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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

November 14, 1995|John M. Glionna | 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.

"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.

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.

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."

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.

*

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."

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