WASILLA -- Authorities say a recent Internet prostitution sting called the biggest to date in the Mat-Su revealed a previously hidden world of men seeking cyber sex.
To some the sting also represented an invasion of privacy and waste of federal dollars meant to catch child sex traffickers.
The late October bust resulted in the arrests of 10 men, plus the seizure of more than $2,100 in cash and 10 cell phones, police say. The sting, conducted by Palmer and Wasilla police with help from the FBI and Anchorage's vice squad, was associated with a larger federal strategy called Operation Cross Country that targets child prostitutes and people who sell children into slavery.
The Mat-Su operation turned up neither, said Palmer police Detective Sgt. Kelly Turney. Instead, Turney said, the arrests represented the beginning of "us being able to work the issue"-- arresting low-level johns to find pimps for adult prostitutes who may also be trafficking young girls.
Police knew prostitution happened here, but they didn't know to what extent. The sting was one way to figure that out.
Police placed ads on Craigslist and other places. Turney wouldn't describe the ad, but did say it made no reference to child prostitution.
The phone rang off the hook, police said. The 10 men arrested met an undercover female officer at a motel and paid a pre-arranged sum.
The men range in age from 18 to 58; most live in Palmer and Wasilla, though three drove up from Anchorage or Eagle River. Their cases are still pending, Turney said. All were arrested for solicitation of prostitution, a misdemeanor, received court summons and were released.
In Alaska, like cities around the country, online prostitution is becoming more prevalent than street walking. Authorities say Internet hookers in Anchorage can make $1,000 a day, according to prior reports. Sometimes they keep all their earnings. Sometimes they send part to pimps in Alaska or the Lower 48.
They also say the Internet can provide a level of anonymity that makes it more difficult to find underage girls or evidence of trafficking.
It's hard to say exactly how many women "are working" the Valley, Turney said.
They operate from various places: cars, motels, homes.
This week, a scan of the Anchorage/Mat-Su adult services category on Craigslist revealed a couple of Valley-specific listings, both with Wasilla locations.
A caller to "April in Wasilla" -- a well-endowed brunette, judging by a picture posted with the ad -- reached a woman who said she was a friend of April's.
"She forwards her phone to me. ... I don't know what her business is. Thank you," she said, before hanging up.
But a woman behind another ad, offering "a relaxing revitalizing appointment with a fun and friendly tall Blondie," was more than happy to talk.
"Blondie" -- who described herself as over 21 and from the Wasilla area -- said she provides "complete energy manipulation" that includes reiki massage techniques, guided meditation and "ancient hot stone body work."
There's some nudity involved, she said, but you "can't do complete body work" without it. She sees clients wherever she can take her massage table.
The woman called the police sting a waste of federal funding earmarked to fight the legitimate crimes of underage prostitution and sex slavery. She suggested police crack down on massage parlors to find traffickers, rather than placing an ad targeting johns who think they're meeting up with an adult.
"If you advertise in the paper for whatever service and you've got grownups coming to see you, you think they've got child abductees in their car?" she said. "Ask the taxpayers -- was it worth it?"
News of the bust elicited a lot of negative reaction, police said.
Several hundred comments were posted on newspaper Web sites last week after stories about the sting appeared.
Many criticized the effort as a waste of money and time that could have been spent arresting people involved in more serious crimes.
"It's a little disheartening when you actually try to do something good and the majority of people think you're wasting money, wasting time, why aren't you out doing something bigger?" said Palmer police Commander Tom Remaley.
"It's almost like you can't win."
Find Zaz Hollander online at adn.com/contact/zhollander or call 352-6711.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Dispatch Publishing