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Prostitution-related arrests take big jump in Costa Mesa

Refocusing a specialized investigative unit at the Costa Mesa Police Department has led to a skyrocketing number of prostitution-related arrests this year, according to local authorities.

During the first four months of 2016, Costa Mesa police arrested 69 people on suspicion of prostitution or other vice-related crimes such as pimping, pandering and human trafficking, according to statistics provided by the city.

In 2015, Costa Mesa police made one such arrest, statistics show.

Furthermore, the 69 arrests through April matched the total number of prostitution-related arrests made over the previous five years combined, according to the city.

Police officials said Wednesday that vice arrests have shot up because of a new directive for the department’s special investigations unit.

“They are being very proactive in regard to prostitution enforcement,” Capt. Bryan Glass said.

The squad of about 10 officers has typically had a broad focus, taking on complex investigations including drugs busts, tracking career criminals and keeping tabs on gangs, according to police officials.

Even now, the unit can jump from one task to another, depending on the day or hour, Lt. Paul Beckman said.

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Around the beginning of this year, some Costa Mesa residents were complaining about prostitution in certain areas, according to Glass and Beckman.

The special investigations unit dug into the issue, Glass said, pursuing leads both on city streets and through online ads soliciting sexual services.

The team began making arrests, with two in January. The number quickly grew to 24 in February and 29 in March.

The focus on prostitution — a crime relatively easily identified — made the team’s enforcement efforts immediately apparent, Glass said.

A long-term drug investigation could eat up hours of work from a half-dozen detectives before police took a suspect into custody, he said.

The Police Department announced in March that it had made 32 arrests in an unspecified span of two weeks. In that period, officers arranged meetings with possible prostitutes either online or in person and arrested them mostly at two local motels, the Vagabond Inn at 3205 Harbor Blvd. and La Quinta Inn at 1515 South Coast Drive, police said.

Many, though not all, of the unit’s arrests have centered on motels, Beckman said.

Glass said the team’s focus has helped develop leads for more in-depth prostitution cases.

“Being familiar with the customs and practice of that culture is very helpful for the investigative side,” Beckman said.

This month, the Orange County district attorney’s office trumpeted vice arrests by Costa Mesa police.

The night of June 3, two Fresno men — Donald Phelps, 23, and Marice Curry, 25 — were taken into custody on suspicion of pimping, pandering and conspiracy outside a Motel 6 at 1441 Gisler Ave., according to authorities.

In addition to pimping and pandering charges against Phelps, prosecutors announced they had charged Curry with human trafficking of a minor.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty.

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Jeremiah Dobruck, jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

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