There was a point last weekend where it appeared there might not be enough law enforcement personnel on hand to deal with the surge of would-be customers converging on a Rohnert Park motel to meet with a fictional prostitute named Amber.
Sheriff's deputies scooted one cuffed man into the bathroom of Amber's room as a newcomer arrived at the door and was swiftly surrounded. His decoy "date" hovered in the door to an adjacent room, where a detective was crouched over a computer, managing incoming texts and online traffic.
An additional detective in the bathroom of the second room was on the phone, negotiating services and prices with another prospective client responding to Amber's online ad. Pairs of investigators questioned other suspects and completed paperwork in two rooms downstairs.
After several hours, 10 men, aged 26 to 62, were in custody, including one suspected of coming for Amber's 13-year-old "sister," describing his tastes thusly: "I don't want to sound creepy, but the younger the better."
An 11th man, former prosecutor and judicial candidate John LemMon, was arrested Wednesday as he arrived at an alleged rendezvous with Amber. LemMon declined comment on his arrest. The Press Democrat identified him because of his public role over two decades, during which he served on a panel of temporary judges and made three bids for the judicial bench.
Saturday's multi-agency sting included officers from Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park police, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office and the Department of Homeland Security. A newspaper reporter was invited to observe.
Participants said the sting reflected changing views on prostitution in the North Bay.
Growing attention to human trafficking and the role of abuse and exploitation in the sex business has reframed the discussion, giving rise to new styles of intervention and partnerships with nonprofit social agencies working to aid those who want to break free of prostitution.
Local law enforcement agencies are increasing their focus on the consumer side of the sex trade, seeking to reduce demand for prostitutes by targeting customers through enforcement and education.
"That's been the push," said Sonoma County sheriff's Detective Mechelle Buchignani, a member of the department's Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault unit who helped organize the operation.
"The community is going to see us doing more of these things," Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Detective Terry Anderson said.
Authorities are driven, in part, by growing understanding of the connections between oppression, childhood sexual abuse, poverty, violence and the commercial sex trade — factors that have undermined the popular notion of prostitution as "a victimless crime." Many adults in the industry were introduced as minors, they say.
Acting Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder describes the changing views of prostitution as "almost like a rebranding."
There's also been growing alarm locally about the escalating trade in sex in a region once deemed secondary to larger metropolitan areas. Investigators say they've seen the Santa Rosa/Rohnert Park area become part of an established circuit through which girls and women from Richmond, Oakland, Sacramento and even Las Vegas circulate.
The arrival of a large casino in Rohnert Park, where patrons bring cash and are often in an "out-on-the-town" kind of mood, has law enforcement even in the South Bay area hearing about increased prostitution in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa Police Detective Chris Mahurin and others said.