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Police step up efforts to catch solicitors

July 20, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN - The Hagerstown Police Department has stepped up efforts in the past couple of months to catch those who frequent an area near two churches for sex.

Sgt. Kevin Simmers, supervisor of the Downtown Bike Squad, has been coordinating undercover operations in the unit block of North Prospect Street two or three times a week since late May. The effort is an attempt to try to flush out prostitution near St. Mary Catholic Church and School and the Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown, which sit diagonally from each other on the corners of West Franklin and Prospect streets.

"We're doing everything we can to clean up that area," Simmers said. "Children being dropped off for school shouldn't have to walk through hookers to get there."

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II applauded the police department's recent efforts, but said he fears prostitution won't just go away.

"No one wants it. No one wants to see it. No one also has the answer. If there are any citizens who can come up with a solution, feel free to call," he said.

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The concentrated effort this summer began when officers noticed more women, who appeared new to the area, walking the streets selling sex, Chief Arthur Smith said.

In the past few weeks, the department has used undercover officers to make 14 arrests, Lt. William C. Wright III said.

The department's efforts have been noticed by the Rev. George Limmer, who recently retired from St. Mary after 31 years as pastor and associate pastor.

"I'm very hopeful that it will - if not stop it - it will at least be lessened. Unfortunately, when the girls leave our area, they just go to another part of the city," he said.

David Moats, vice president of St. Mary Parish Council, said the church has "struggled" with prostitution issues for years.

"There are night activities, middle school dances and then you see the ladies of the night. It's not a good thing," he said.

Jan Trammell-Savin, interim pastor at Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown, said she hasn't noticed many problems, but added that she has only been at the church for about the past six months.

"Maybe it's working," she said of the police operations.

In 2003, the Rev. John Ailstock, who was pastor of the church at the time, considered moving the congregation from its stately historic building partly because of the prostitution problem in the area, The Herald-Mail reported. Ultimately, the church's parishioners remained, but at the time, Ailstock said parishioners complained about seeing prostitutes and drug deals near the church at 20 S. Prospect St.

Moats and Limmer said they are hopeful that with a change in ownership of the Holiday Motel, the problem will be alleviated.

Skip Tovornik, a Frederick, Md., contractor who grew up in Hagerstown, said he is under contract with the owners of Holiday Motel, Babubhai and Leela B. Patel, to buy the 12 N. Prospect St. building that has apartments and a motel section that faces North Prospect.

Attempts to reach Babubhai Patel were unsuccessful.

Tovornik said he is in the design phase of the project and hopes to convert the buildings into 10 office condominiums.

Smith said undercover operations targeting prostitution - both prostitutes and johns - have been performed by the department for years.

"It comes and goes in terms of the severity," he said.

The city's reputation as a hot spot for prostitutes dates at least to the Civil War, when Smith said troops were guarded from sneaking off to town if they camped nearby.

Although both prostitutes and johns typically spend only a few hours in jail before seeing a District Court commissioner, who usually releases them on personal recognizance, Smith said the arrests act more as a deterrent.

"It's humiliating. If they're married, their life is changed," Smith said.

Removing prostitutes from the streets cuts down on the potential for the spread of venereal diseases, he said. Simmers said when police make a prostitution arrest, they have the potential to halt other crimes such as sexual assault and drug crimes often associated with prostitution.

When police lock up prostitutes, they "try to find out their stories," Smith said.

"It's typically that they're supporting a drug habit - when they're honest," he said.

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