CLEARWATER — The pretty blond wearing denim shorts and a lime green tank top walked slowly along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
Although no one was with her, she suddenly murmured:
"Older white male. Here he comes. Black sedan."
The Ford that had been circling the block pulled up.
"Back it up," the driver told her, sending her down a side street. "My name's Frank. What's your name?"
"Sarah," she replied, then asked him what he was looking for.
"A quickie …"
"How much you want to spend?"
• • •
Across the street, Clearwater police Sgt. Joe Falcone and other officers monitored the conversation from inside a large cargo van.
Falcone was in charge of Operation Cheap Trick, a reverse prostitution sting Thursday night into Friday morning to target the men who solicit Clearwater's street walkers.
Down the road, a man in a baseball cap hung out next to a pay phone. He kept his eyes on the blond.
He was a Clearwater police officer, and his job was to make sure no harm came to the woman, an officer who was wearing a wire.
Earlier in the week, police targeted prostitutes who frequent a part of East Gateway where Gulf-to-Bay is a mix of businesses and small motels.
Now they were looking for the "johns" who troll the area looking to pay for sex. Less than four hours into the sting, the crew was on its sixth arrest of the evening.
But the night was just beginning.
• • •
The men arrive before work, at lunchtime, on their way home from work.
They circle the block — in cars, on bicycles, on foot — looking for pleasure and scanning for cops.
They're day laborers, businessmen and students.
They usually come alone, occasionally with other men.
Some are single; many are married.
And they're willing to pay a stranger for sex in cheap motel rooms or parking lots.
Nearly all of the women they encounter on the streets have sexually transmitted diseases, Falcone said. Some are HIV-positive.
"This is what people are bringing home to their wives and their girlfriends," Falcone said.
• • •
After three arrests, the blond decoy came back to the van.
She unfastened the listening device concealed beneath her tank top and handed it over to another female officer with long brown hair.
The brunet, who had already been on the street once, held a small mirror and reapplied her lipstick, then strapped the device around her midsection and taped the microphone to her chest.
The two women talked about their offers so far: a low of $10, a high of $40. And the most unusual proposition of the night? A beer and half a pack of cigarettes.
The decoy tucked a motel key and a pack of Newport cigarettes into the waistband of her shorts, then walked across the street.
A white van circled the block repeatedly as she strolled up and down Gulf-to-Bay in her flip-flops. Then a red truck. Then a maroon sport utility vehicle.
It wasn't long before a man in a silver Lexus pulled up to her.
• • •
Many of the prostitutes working the streets in Clearwater are addicted to crack cocaine. But more and more, they tell the officers who arrest them, their drugs of choice are narcotic painkillers.
"They'll tell you, 'It's just that addictive,'?" said police Chief Tony Holloway. "It's all about … 'Where am I going to get my next pill?' That next john is that next fix."
Prices vary, and men often try to bargain, but generally the prostitutes charge about $20 for oral sex, $30 to $40 for intercourse. One or two sexual encounters pay for a room for the night. Money from the rest goes straight to the drug dealers who prey off their addictions.
"These girls are victims," said police Lt. Ron Sudler. "The only proceeds they get, they keep in their pockets for about three minutes."
The average price for a pain pill on the streets is about $25 and many women say they take 20 or more pills per day.
The result is an endless cycle where women trade flesh for money to buy drugs from dealers happy to have the customers.
• • •
The purpose of the operation, Holloway said, was to address both the "supply and demand" of the local sex trade.
Holloway said he also wants to send a message that his city won't tolerate prostitution and the drug dealing that comes with it.
"Not in Clearwater," he said.
• • •
When the man in the Lexus offered the brunet money and agreed to meet her nearby, Falcone alerted uniformed officers staged in a parking lot about a block away.
They swept across Gulf-to-Bay with their lights on and intercepted the man in less than 30 seconds.
He was charged with soliciting a prostitute and his vehicle was impounded.
He was one of 16 men arrested — the youngest 23, the oldest 82 — in one evening, on one block.
Rita Farlow can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.