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Police Find Fighting Vice at Bookstore an Uphill Battle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a cool morning, police arrested a man running through an alley in Canoga Park stark-naked, save for a pair of white tennis shoes and socks.

Asked what he was doing, the man replied, “I am streaking.”

Asked why, he answered, “I streak because it is a challenge.”

Vice officers in the west San Fernando Valley say the man used a good word. They say that policing the neighborhood around Le Sex Shoppe in the 21600 block of Sherman Way is itself a challenge.

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Neighborhood complaints about illicit activities in the area have become so frequent that City Councilwoman Joy Picus has proposed closing the alley behind the store at night. She also has introduced an ordinance that would allow the city to shut down any adult business found to be a nuisance.

The Owensmouth Residents Committee patrolled the area regularly in an effort to document and deter alleyway sexual encounters until two weeks ago, when a gunman fired several shotgun blasts into the store, wounding a security guard.

Los Angeles police say the area is the biggest vice nuisance in the western San Fernando Valley. In the past year, 98 people--mostly men--have been arrested for lewd conduct and solicitation in and around the adult bookstore, according to police reports. Sgt. Mark Williams, night supervisor for the West Valley Division vice unit, said his team could arrest many more if they had the time.

“You could probably go there 24 hours a day and find somebody looking for something,” Williams said.

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Store officials have repeatedly refused to comment on the allegations. But prominent signs inside the store note that the business cooperates with the police and the signs warn patrons not to “cruise” in the alley.

The Pussycat Theatre, an X-rated movie theater across the street from Le Sex Shoppe, was the scene of 120 lewd-conduct arrests last year, police reports show.

But Williams and Sgt. Daniel Hoffman said the bookstore is a far bigger nuisance to the surrounding community, because lewd activities involving theatergoers usually occur inside the theater.

By contrast, the officers said, Le Sex Shoppe has become a magnet for people seeking quick, impersonal sexual encounters--which often occur in full view of residents of the adjacent apartment building and nearby single-family homes.

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“As far as lewd conduct goes, Le Sex Shoppe generates the most citizen complaints,” Williams said.

The people arrested in the streets and alleys around Le Sex Shoppe come from all walks of life, Hoffman said. Some have exhibitionist tendencies and “get hooked on the thrill” of performing sex acts in public, he said. Often, they are repeat offenders, whose faces are familiar to the seven vice officers who work the site. Others, Hoffman said, are businessmen, whose families often are devastated when they learn their loved ones are in custody.

Hoffman said that about 90% of those arrested at Le Sex Shoppe are picked up for solicitation.

In arrest report after arrest report, police officers describe conversations initiated by the arrestees--mostly men--who offer to perform sexual acts with the officers--sometimes for a fee. Residents in the area complain that they too are often accosted.

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About 10% of the arrests are for lewd conduct--from masturbation to oral copulation in public. The people arrested on these charges are usually in various states of undress. Some, such as the streaker, are nude.

From a law-enforcement standpoint, Williams said, the primary problem with these sexual activities is that they are taking place near a residential neighborhood.

“We aren’t going to go stake out an alley in an industrial area hoping to catch somebody. It wouldn’t serve any purpose,” he said.


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