prostitution task force, an informal group that meets in living rooms to sip coffee, eat Danish and plot political strategy.

“Aren’t you afraid that when the Super Bowl comes in January that it will be so unreal ?” Dianna Martinez, Fowler’s neighbor across the street, said at the group’s meeting Wednesday. “I mean, the hookers will just inundate this city.”

People like Bennett and Fowler talk in terms of recapturing what is rightfully theirs, and they have taken matters into their own hands to shut down the prostitution trade by making the boulevard a crummy place for hookers to do business.

El Cajon Boulevard is an eclectic, sometimes funky row of convenience stores, restaurants, used-car lots, card rooms, fast-food joints, flower stands, motels, bars, strip shopping centers, food stores and small businesses. It stretches from Park Boulevard all the way east to the city limits and beyond.

Driven from downtown by redevelopment, streetwalkers have found refuge on this thoroughfare that runs through Mid-City neighborhoods like North Park, Normal Heights, Kensington and East San Diego, police, residents and merchants say.

For the provocatively dressed prostitute, the boulevard offers an advertising bonanza: Four lanes of heavy, slow-moving traffic.


The card rooms and automated teller machines guarantee there will be customers with cash, and the cheap motels and dozens of side streets and parking lots are used to transact business.

The street is also just a few minutes from Interstates 8 and 805, allowing potential customers and the pimps easy access.

“I’ve had hookers jump into cars with my customers, scaring the Dickens out of them,” said one merchant, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. “In one case, a cabdriver had to come around and drag the girl out of his cab. The customer was 80-some years old, blind in one eye, crippled, could hardly walk, and he was scared to death.”

As if the aggressiveness wasn’t enough, residents said there are other dangers. Police and community members say that the prostitutes brought in other crimes--drugs, thefts, assaults, rape.

Then there were the three bodies of slain prostitutes found in alleys and dumpsters during the last year and a half.

“These pimps, they’re tough little babies,” said Hamilton Alford, who runs a skin care clinic on the boulevard. “A lot of the merchants are now carrying concealed weapons, anything from .38s to .22s. . . . If they (pimps) catch somebody trying to break up their deal, like taking license numbers, they can be brutal.”


City Hall tried to cope. In 1983 and 1984, police conducted a thorough sweep of El Cajon Boulevard and Councilwoman Gloria McColl, whose district includes much of El Cajon Boulevard, appointed an anti-prostitution task force to study the problem.

The effort was temporarily successful. An aide to McColl said police statistics showed that violent crimes along El Cajon Boulevard decreased 83% when the prostitutes were kept away.

But the apparent victory lulled the community into a false sense of security, some say. The task force disbanded. The added contingent of police was needed elsewhere, and the publicity from the raid, rather than serving as a deterrent, helped make the boulevard more infamous.

“There’s more of an attitude that there is prostitution on El Cajon Boulevard,” said John Hartley, a Mid-City real estate agent and member of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Assn.

When the prostitutes returned, the problem was compounded by the overcrowded county jails.

Pressed for space, the Sheriff’s Department decided to incarcerate only felons, forcing deputies to book and release people charged with misdemeanors such as prostitution. That revolving-door policy, police say, means that a hooker can often be back on the street faster than the arresting police officer, who must file paper work.

“Can you see the picture?” said Fowler, who lives half a block north of El Cajon on Esther Street.


“To never, ever leave your home for months and months without seeing a prostitute, that’s amazing,” she said. “That’s upsetting. It’s like being in prison. The guard is always at the corner.”

About six months ago, Fowler, 35, decided to take the problem into her own hands. Angered because the streetwalkers and their customers were driving by and having sex in front of her house, Fowler drove to the corner one day and told two prostitutes to get lost.

One of them started pounding on Fowler’s car window. The other made sexual remarks about Fowler’s mother.

“At that point in time, I said: ‘Ladies, you’ve made me angry. This is war,’ ” said Fowler, who says she often prays for the street women she is fighting.

Then there were the men. “Some days, when the girls wouldn’t be around because there was a roundup by police, the johns would be like sharks,” said Fowler.

“They would drive around and around, 10 times. When they were panicky, they would stop anybody on the street. I have been stopped with an 8-month-old child on my back. I have been stopped on my way back from church and offered money. I mean, cash forced out of the window.”


The former teacher said she wanted to attack the prostitutes where it counts--in the pocketbook. During one surveillance, Fowler said, she counted 14 tricks turned by one streetwalker. At an estimated $25 a customer, that is $350.

“If we follow that girl for one hour, we’ve cost her $350,” said Fowler. “Now, take three girls that are up there and have all three girls followed for one hour, that’s 1,050 bucks you’ve cost the pimp. Yes, that makes a difference.”

Fowler, her husband and their neighbors across the street soon became the nucleus for a residential posse of sorts. When the prostitutes would show, Fowler and her band would grab a camera, some signs--”If You Want Your Picture Taken, Pick Up This Girl”--and run to the corner to picket.

They even did this at 1 a.m. It was especially difficult for Fowler, who discovered she had cancer last May.

“The point is that it’s never an easy time to get involved with social issues,” said Fowler. “There’s always going to be something to hinder you, if you allow it to.”

Sometimes Fowler would lead four picketers, sometimes 10, and sometimes people would stop their cars and join the band of crusaders, she said.


“We would go up there and stand right next to these women with these signs,” said Fowler. “When they walked, we walked. We told them we wanted space, we wanted from College Avenue to 54th Street.

“That was our space, our territory, and whenever they came within those blocks, we were going to make sure they weren’t going to make money.”

At first, the prostitutes would respond with verbal abuse; some of them even called the police to complain about harassment.

Eventually, when Fowler and her band would show, the prostitutes would go to a pay phone, call a cab and leave the area.

Flush with that small victory, Fowler called on her church to help with the larger battle. She asked her priest at Blessed Sacrament Catholic church, at El Cerrito Drive and El Cajon Boulevard, for help in organizing parishioners for further action.

The priest referred Fowler to Bennett, principal of the adjacent parochial school, where 420 students attend kindergarten to 9th grade.


Bennett, a short, astute man, said he was concerned about the problems with prostitutes because of the “thousands” of students who attend school along the boulevard in private and public schools.

“I would say that the conflict comes not so much with the kids but the parents who drive to and from to pick their kids up and drop them off,” said Bennett.

The parish council, of which Fowler is a member, wrote to public officials to complain about the problem. And as the numbers of hookers grew, McColl’s constituents began calling her City Hall office more frequently to complain.

McColl has taken several tours with police over the years to investigate the seamier aspects of El Cajon Boulevard.

Last month, she watched from inside an unmarked police van to see undercover women officers work as decoy hookers. Arresting would-be customers is as important as bagging prostitutes, she told a reporter during the evening.

“If we didn’t have the consumer, we wouldn’t have the product,” she reasoned.

The prostitution problem has also been politically uncomfortable for McColl, who is chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety and Services Committee. While some people in her district are making noise about the hookers, others--namely, the merchants--have lobbied the councilwoman to downplay the problem while cleaning it up.


“Promoting the name of El Cajon Boulevard as synonymous with prostitution is not good for the business community,” said Allan Marshall, a chiropractor and president of the El Cajon Boulevard Business Assn. “We’re more interested in the results they get than seeing it in the press.”

But the furor stirred up by the likes of Fowler and Bennett was enough to prompt McColl to schedule a town hall meeting Feb. 23. It was held at the Blessed Sacrament parish hall, where a sometimes emotional crowd of 400 told officials such as McColl, City Manager John Lockwood and Councilwoman Judy McCarty about their frustrations in dealing with the hookers and crime. McCarty’s district includes El Cajon Boulevard from 54th Street east to the city limits.

It was at this meeting that Lockwood unveiled his proposal calling for the city and county to rent temporary jail bed space until more permanent jails are constructed.

The proposal, which has since won tentative approval from a City Council committee, would require the city to pay at least $100,000 to rent barracks for 200 beds at the women’s County Jail at Las Colinas during the next three years. The county is being asked to kick in $500,000 for extra staffing.

The thrust of the idea was to jail some of the prostitutes, hurting them even more financially. The hope was that word would get around that San Diego isn’t a pretty place for hookers.

To underscore the community’s anger, Bennett and the activists held a March 1 demonstration, where 150 residents marched along El Cajon Boulevard.


“It’s not because the police don’t understand there is a problem, but they are responsive politically as any other group that you work with in the city,” Bennett said.

“If you generate community presence, then neither a councilwoman nor an assistant police chief, no one will tell us to back off and ‘We’ll get to you when we get to you.’ ”

While the crescendo of complaints grew from residents, the Police Department staged yet another sweep of the boulevard, calling in reinforcements to follow and ticket prostitutes between Feb. 6 and 26.

Again hoping to make a dent in business, police officers remained very visible. Car patrols were increased, police officers cruised slowly up and down the boulevard on motorcycles, and an officer with a police dog even kept stride with the prostitutes, said John Slough, a community relations and crime prevention officer.

During the 20-day period, police made 10 felony arrests, 98 misdemeanor arrests (for solicitation and being under the influence of drugs and alcohol); issued 221 citations (loitering, jay-walking and standing in traffic), and made 873 “field contacts,” Slough said.

The sweep has worked, and the boulevard remains free of prostitutes. Indeed, the only suspicious-looking women strutting their stuff these days are undercover police officers conducting sting operations for johns.


“The difference is that you see elderly people walking the streets again,” Bennett said. “You see people going down to Big Bear (just south of El Cajon on 54th Street) to buy groceries and able to walk home. And you see a whole lot of community residents feeling like they did something, too, and that’s always positive.”

The problem was not solved, however, just moved. At the same time San Diego police began their sweep, Chula Vista police noticed a marked increase of hookers in their downtown.

“Up until the pressure on El Cajon Boulevard, we had maybe six active prostitutes in the city. Most of those were gals that had been around for a long time and we were reasonably effective at controlling them,” said Sgt. Arnie Botts, in charge of Chula Vista’s crime suppression unit.

“Then, all of a sudden, it went from six to where we had something between 12 to 15 black hookers in town. From there we got additional gals (and) there will be 30 on a given night.”

Will the hookers eventually drift back to the boulevard?

Even Mid-City activists expect that to happen, but this time they are making plans to continue the war.

“If they come back, we’re going to have a network of community alert and reaction,” said Hartley, who has been busy organizing watch groups among businesses. “These are merchants who know each other and look out for each other.”


Another merchant put it this way: “If I see some outrageously dressed person or someone openly soliciting, I’m going to call police. The point is we’re just going to flat out make it too hot for them to operate on El Cajon Boulevard.”

Asked if the merchant felt concerned that she may be calling the police on someone who is not a criminal but merely a flashy dresser, she replied: “That’s for the police to worry about.”

Hartley also said the merchants are going to ask newspapers if they will print the names of men arrested for soliciting prostitutes. If the request is refused, he said, the business group may just buy newspaper ads listing the names.

Meanwhile, Bennett, Fowler and others are plotting their long-term strategy to keep the hookers off their turf. They have been named to a reconstituted anti-prostitution task force, and its most recent meeting was held Wednesday in Fowler’s living room.

Aides from McColl’s and McCarty’s office assured the activists that city officials are generally supportive of putting the temporary barracks at Las Colinas. But they cautioned that county officials may not be so eager, since they will be asked to shoulder most of the cost.

The meeting adjourned with several conclusions:

Residents should begin contacting county offices to lobby for the Lockwood measure. Bennett and Fowler even suggested using the Blessed Sacrament newsletter to inform people about the dates of public hearings on the matter, as well as providing samples of letters to be sent to elected officials.


Bennett and Fowler were also told that they should portray prostitution as a countywide problem. Chula Vista’s influx of hookers would help with that point. And they were told to emphasize that prostitution encourages a variety of violent crimes.

“Change the marketing, if you will, of the problem,” McColl aide Jeff Marston suggested.

The activists vowed to keep on fighting, despite the current lull between battles.

“If they (hookers) do come back, it will be because the city has not taken a strong position to interrupt the economics of prostitution by allowing for more jail space to go for people arrested for this crime,” Bennett said in an interview. “If that happens, then we’ll start this over again.

“I’m going to be here for a long time. My children are going to be here for a long time.

“Enough’s enough.”