Ex-cops lead O.C. volunteers in rescuing prostitutes
The stocky man with a goatee walks across the darkened parking lot of the motel and bangs on the door to Room 156.
Greg Reese rehearses his lines. The door opens.
The girl inside is wearing black lingerie and looks like she did in the online ad that caught his eye — a teenager using the name Candy Green in a bathtub filled with bubbles. “Ready to have some fun,” it promised.
The girl is all business: $100 for a date, she says, standing in the room with bright blue carpeting and crumpled white sheets.
Reese reaches into the pocket of his tan cargo shorts and pulls out a latex condom. There’s a phone number scribbled on one side in black marker. He hands it to her.
He asks if she sees the phone number.
She examines the packet but ignores the question. She presses him for the money.
“I’m not really here for a date,” Reese says. “I’m here to offer you help.”
For 20 years, Reese, 43, patrolled the streets of Huntington Beach. As a police officer, he ran into his share of prostitutes. In his mind, the women were lowlifes who were selling their bodies. He remembered one who had been beaten up by a customer.
“I took the report,” he said. “But I didn’t have any compassion for her.”
On a Sunday at church, he heard a woman give a sermon about prostitution and human trafficking. Modern-day slavery, the woman called it. Reese, who retired from the force in 2011 because of a back injury, was shocked.
“When you talk about human trafficking, everyone thinks about Third World countries,” he said.
Before long, he met Kevin Brown, a retired Santa Ana police officer turned pastor. Brown had gathered a Christian group of volunteers now called Safe Passage OC to conduct unofficial stings to “liberate” women and minors from a life of servitude.
For Reese, who had started a private investigation firm, Brown’s work seemed like a calling from above.
“I feel like God was opening doors left and right ... that’s what he wanted me to do.”
When Brown invited Reese to come out with the group, he didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be a bunch of renegade do-gooders? But once he joined, he saw the missions as undercover police operations — with a dash of prayer.
Reese was once again patrolling the same streets he worked as an officer. This time around, though, his purpose wasn’t to arrest the bad guys. It was to help people in trouble.
By last October, Reese had been on about 60 missions and left phone numbers every time. No one had ever called back. But this night might be different.
Reese tells Green that he belongs to a group that rescues young women like her. The phone number, he explains, is to a national hotline, a resource for people who want to leave “the life.”
Her gaze softens, and the 19-year-old starts to talk.
Two days earlier, she tells him, she pulled into Los Angeles on a bus from Arizona, drawn by the promise of cash for stripping. But when she stepped off the bus, she was met by a man who took her to a motel room and told her to put on lingerie so she could pose for photos for an online profile.
He told her escorting made more money than stripping, so she said she would try it out. But there were rules.
Her cellphone was confiscated, she says, and she was given a prepaid Samsung as a replacement so that customers could reach her. She said she was tied up and raped, that she was told she owed a man hundreds of dollars for her bus ticket and had to work it off on dates.
The man is in the room right above us, she says, pointing toward the ceiling. Once this date’s over, she says, he will be back downstairs to erase the contents of her phone.
“You should get out,” he says.
“Leave your phone number,” she says. “I’ll think about it.”
Reese doesn’t have a pen, so he rushes across the parking lot to his car. He jots down his number.
When he gets back, the door is closed. He slips the paper under the door.
All he can do is hope. And wait.
To prepare for the missions, Reese trolls backpage.com or craigslist for potential victims, particularly those who look like they might be minors with an “emptiness” in their faces.
Reese also helped Brown revamp the training — two eight-hour sessions on a weekend — for the group’s volunteers. The classes cover identifying victims, the culture of prostitution and undercover tactics.
The group practices by using a Bluetooth as a walkie-talkie, driving around in a caravan and deploying as a surveillance team across motel properties, with each person assigned a specific role.
“Everything is done just like a police operation,” Reese said.
The missions have met with skepticism within the law enforcement community.
“It’s not a method we endorse,” said Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, the spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department. “It’s very dangerous.”
But Bertagna, who knows Brown from his policing days, said that the department wearily respects the missions.
“The fact that other people could be injured if something were to go wrong,” he said. “That’s a concern for us.”
Reese admits that even though the group’s movements are meticulously planned, there’s still an element of danger to the work.
In Lake Forest last fall, he arranged to meet a prostitute at a hotel. When he arrived, he heard voices in the other bedroom. From his research, he knew that johns are frequently victims of violence or theft. The woman told Reese that it was her friends, but he was unconvinced. He told the girl he wasn’t comfortable and left.
“There are times when something doesn’t feel right,” he said. “The hair stands up on the back of my head like everyone else.”
And there are other times that are simply disappointing.
A year ago, he met a girl in the parking lot of an Anaheim hotel. Once the two were in the room, she took off her large, round sunglasses and revealed a swollen black eye. Her slim arm was bruised.
She nonchalantly told Reese that she had been beaten by a date in San Diego.
“This is after a week or so of healing,” she said, pointing toward her face. “I couldn’t even work.”
“How many times did he hit you?” Reese asked.
He made his pitch.
“I’m here to offer you help. To help you get out of the life. Obviously, you’ve got a hard life going, getting beat up.”
The woman sat down on the bed and stared into her cellphone. She appeared bored.
“Have you ever thought about getting out?”
“Not really,” she said. She was fine.
“I can get out whenever I want to. It’s not like I’m being forced to do it.”
As a last resort, Reese asked if he could pray for the woman, who called herself Madonna.
“I don’t believe in God,” she fired back.
It’s just past 10 p.m. when Reese pulls out of the parking lot of Green’s motel and drives down Dyer Road in Santa Ana.
He pulls into a dim industrial parking lot and kills the engine. There are about 10 people waiting to hear about her.
Reese debriefs the group, explaining that she is from Arizona. She might want to leave, he says, and the others exchange smiles. They have heard all of this before.
“I hope this is the one,” a lanky man says.
Reese walks back to his car to check his phone. There are two missed calls — and a text.
She wants to get out. She will call when she’s ready.
Reese reads the text again and takes a breath.
He walks back to the group.
“Hold on, let me gather myself,” he says, and stares at the text again. Green, he tells them, is ready to leave. She wants out.
Group members grab one another’s hands, close their eyes and say a prayer for the woman in Room 156.
Car engines rev and the group heads to the motel. Reese’s voice, over the Bluetooth, directs them where to park.
Two members of the group walk the motel grounds, watching for activity. Someone alerts the police, just in case.
Tonight, the pressure is on Reese and Brown, who will attempt to make what they call “the extraction.” The pimps could be armed, and if they catch Brown and Reese leaving with Green, it could get ugly.
In a nearby truck, parked so that they have a clear view of the stairs leading up to the motel room, Norma and Danny Manzo are silent, focusing intently on the stairs and the darkened parking lot. The Manzos have been part of the group since it began and have been on almost every mission.
Reese parks his car and begins walking to the room. His pace is relaxed to avoid drawing attention to himself. He’s taking in his surroundings, noting the other motel guests.
Brown is steps behind him.
Reese knocks on the hotel door and Green opens it. She is wearing a large, dark coat, sweat pants and is clutching bags.
“OK, she’s all packed up,” Reese says into his Bluetooth.
Reese grabs two bags and leads her toward the front lobby, walking briskly in front of her. Brown, whose job is to be the security, walks backward, with the woman sandwiched between them.
Their pace quickens as they approach Reese’s sedan. Another volunteer, Sylvia Torres, waits in the back seat. Reese opens the door and Green slides in.
“We’re all clear,” Reese says into the Bluetooth.
“Are you guys cops?” Green asks. Torres says no. She rubs Green’s shoulder.
“We have been praying for you,” Torres tells her.
That night, the woman stays at a hotel in Orange County. The next day, Reese takes her to church.
The following day, she is on a Greyhound bus back to Arizona.
Santa Cruz is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.