Shirtless and squeezed into tight jeans, a hunky undercover Palm Springs police officer hovered in a shadowy parking lot and lured men cruising the Warm Sands neighborhood.
The June 2009 gay sex sting netted 19 public indecent exposure arrests, and disbelief and outrage have festered in this desert haven ever since.
This is Palm Springs, “the gayest city in America,” a gay tourist destination governed by an openly gay mayor and home to the sexually charged White Party, a dance and music festival that attracts tens of thousands of gay men every year.
“The sting was an egregious case of entrapment, a technique that has been used by law enforcement against gay people for decades,” said Robert Stone, co-founder of the Warm Sands neighborhood association and one of the most vocal critics of undercover operation. “Gays move to Palm Springs to get away from that.”
The controversy reached a boil last June with the revelation that an officer involved in the sting was taped uttering a gay slur. It grew venomous in December when Police Chief David Dominguez, who had disciplined the officer, acknowledged that he too had made an “inappropriate comment” — also caught on tape.
Dominguez apologized. Sensitivity training was ordered for all city employees. The Police Department scrapped the use of decoys in undercover sex stings, promising to rely more on community outreach and additional patrols.
It wasn’t enough. Dominguez abruptly announced his retirement last week.
“The comments they made — they were insulting. You just wouldn’t expect it to happen in Palm Springs, of all places. I mean, it’s like the gay mecca,” said Mariah Hanson, owner of Club Skirts and a promoter of the city’s annual lesbian extravaganza that attracts an estimated 20,000 revelers during the Dinah Shore golf tournament.
News of the chief’s departure had brought calm to Palm Spring’s gay community by week’s end. But animosity, as chilly as the snow-dusted San Jacinto Mountains rising over this desert town, lingers against the mayor and members of the gay-majority council who had steadfastly defended Dominquez or held their tongues.
“The whole council, the whole political leadership, will suffer for this,” said Hank Plante, a former San Francisco television news anchor and political reporter who retired to Palm Springs with his partner a year ago. “What you heard a lot was what’s the good of having a majority of gays on the council if they don’t stick up for the community?”
Councilwoman Ginny Foat, a feminist activist and former head of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, acknowledged that the “city made a lot of mistakes.” She said the council did not want to respond until an internal inquiry by the city manager was made public after Christmas.
“We have to come to grips with the reality that there’s hidden racism and hidden homophobia. We all know it’s there, but when it comes out it’s still really painful,” Foat said.
Longtime Palm Springs resident Joan Wolff, however, is having none of it. She called the episode a distasteful flexing of gay political muscle led by a few noisy activists. Wolff, a member of the city’s police advisory board, said the chief was a progressive-minded, well-respected Riverside police veteran. After Dominguez took the job three years ago, his policies and tactics delivered a significant drop in crime — a success crippled by “one stupid mistake,” she said.
“I think this has all been blown way out of proportion. I think this town is scared to do anything against gay people,” Wolff said.
The incident crystallized the complexities of Palm Spring’s aging and established gay community. Gay men and lesbians, by some estimates, account for nearly half of the 47,000 residents. That strength allows them to enjoy the benefits of mainstream power and prominence while leaving them free to cherish the city’s playful and at times uninhibited social scene.
The gay community is widely credited for rescuing the piping hot desert town, which was slowly wasting away as it clung to its past heyday as Hollywood’s playground. They restored luster to aging homes and neighborhoods and replaced shuttered storefronts with scores of new businesses.
The frolicking yin to that yang includes the annual White Party; a gay pride parade that, on one day every year, doubles the city’s population.
The Warm Sands neighborhood where the 2009 sting took place is a mishmash of refurbished 1920s ranches and retro apartments and is home to 11 clothing-optional gay resorts.
A local gay magazine ranks the resorts, most of which are well-kept inns, by “sexual temperature.” One of the hottest, All Worlds Resort, offers day passes and is adorned with a poster of muscular, skivvy-clad men.
The resorts bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel taxes every year and attract a worldwide clientele. The enclave also attracts men cruising for quick sexual trysts.
During the police sting, the undercover officer called out to men, prodded them to expose themselves and then spoke a trigger phrase — “Uncle Willy would like that” — to signal arresting officers.
Police said the sting was triggered by numerous complaints from the Warm Sands neighborhood.
“If you read the police report, it sounded like the residents were running down the streets with pitchforks,” said Roger Tansey, a public defender representing six of the men arrested. “But I looked into it, and there were not complaints, not one anyone could show me.”
Worse, Tansey said, the Palms Springs Police has not, as far as he could determine, conducted a similar sting against heterosexuals, despite complaints about sex in public places.
“What I believe is the Palm Springs Police Department intentionally targeted gays,” Tansey said.
Tansey said prosecutors charged the men with indecent exposure, an accusation usually reserved for flashing and other predatory acts on unwilling victims, instead of lewd and lascivious behavior. A indecent exposure conviction requires defendants to register for life as sex offenders.
Former Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco’s hard-line prosecution of the Warm Sands cases, which have yet to go to trial, rallied many in the Palm Springs gay community to pour money into his challenger’s campaign in the June election. Pacheco lost to Superior Court Judge Paul Zellerbach by 8,400 votes.
“I was told that on election night he was cursing my name,” Tansey said.