One Child at a Time 

Oakland police focus on child prostitution, but convincing girls to leave pimps is hard.

Officer James Saleda is piloting his unmarked car through a quiet suburb near the Oakland-San Leandro border, hunting for a pimp named "Heartless." Saleda got a tip that Heartless lives in this neighborhood, somewhere among the boxy homes and trim green lawns. So on this bright Thursday afternoon, Saleda is searching for any one of the alleged pimp's three cars. "He doesn't know what I look like," says Saleda, handcuffs concealed in the waistband of his jeans. "But he knows my name."

Many pimps have recently come to know Saleda's name. Last fall, Saleda became the first Oakland investigator dedicated full-time to identifying child prostitutes and their pimps. Heartless, like his telltale nickname indicates, is known on the streets as a "gorilla pimp" -- one who beats his girls. He also reportedly maintains a stable of workers under the age of 18 -- including a few girls who are just 13 or 14. And that makes him Saleda's concern.

Saleda's boss, Sgt. Kevin Wiley, says he put Saleda on the new beat in September because child prostitution in Oakland has been "growing out of control" during the last two years. And although estimating the number of child prostitutes working in Oakland at any one moment is like counting birds on a wire, Wiley says the department's emphasis on the problem is uncovering a crisis of "epidemic" proportions. In 1999, when Wiley began identifying underage prostitutes, he compiled a list of 20 names. Today, with Saleda's full-time attention, the list nears 200. All the prostitutes are under 18, and most are under 16. But all of them are victims.

In addition to becoming the first Bay Area police department to dedicate an officer to looking out for underage sex workers, the OPD is one of the few that adamantly distinguishes between adult and child prostitutes. In short, adult prostitutes in Oakland are considered criminals who warrant prosecution, but child prostitutes are viewed as victims who have been coerced into the business. "To be honest, I won't ever make a case against a girl unless I know it's the only thing that will get her moved off the streets and moved far away from her pimp," Saleda says. Wiley says it's the goal of the department to move underage girls out of the lifestyle, "not return them right back into it."

For pimps, younger girls bring greater fortunes. Saleda says the crude truth of the streets is that a crack-addicted prostitute "who's old and showing it" can fetch only $20 to $40 for oral sex and $50 to $75 for straight sex. A 13-year-old girl, by comparison, can earn $60 to $80 for oral copulation, and up to $100 and $150 for straight sex. To illustrate his point, Saleda thumbs through a book of photographs of Oakland's underage street workers and points to a young girl with Asian features, who looks about 16. "She works as a dancer at a club where she picks up her tricks," he says. "In between her shows, she does her thing. She makes her pimp $900 a night. If she looked any older she couldn't do that."

In his few months on the job, Saleda has also learned how any kind of girl can get lured into the lifestyle -- from the 13-year-old East Oakland residents he sees all too frequently to the 16-year-old girl from the Oakland Hills he arrested last year. More often than not, the common denominator is abuse at home. "These girls have been messed with from the beginning," Saleda says. "It can be the guy down the street, or a millionaire up in the hills. It happens everywhere. So you've got girls who started out their lives being abused, and when they go into the world, they don't know any other way." And just because the police identify a working girl and bring her into custody, that doesn't mean she's mentally prepared to leave her pimp. Says Wiley, "When we bring these girls in, the hardest thing to do is to convince them that, yes, they've been victimized."

In his first big investigation, Saleda put out a warrant for an alleged pimp named Edward Sullivan, age 28, who had been working underage girls out on the so-called "tracks" of East 14th Street. East 14th is known as a hot track for finding young girls, just as the corner of Martin Luther King and 17th is known as a track for picking up transvestites. According to court records, Sullivan's girls lived in his East Oakland home and were required to call him "daddy." He created a decoy business, "Big Knight Entertainment," named himself president, and listed his girls as "entertainers" for tax purposes. Sullivan also branded a company logo the size of a rolled condom onto the girls' bodies.

Like other pimps of the underage, Sullivan knew how to cultivate a crew on the quick. He allegedly parked his car outside various group homes in East Oakland, waited for a wandering soul to walk out the front door, approached her, and started slinging the smooth talk. Want to hang out? Go get something to eat? Need some money? Need a man to take care of you?

In the case of one 15-year-old girl, Sullivan allegedly wooed her for two weeks, bought her clothes, talked of love and romance, told her she was his "girlfriend." In the end, he demanded that if she really loved him, she'd go to work for him. Other girls from his home were brought in to make the deal sound sweet; after that, a harsh "conditioning" of sexual abuse allegedly followed. Police say Sullivan either raped the girl himself, repeatedly, or instructed other men to do so. The girl was eventually "broken" and put on the streets, where she earned a reported $1,000 a night for Sullivan.

Just one day before Saleda and his fellow officers arrived at the home with a search warrant in hand, Sullivan fled to Las Vegas, taking the 15-year-old with him. Sullivan scrambled in such a hurry that Saleda says he left behind his journal, titled, "Things to Do to Be a Better Pimp," a detailed account of how Sullivan could maximize his profits by exploiting his girls.

"It was just sick," Saleda says.

Once in Las Vegas, Sullivan allegedly enlisted another 13-year-old girl before he was finally arrested for kidnapping, pandering, and statutory rape. While working underage girls has its economic rewards and inherent power advantages, the law comes down hard on such pimps. That's enough to keep some peddlers from working with underage girls, Saleda says. For instance, aside from the felonies of pandering and pimping, Sullivan also now faces a slew of kidnapping and sex-with-a-minor charges. Add it all up and Sullivan faces life in prison in Nevada.

Saleda hopes to get Sullivan extradited and put on trial in Oakland as early as May, but he knows better than to believe the case is a slam dunk. First of all, Sullivan will have to complete his trial in Nevada before he can be moved. And, the officer has learned the hard way that the rules of the street prohibit a girl from ever mentioning her pimp's name, at risk of death. "You don't know how many times I've heard, 'He's not my pimp; he's my boyfriend,' " Saleda says. The gorilla pimps, the ones like Heartless, beat their women so bloody that the girls don't challenge the edict, Saleda says. And no one fears her pimp more than a 15-year-old girl who's far away from home and doesn't see a way out. "These girls are so afraid of their pimps, they'd rather run away to another city than stick around to testify," Saleda says. Again, birds on a wire.

Saleda knows that progress will be slow in coming. Talking to girls on the streets only endangers them. Arresting them and sending them to jail only familiarizes them with the crimimal justice system. And asking them to testify against their pimps is like asking them to take a bullet. Cruising in his unmarked car, Saleda weaves his way out of the suburbs. "If I don't get Heartless today, I'll get him tomorrow."

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