Women charged with offering girls for sex

By Josh Noel
Tribune staff reporter

January 11, 2007, 7:03 PM CST

Officers thought they had a standard prostitution bust last week when they came face to face with a surprise: The escorts, which were advertised on the Craigslist Web site, were as young as 14.

After arresting nearly 75 women accused of selling sex on Craigslist in the last 18 months, Cook County sheriff's police said Thursday that it was the first time the operation had netted such young teens.

Two Chicago women were charged with prostitution-related crimes, accused of placing the girls—14, 15 and 16 years old—on the erotic services section of Craigslist. The Web site, popular with job and apartment hunters, says it receives 5 billion page views per month.

The postings promoted 18- and 19-year-old women and were accompanied by photos of people older than the teens, police said.

"The Internet, which can be used for so many great things, has been perverted yet again," Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said Thursday.

Much of the erotic services page contains thinly veiled offers of prostitution, with explicit photos and strong insinuations of sex in exchange for "donations" or "roses," a slang term for money, police said.

The three girls have been petitioned to court on prostitution charges. If charges are pursued, it would only be to get them help, Dart said. All three had varying degrees of troubled backgrounds, having run away from home, used drugs or dropped out of school.

"We're not looking at them as criminals," Dart said. "We're looking at them as victims."

Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote in an e-mail Thursday that illegal activity is prohibited on the site, and that the erotic services page is intended for use by "legal escort services and sensual massage providers."

"It was added at the request of our users, who wanted these ads separated from our general personals categories," he wrote. "We appreciate and are fully cooperative with law enforcement efforts."

Dart said the investigation began with investigators trolling the erotic services page.

On Dec. 31, they responded to an ad describing a woman in her late teens and were instructed to go to a home in the 5300 block of West Potomac Avenue. There they met a female who agreed to perform a sex act for $200, police said.

The girl, who was arrested, was 16. Officers entered the apartment and arrested Tamara Cotton, 25, who was charged with keeping a place of prostitution and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Cotton was released after posting $100 bail, police said.

On Jan. 5, officers again responded to a Craigslist ad and arranged to meet a woman at an Elmwood Park intersection. A 15-year-old girl arrived and agreed to perform a sex act for money. She was arrested, as was Cotton, who had driven the 15-year-old there and was waiting in a car with her 2-year-old child, police said.

Cotton was charged with one count of pimping and child endangerment.

In an unrelated case also involving Craigslist, police arranged on Monday to meet a 19-year-old escort at a home in the of the 4200 block of Le Moyne Street. After agreeing to a deal outside the apartment, the escort was arrested. She was 14.

Officers entered the apartment, where they arrested Christina Holt, 19, who is charged with keeping a house of prostitution.

Also arrested was Holt's boyfriend, Montrell Knight, 34, of the same address, who is believed to have been storing guns and drugs for the Gangster Disciples street gang. He is charged with nine counts of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, armed violence and three drug-related charges.

Dart said more girls are undoubtedly being exploited in the same way and that the investigation in continuing. More arrests are possible.

"We could be doing this around the clock every day of the week," Dart said. "There is no lack of it."