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The Valley

Prostitutes a Concern in Palmdale

Crime: Some residents complain of seeing them working the main boulevard. Sheriff's official attributes the problem to the city's population surge.

November 18, 2001|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Palmdale boosters say the city's main drag doesn't have a prostitution problem.

But earlier this month, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested 12 men in six hours on suspicion of soliciting prostitution on busy Palmdale Boulevard.

Sheriff's officials say it was an average yield for one of their occasional stings on a stretch of the boulevard near City Hall.

"There's a lot of [prostitutes] out here--we see 'em all the time," said Mary Agee, a clerk at the 7-Eleven across from City Hall. No prostitutes were in sight on a recent afternoon, but Agee said some johns have bothered her on the walk to work: "I had a guy come up and say, 'What can I get for $5?' I said, 'You'll get a sock in the teeth!' "

Prostitution was one of the big-city problems that drove many people north to this high desert suburb from Los Angeles. But those urban refugees--who helped make Palmdale the fastest growing city in Los Angeles County since 1990--have found that some of the problems have migrated up the Antelope Valley Freeway as well.

"When you get a population increase, you get an increase in all types of crimes, with prostitution being one of them," said Deputy Lauren Brown, who organizes the stings in Palmdale.

The boulevard isn't exactly blighted. Most of the motels are clean, and the fast-food restaurants do brisk business with soccer moms, professionals and day laborers. Merchants say many of the prostitutes loiter by pay phones across from the public library, the new courthouse and Poncitlan Square Park in the town's civic center.

Pastor Tim Wheeler points out the low-rent apartments jammed into the boulevard's side streets. It is there, he said, that many of Los Angeles' working poor moved to escape tough neighborhoods. Some brought drugs, gangs and prostitution with them, he added.

"A lot of people think that by changing their environment, they could get away from a lot of temptation," said Wheeler, whose First Baptist Church of Palmdale is a few blocks from the area of the recent arrests. "But they haven't gotten away from the kinds of problems that exist inside a person."

Brown said the women's presence on Palmdale's signature street poses a challenge for civic promoters.

"If they've got people coming into town thinking about building new businesses and they see prostitutes, they're going to say, 'Maybe we don't want to build here,' " he said.

Last year, there were 58 arrests in Palmdale involving misdemeanor sex offenses, including prostitution, according to the Sheriff's Department. That was up from 48 in 1999. Sheriff's officials declined to provide more specific numbers on prostitution arrests.

City Councilman-elect Richard Loa said prostitution is far from rampant.

"They didn't catch 1,200 johns on Palmdale Boulevard, they caught 12," he said. "Do we have prostitutes overrunning Palmdale Boulevard? No. Are the police doing something about it? Yes."

Despite Palmdale's growth--it exploded from 68,000 to 116,000 residents in the last decade--it ranks among the top 10% of the nation's safest cities with more than 100,000 people. There have been three homicides in the city this year.

City Manager Bob Toone said Palmdale is a morally upright city, where church groups keep a sharp eye on the library's Internet-access policy. Snooky's Bikini Bar in neighboring Lancaster offers the only sex-oriented entertainment in the area.

"We've got a couple of [adult] bookstores," Toone said. "But this is a very family-oriented community."

Historically, the high desert has been no stranger to the oldest profession. Old-timers recall the brothels that served lonely railroad workers decades ago. And for years, Sierra Highway in Lancaster has been known for its streetwalkers, sheriff's deputies say.

The 12 men arrested Nov. 8 were charged with soliciting sex from female deputies working undercover, Brown said. Two were also charged with indecent exposure.

As she crossed the street a few blocks from where the arrests were made, resident Linda McWright said she couldn't believe prostitutes had moved in so close.

"I've seen them on Sierra Highway," she said, "but you don't expect that to be going on in Palmdale."

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