BROOKSVILLE — From his front porch, James McCoy watched the daily procession of women in tattered, slightly suggestive attire making their march along E Jefferson Street.
McCoy grew used to the routine over the past eight years, hoping only that the women left him and his property alone. But in recent months, McCoy noticed a surge in the tawdry business in his neighborhood.
"It's just ridiculous. … Something has to be done," said McCoy, 37. "And it's gotten worse over the years."
McCoy wasn't alone. A number of local officials and residents thought so, too. The renewed outcry convinced police Chief George Turner that the time was right to drive the prostitutes out of Brooksville.
Turner and his officers began organizing a five-day sting dubbed "Operation Working Woman," which resulted in the recent prostitution-related arrests of 32 men and five women, along with a dozen other arrests for the sale and possession of cocaine.
The operation was generally lauded as a success. Turner, however, said the work is just getting started.
"It was pretty blatant for a while there," Turner said. "Business was good in Brooksville. But it's not good anymore, and we're not going to allow for it to get there again."
That there was ever a thriving market for prostitution in a small, bucolic town like Brooksville remains a wonder to many. The illicit business is a natural partner with the drug trade that flourishes on the streets fanning out from Jefferson and Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard in south Brooksville, Turner said.
For years, residents say, bedraggled-looking women have paced these streets looking for customers. Drug dealers, too. Usually, they've both been successful. After a similar operation in 2006 that netted eight arrests, then-Police Chief Ed Tincher remarked to the Times that "it's been around so long I don't think it's going to go away."
"I've known about it for many, many years," said City Council member Lara Bradburn, a native of Brooksville. "But it's never really been dealt with before. It was a frequent complaint from a number of businesses and residents along Jefferson."
Hoping to address those concerns, Brooksville police came up with a relatively simple plan to snare offenders: use a young, undercover female officer to attract potential customers and send out a male undercover officer as bait for the prostitutes.
Men came from all over the North Suncoast, from as far away as Inverness, New Port Richey and Homosassa, to troll south Brooksville looking for prostitutes. Most lived in Brooksville.
The men represented all walks of life, "from lower income to middle class to upper class," police said. They ranged in age from 20 to 78. Each of them approached the female officer and offered money in exchange for a variety of sexual acts, police say.
Meanwhile, the women were generally young — most in their 20s and none older than 38. They were from areas just beyond the city limits. Three of them listed addresses from DaMac Estates subdivision on the north side of town. They each went up to the male officer and agreed to perform sexual services for money, according to arrest reports.
All of them — men and women — were taken to the Hernando County Jail.
News of the busts was generally greeted with appreciation, but with an understanding that officers would need to return to the same streets again. Repeatedly.
"I see three to four (prostitutes) here every day working the streets," said Howard Delaine, owner of Howard's Barbecue on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard for more than 40 years. "You get used to it. But what can you do about it?"
Turner hopes the recent arrests — and the ones to come — help curb the trend toward violent crimes in Brooksville, noting that both of the homicides in Brooksville this year involved suspects who were involved in either prostitution or drugs.
Bobby Day, who owns Day Enterprises in the 1400 block of E Jefferson, was particularly pleased to hear about the Police Department's renewed focus on crime in the surrounding area. It was only a couple of weeks ago, just before dawn, that one of his employees was confronted by several gunmen at work.
The employee managed to escape, but not before ducking several rounds of gunfire, Day said. Police are still searching for the gunmen.
"We're hoping that they've got it taken care of," Day said. "We need to feel safe here."
To that end, Turner has promised similar operations in the months ahead. He even plans to bring in female officers from other agencies to assist with the busts.
"We don't want people driving all the way to Brooksville to pick up prostitutes and drugs," Turner said. "We're going to do it again and again until we get rid of the problem."
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.