Sauntering across the dirty sidewalk, the woman with the short skirt and purple spike-heeled pumps approached a waiting car. She leaned into the open window, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her skirt twitching toward the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.
She slipped into the passenger seat, apparently unaware of the glaring disapproval of two people watching a few feet away. They made her take notice.
Pat Andrews marched up to the car and wrote down the license number on her clipboard while Dan Cangro went to the driver's side. "Did you know most hookers around Long Beach have AIDS?"
Although Cangro exaggerated, his remark had the desired effect. The woman in the purple heels got out of the car and flounced away. Cangro smiled with satisfaction.
One more streetwalker and a potential customer had been notified that they will no longer be accepted as an inevitable piece of the Long Beach terrain.
For decades, prostitutes have been working along this busy 13-block corridor of Pacific Coast Highway. It is an area marked by dilapidated motels, fast-food joints and small, dark bars on the city's west side.
Streets bear signs of their commerce. Condoms sprout like weeds from gutters and cracks in the sidewalk. Nearby residents are confronted with open sex acts being performed in cars parked a few feet from their front doors.
But the live-and-let-live attitude of most residents is on its way out.
Neighbors have organized themselves, staging anti-prostitution marches and setting up citizen foot patrols to confront the hookers. They've met with a range of public officials, from police officers on the beat to City Council members and state politicians, to lobby for more patrols and new laws against the shadowy commerce.
"I've been in special investigations for 15 years," said Lt. Richard Jones of the police department's vice unit, "and I don't think I've ever seen a bigger groundswell against prostitution."
Andrews and Cangro, who live near the highway, have been two of the most active agents of that groundswell, enlisting members of their Wrigley Neighborhood Assn. The Wrigley area includes the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between the Los Angeles River and Atlantic Avenue that is considered the city's most open prostitution market.
Members of the association show up in court en masse during the arraignment of prostitutes and customers to serve notice that they want harsh sentences. The neatly dressed citizens wear homemade buttons with the words "hookers, johns" crossed out by the international "no" sign.
The neighborhood association, which has 205 members, has pressured state legislators to include the city in a trial program, patterned after drug forfeiture laws, that allows authorities to seize cars owned by the prostitutes' clients in certain circumstances. The group met with City Councilwoman Doris Topsy-Elvord, who then suggested the city put up signs along major streets warning that soliciting sex for cash is a crime. The association helped persuade The Long Beach Press-Telegram to begin publishing names of convicted johns. The group also has suggested the city paint all PCH curbs in the area red to keep customers from stopping--a suggestion that police and staff said was not feasible for such a busy commercial strip.
In short, the association's prostitution abatement committee, led by Andrews and Cangro, will try just about anything to rid the highway of hookers.
"I want to drive them all out of this neighborhood," said Andrews, 51, office manager for a moving and storage organization. "I am not going to let them win."
Law enforcement officials say they have little hope, however, that these tactics will actually rid the highway area of hookers. The practice is too entrenched, police and prosecutors say. Prostitutes and their customers keep returning to the area, knowing they can find one another in front of the highway's dilapidated motels.
"They were picking up prostitutes on PCH when I was here (as a deputy prosecutor) in 1960," said City Prosecutor John A. Vander Lans. "It hasn't really changed."
When asked what would work to rid the area of hookers, Vander Lans says: "Nothing."
Undaunted by such official pessimism, the Wrigley team patrols Pacific Coast Highway about one weekend evening a month, looking for hookers to chase off the streets.
They call their program "Adopt-a-Hooker," a helpful-sounding title that masks a strategy of systematic harassment.
The group spots a woman believed to be a prostitute, then follows her. If a car stops for her, they take pictures of the car, write down the license number and, if possible, confront the driver. Both the woman and potential customer are told they will be turned in to police.
While there have been occasional ugly confrontations, members of the patrol say they don't fear these women and their customers. Most streetwalkers, Cangro says, are easily intimidated.
Topsy-Elvord attributes residents' growing intolerance to the fact that fewer johns have money for hotel rooms, which means sex occurs more often in cars, in plain view. Others say residents are simply more aware of the problem.
"Maybe we were just accepting it as part of the landscape," said Raymond Carl, whose furniture store has dominated a block of Pacific Coast Highway since 1933. "But folks are getting to the end of their rope."
Carl says he is tired of beginning and ending his workday picking up condoms and drug paraphernalia in his parking lot. He sees hollow-eyed women addicts stumbling across his property. They attract drug dealers, gang members and petty thieves.
Sgt. Scott Robertson of the police vice squad estimates that 90% of the women working Long Beach streets are addicted to heroin or crack cocaine. Most of the women who are arrested have hypodermic track marks and open sores, indicative of crack cocaine smokers, Robertson said. Most freely admit to their habits.
In Long Beach, about 5% of all those convicted of prostitution test positive for HIV, according to Court Commissioner George Pugsley, who handles prostitution arraignments. Convicted hookers and johns must submit to a confidential HIV test as part of their sentence.
Members of Robertson's vice squad patrol the highway in unmarked cars three or four nights a week, arresting prostitutes. About once a month, female officers pose as hookers and arrest suspected johns. In 1993, there were 1,587 prostitution-related arrests in Long Beach, up from 808 in 1991, the first year that police kept separate statistics on such arrests. Although police don't compile lists of arrests by neighborhood, they believe that the majority of these apprehensions were made along the notorious stretch of Pacific Coast Highway that the Wrigley Neighborhood Assn. is focusing on.
Most of the women Robertson arrests spend less than two weeks in jail, he said. They go back to the streets and he arrests them again. Even with the big jump in prostitution arrests, his team never runs out of hookers and johns to bust.
"We've been fighting this a long time and I'm not sure anything helps," Robertson said.
But Cangro, Andrews and other members of the Wrigley association believe they can wipe out prostitution with police assistance, tougher new laws and their "Adopt-A-Hooker" patrols.
On a recent Saturday evening, nine association members, clutching clipboards and cameras, gathered at Andrews' home before marching grimly along her quiet, tree-lined street to the highway.
As they walk, Cangro has a few last words of advice.
"Now, remember, don't get too close. I've had a hooker pull a gun on me," said Cangro, 47, a superintendent in the county's water pollution control plant. This was said mostly for the benefit of two new patrol members, George and Patricia Busby, who looked nervous underneath their matching black and gold National Rifle Assn. caps.
No one carries a weapon. Even after a woman pointed a gun at Cangro's head last year, he said, he feels pretty safe. He persuaded the woman to put the gun down and walk away. He didn't bother reporting the incident to police, Cangro said, because he didn't feel he was in danger.
Police have warned Cangro that he might not always be so lucky.
"I try not to encourage them to go out and do that because there is a risk," Roberston said. "But, God bless 'em, they're enthusiastic. So I tell them if they're going to do that, go out in a large group. Stick together."
On this evening, the first prostitute the group confronts is not intimidated.
They first caught sight of the woman in a short black skirt and tank top embracing a man in an alley beside the El Capitan Motel. The group stopped, and someone snapped a few pictures. The woman came charging toward the group.
"What are you doing?" she yelled. "You're taking pictures of prostitutes, aren't you? Well, you're also taking pictures of a college graduate," she said, referring to herself.
The Wrigley association patrol simply looked at her. The woman, who gave her name as Lu-Lu May Dubonnette, was steamed. "They're a bunch of hypocrites. They come down this street and they think they're better than us," Dubonnette said.
An admitted prostitute, Dubonnette has a room at the El Capitan. Police and neighbors say it's one of about half a dozen motels along the highway that harbor prostitutes.
"I want to see this property gone, razed to the ground," Andrews said, pointing at the El Capitan. "The owner won't change and I want it gone."
Rocky Patel, 27, who manages the motel with his wife, said Dubonnette can stay as long as she doesn't bring customers to her room. "She needs to live somewhere," added Patel's wife, who refused to give her name. "She isn't breaking the law here, we make sure of that. Why should we kick her out?"
The motel's owner, Naginbhai Govindbhai Patel (no relation to the managers), wasn't available for comment.
Within two hours, the group confronted four other women. Unlike Dubonnette, they all hurried away.
Afterward, the citizen patrol would turn over their photos and notes to police.
"We can't use their photos as evidence, but every once in awhile we can identify a pimp who's hanging around," Robertson said. "Every little bit helps. And besides, if I'm a prospective john and someone takes a picture, I'm going to get out of there and never come back."
What Robertson and his team would really like, he said, are harsher sentences for prostitution-related crimes. At least then, they say, the hookers would be off the streets longer between arrests.
Currently, the sentence for a first-time offender--hooker or customer--is usually 10 days in jail, plus up to $800 in fines and penalties. A third-time offender can be sentenced between 90 days and one year in jail.
When the jails are overcrowded, as they are so often in Los Angeles County, hookers and johns are usually the first offenders set free, largely due to the perception that prostitution is a victimless crime, vice officers complain.
Police have been given other tools by the state Legislature, but officers complain that the new laws rarely help.
A "red-light district" law allows police to shut down motels catering to hookers. But that law requires at least six months of investigations and paperwork to prove that owners and managers knowingly allow prostitution, Robertson said. His team simply doesn't have the time, he said.
The Wrigley group is hopeful that seizing the johns' cars will work. A new law, passed by state lawmakers last year, allowed San Diego County and the city of Oakland to begin a five-year pilot program where the courts could take the vehicle of a customer who had been caught in his car, twice in the same year, with a prostitute.
After meeting with the Wrigley group this year, state Assemblywoman Juanita M. McDonald (D-Carson) introduced a bill including Long Beach and Signal Hill in the program. The bill is in a Senate committee.
But the local vice squad has little hope this law would help. The problem is, johns are rarely caught in their cars, Robertson said. Most often, they are arrested by undercover female officers in motel rooms. Also, the law states that a convicted john's car can't be seized if it's his family's only car.
The pilot program went into effect Jan. 1 in San Diego, but no car has been seized, police there said. Oakland police haven't even bothered to begin the project.
"The law is unenforceable," said Sgt. Michael Martin of Oakland's police vice squad. As for Councilwoman Topsy-Elvord's idea to put up road signs warning against prostitution, which was warmly received by other council members, the suggestion was dropped after businesses along PCH complained that it would make the area look bad.
"They want me to get rid of it," Topsy-Elvord said, "but they don't want to be identified as being in a prostitution zone. But it's obvious they are--prostitutes are everywhere.
"It hasn't gotten worse, really, it's become seedier. And everybody has to look at it. It's just sad."