There was a point last weekend when 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.|

There was a point last weekend when 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 swiftly was 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, ages 26 to 62, were in custody, including one suspected of showing up 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 is identifying 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 also has 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 hearing about increased prostitution in Sonoma County, Santa Rosa Police Detective Chris Mahurin and others said.

The size of the market is overwhelming.

Mahurin, who posed as Amber online and created her profile on a website devoted to massage and escort ads filled with explicit photos, recorded close to 1,800 page views of her ad last weekend.

At least 200 calls and texts from unique phone numbers were placed to the phone number in her ad, some inquiring about the "cute yunger (sic) sis" referenced in her post.

And Amber's ad was one of a dozen or more advertisements for women listing their availability for dates in the North Bay on Feb. 1, providing enough competition to push her post down to the third page of the website only minutes after it was perched at the top of page 1.

"The supply is out there, and the demand is out there," said sheriff's Sgt. Ruben Martinez, who oversees the department's sex crimes investigations. "It's unfortunate."

Operations like the one mounted Feb. 1 -- which was staffed by more than 20 law enforcement personnel, mostly officers on overtime -- are too expensive to carry out on a regular basis.

The arrests are mostly for misdemeanor offenses. All of those arrested, save one booked for suspicion of attempted molestation, bailed out within a few hours.

But authorities said they hope the collaboration and focus on the problem at the county level, exemplified by an engaged county Human Trafficking Task Force, will create opportunities for grant-funded programs in the future.

And they're trying something new.

Detectives are tracing the phone calls and texts made to the number in Amber's ad. About 200 "Dear John" letters will be sent out informing the owners that those numbers have been linked to solicitation for illicit commercial sex and explaining why they should be concerned about the potential connection to human trafficking, Mahurin said.

Mahurin, who organized the operation with Buchignani after they attended a Bay Area conference on human trafficking last month, said Saturday's sting was unusual in that it reversed the usual law enforcement model of undercover officers making dates with prostitutes. Instead, the undercover role was that of a prostitute, and the mark, the consumer, was targeted far more efficiently than in anytime past.

Mahurin said other law enforcement agencies are waiting to see how the operation went before determining whether they'll reproduce it in their own counties. The local task force intends to conduct additional stings in Sonoma County, as well.

"What we're talking about is we're targeting our community and the demand in our community," said Anderson, Mahurin's sergeant. "These girls may be coming in from other areas. But most of the guys that were there Saturday night? They're from this community."

The county District Attorney's Office, meanwhile, is developing a court diversion program of the sort known around the country as "john schools" to provide an opportunity for first-time offenders to consider the industry they support when they seek out commercial sex workers.

Features of the program would include information about the typical sex-provider profile -- someone vulnerable, likely to have been abused and suffering from psychological trauma -- as well as the frequent involvement of pimps who exploit them for profit, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Bill Brockley, chairman of the county's Human Trafficking Task Force.

The program should roll out in a few months, he said.

Soliciting a prostitute, said Schreeder, "is just a misdemeanor, unless you're the victim of it.

"What happens if you are in that cycle, or your daughter or niece or your son? It becomes a big issue. It's not just a misdemeanor crime," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.