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The Usual Suspects : Awash in the Neon Glow of the Sleaze Capital of the West, Two Vice Cops Comb the Soiled Streets for Pimps, Prostitutes and Porno Hounds

Times Staff Writer

Teri Bennyworth and Dino Caldera take a quick, collective breath as they creep into the adult bookstore through a grimy back-alley entrance. They are looking to catch a man with his pants down.

Quite literally. Nodding to the brooding worker behind the counter, a replacement for the regular clerk who has taken time off for a sex-change operation, they tiptoe past private video-viewing booths, peering around corners, hearing the exaggerated moans from X-rated movies that cast a staccato glow on the dingy walls.

Then, in a flurry of brandished badges, the undercover LAPD officers rush into a booth and arrest a man sprawled naked in a folding chair before a tiny TV screen. Moments later, the sheepish-looking suspect--in bookish, oversized glasses, hands cuffed behind his back--admits he removed his clothes “for the thrill of it.”

Bennyworth’s face stays blank.

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“Most of what we do is dirty work--it’s sad and it’s pathetic,” the 33-year-old says later. “I mean, my dad would have a stroke if he knew what my job really entails. If I told him that I spend nights watching men masturbate in bookstores, he’d have a coronary right there. He always wanted me to be a doctor.”

In police circles it’s called Varsity Vice, the job of combing the soiled streets of Hollywood for the pimps, prostitutes and pornography hounds. Night after neon night, they come looking to buy sex: wide-eyed tourists, priests, lawyers, rabbis and accountants--all risking a sobering clash with cops like Bennyworth and Caldera.

Nearly three-dozen Los Angeles Police Department vice officers are assigned to the front lines of this Hollywood prostitution war. In a place that’s become known as the sleaze capital of the West Coast, each day brings a new assault to their sensibilities: such as the time some grammar school children mistook a stash of used condoms outside their classroom for balloons and began blowing them up.

The hours are long and ever-changing. The lure of the bribe--everything from hard cash to sexual favors--comes with nearly every arrest. And all the while, officers must fight the feeling that they’re working in vain as they arrest the same offenders time after time, knowing that the prostitutes, their pimps and their customers will return immediately to the streets like brazen cockroaches after the kitchen light goes out.

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But however distasteful the assignment, Bennyworth and Caldera say, Hollywood vice is the place to be.

“If you’re gonna work vice for the LAPD, this is the big time,” says Caldera, a swarthy 34-year-old with a stubbly goatee. “Hollywood is pop culture gone berserk. It’s fast, it’s now and it’s here--easy money, 24 hours a day.

“Whatever it is, the place draws them--the pimps, prostitutes and johns come in a never-ending supply. Believe me, business is good in Hollywood vice.”

Really, really good. Last year, the squad made 2,462 arrests, including 1,100 for prostitution. “No one else is even close,” says Lt. John Fletcher, an LAPD vice unit coordinator.

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The second-place vice unit registered less than 250 prostitution arrests. And the department’s entire South Bureau--which comprises four police divisions--made just more than 3,300 total arrests last year, Fletcher estimates.

“And with the Hollywood squad, we’re just talking vice arrests,” he says. “That’s an awful lot of pimping, pandering and prostitution going on.”

Last June, Bennyworth and Caldera staked a tiny piece of entertainment history when they nabbed actor Hugh Grant in a compromising position with a prostitute. The highly publicized arrest came just weeks after Bennyworth busted pseudo-celebrity philanderer Joey Buttafuoco for trying to buy sex along Sunset Boulevard.

The arrests turned their usually low-profile world upside-down. Within hours of busting Buttafuoco, Bennyworth recalls, the paroled rapist’s wife was railing against the detectives on “The Howard Stern Show,” referring to Bennyworth as “that thing in the red dress.”

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After Grant’s arrest, paparazzi tried to bluff their way into police headquarters. TV crews and British tabloid reporters offered the detectives more than a year’s salary each for an exclusive interview.

Meanwhile, the department was lambasted in letters to local newspapers for wasting time and taxpayer dollars on such frivolous pursuits as corralling johns. But the officers also got plenty of fan mail--even an anonymous gift of a framed movie poster of the bright-eyed Grant sporting his devilish grin.

Bennyworth and Caldera have taken the heat and the high-fives in stride.

“If we put her out on the street [as a decoy] every night, you’d be seeing big names hitting the papers all the time,” Caldera says of his partner.

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Minutes after the bookstore arrest, the officers arrive back at the Hollywood station to find a dozen sullen-looking men and women waiting to be booked. The usual suspects: Hookers. Street types. Johns in shirts and ties, one crying into his cuffed hands.

“Geez,” Caldera says, “look at the lineup tonight.”

Combatting the area’s prostitution and lewdness problems are a dozen undercover officers, plus 20 uniformed cops working the Prostitution Enforcement Detail, which patrols the streets. Such deployment has dimmed the Hollywood red light a bit: Unlike the early 1980s, when streets teemed with hundreds of hookers, officers say they are lucky to see a dozen or more each night. The decline in numbers has turned side streets into nocturnal speedways of blowing horns and screeching tires as anxious johns vie for attention.

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“It’s the law of supply and demand,” Bennyworth says. “Some nights, there’s a feeding frenzy out there. Cars are backed up half a block or more, like outside a Jack-in-the-Box.”

While he supports the LAPD’s efforts, Steve Kipnis, chairman of the prostitution task force for Hollywood’s police advisory board, would like to see twice as many vice cops on the street.

“People who say vice is a victimless crime do not find used condoms in their driveway every morning,” he says. “Neighbors are victims. And unless we have 100 cops working around the clock, they’re not going to be able to tame the problem.”

Meanwhile, the community has taken its own steps, recently posting signs that prohibit U-turns on streets adjacent to the main drags.

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“Like a lot of people, I’m not a fuddy-duddy about sexual things,” Kipnis says. “I just don’t want to see it happen on my lawn.”

Vice cops are always on the lookout for new trends--like dolled-up hookers in rental cars who cruise the strip, propositioning other drivers at traffic lights.

As Hollywood changes, so does its vice squad. Bennyworth and Caldera represent a new breed of man-woman team: They’re young, hip and blow-dried. They weren’t even around the department when the now-outdated film treatment of the squad’s exploits--"Hollywood Vice Squad,” starring Frank Gorshin as a sleaze ball pimp--opened nearly a decade ago.

Clad in blue jeans and flannel shirts, the partners are professional creatures of the streets, 1990s-style--old friends who socialize with each other’s spouses and 2 1/2-year-olds and who recently bought tickets to see Van Halen together. Caldera was Bennyworth’s training officer when she started with the LAPD gang unit seven years ago.

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Since then, they’ve twice been partners. He’s grown to like her spunk and willingness to throw her fists into any fight. She likes his easygoing style.

Like many cop teams, they feel almost married. “Most couples don’t spend as much time together as we do,” says Caldera, a daytime college English major. “I eat more meals with Teri than I do with my wife.”

The hours are crazy, they say, because prostitutes can be creative. They and their pimps call the vice office at odd hours--mostly between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.--then immediately hang up in a ruse to see if the squad is there and on its toes. So detectives vary their schedules to throw them off.

And they use their own money to stretch a shoestring budget, buying their own laptop computers and props for undercover work. They share a cramped office with makeshift furniture so weathered that TV’s Joe Friday might have used it.

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On the street, they must cope with impudent pimps, jaded runaways and prostitutes infected with HIV.

“You struggle to shift gears when you go home,” says Caldera. “Most days, I’m dealing with prostitutes and blatant pornography. Then, a few hours later, I’m home watching Barney or ‘The Lion King’ with my son.”

In Hollywood vice, burnout comes as fast and furious as street propositions.

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“After awhile, you need to get away from all the sex, sex, sex,” says Vice Sgt. Steve Richards while chasing two stubborn prostitutes from a Sunset Boulevard 7-Eleven. “It just makes you sick to your stomach.”

That, along with the widespread offerings of graft and payoffs, explain why Hollywood vice officers may serve no more than one 18-month tour of duty. “If you’re going to be weak for graft, this job will do it,” Richards says. “Any officer completing a vice tour without problems is looked at more seriously for promotion. It’s good for your resume because they see you as highly responsible, more corruption-proof.”

Temptation is dangled every day, Bennyworth says. “Just like on the night we arrested Hugh Grant,” she says, munching on reduced-fat Wheat Thins. “We both knew who he was. I could have asked for tickets for the next week’s movie premiere in exchange for looking the other way. And he probably would have given them to me.”

Some men collect baseball trading cards, but Caldera keeps Polaroid snapshots of arrested prostitutes. Mostly, they’re hard-looking women. “In this job,” he says, wincing at one picture, “there’s no such thing as ‘Pretty Woman.’ ”

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Bennyworth, though, comes close. On the night she arrested Buttafuoco, the detective played a red-lipsticked temptress in a tight dress and leather jacket. For his part, Caldera has impersonated a baseball-capped, long-haired low-rider cruising for sex. Together, they’ve portrayed the happily married couple in search of illegally scalped tickets on the lawn outside the Hollywood Bowl.

Caldera says the most challenging part of the job is playing a john who cruises for men.

“You know that the person standing there is nothing close to a woman in a dress--it’s a man in a muscle shirt and bike shorts,” he says. “But you have to look at him with that look that says in one second, ‘I’m not a cop and you’re the best-looking thing I’ve ever seen.’ It ain’t easy.”

For Bennyworth, the most difficult thing is believing she can make a difference in the prostitution cat-and-mouse game. “But every once in awhile,” she says, “you make one big bust--like arresting some pimp--and that carries you. It’s satisfying. It makes you want to come back to work the next day.”

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In a few short months, Caldera’s 18-month tour will end. But not before Bennyworth, following Hollywood vice tradition, gives him a coffee cup embossed with a saying capturing his time on the squad.

“Dino’s cup is going to say ‘YMCA,’ you know, that song by the Village People,” she says with a laugh, referring to the outlandish male singing group. “I’ll never be able to hear it again without thinking of him.”


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