New City Trick

Judge Jim Sullivan has a different way of dealing with crack whores -- don't just jail them, treat them for their addiction

Sep 11, 2002 at 4:00 am
The day she was released, Tammy bought groceries and shared a pizza with her new roommates.

Then she announced she was going to go out and get cigarettes.

Instead, Tammy walked to a gas station and bought a pipe. Not long after, she scored some crack.

She never went home. She never showed up for drug treatment.

"I ran the streets," Tammy says. "I hustled at Jefferson and Winnebago at night."

When she got tired of turning tricks and smoking crack, Tammy napped on the porch of a nearby vacant house.

A probation officer spotted her working the street, but she saw him, too, and took off running.

"I got away," she says.

Two nights later, working the same South St. Louis neighborhood, Tammy wasn't fast enough.

She spotted a tall man walking slowly up the street toward her. His face was hidden by a hat.

She didn't pay too much attention -- until he came within an arm's length and spoke.

"Tammy?" he asked.

She knew the voice and started to run, but he grabbed her.

Tammy says it was more like a "body slam."

The two toppled over on the sidewalk. She called to a friend for help, but someone else yelled: "Step back! He's a judge!"

The friend froze.

Moments later, Tammy was surrounded by police.

Judge Jim Sullivan, the man who tackled Tammy while he waited for the cops, watched her getting carted off to jail.

Tammy's fourth run was over.

Her last chance, wasted.

Like most prostitutes working the streets of St. Louis, Tammy Sue Curtner is a drug addict.

A 33-year-old mother with wavy brown hair and pale skin, Tammy traded her body for drugs, a blowjob for twenty bucks. She'd turn tricks in an alley, in a stranger's car, on a dirty communal mattress in a vacant building littered with broken bottles and used needles.

Her johns were downtown businessmen on the way to work in the morning, construction workers on lunch breaks, married men bored with their subdivision lives.

"I've met all types of guys, straight down to the weirdest and the nastiest," she says. "Lawyers, doctors, straight down to bums."

After she collected her fee, she took the money and bought crack cocaine, her only pimp.

The link between drugs and prostitution is so strong that anyone who wants to find one just needs to look for the other. By one estimate, nine of every ten prostitutes in the city is an addict.

For Tammy, crack was a "twenty-second rush" that made her oblivious to what was going on around her:

"It takes away the real you -- some girls like that."

But the real Tammy kept getting in trouble with police: They'd arrest her, and she'd wind up facing yet another city charge.

In early 2000, Tammy was once again in Sullivan's court, facing a multitude of new and old charges, tickets for infractions such as disturbing the peace, street demonstration, public drinking and prostitution.

She recalls Sullivan walking past her in the courthouse, saying, "We have a good program for you, Ms. Curtner."

The program he referred to is his own creation, the result of his own epiphany. Sullivan knew, because he saw the same women over and over, that the punishments the city courts were handing down weren't having any effect. He knew getting through to these women would require a different approach, one that saw them as something other than incorrigible crack whores.

"The people that appear on the docket, for the most part, who are charged with these violations, are someone's daughter, someone's sister or wife or loved one," Sullivan says, "and it seemed as though we were missing the boat."

So in 2000, Sullivan launched the female drug court, which most cops, lawyers, and women refer to as "prostitution court." Modeled after a community-court program in Manhattan, it's an innovative approach to dealing with prostitutes that's won praise from police and health officials. Under pressure from neighborhood groups all over St. Louis, city politicians -- with the apparent exception of Mayor Francis Slay -- strongly endorse Sullivan's efforts.

To understand what's new about the program, here's a refresher on the way things used to be: Before prostitution court, prostitutes in the city were arrested, arraigned, fined and released. They'd go back to the street and turn tricks. Sometimes they'd return to pay their fines; sometimes they didn't.

"It was a never-ending cycle because they would never show back up in court," Sullivan says.

"Police officers were reduced to taxicab drivers because they would arrest them on the street on a bench warrant and bring them down, and they'd be released because, at one time, there was no room at the inn -- we didn't have any space at the jail," Sullivan says.

The system wasn't working.

Neighborhood groups were angry, female residents of areas frequented by prostitutes were tired of being mistaken for hookers by johns, prostitutes were still working for dope money and police were frustrated with the judicial system.

It was a flesh merry-go-round that Sullivan decided to try to stop.

His plan was to force the prostitutes to make a choice: Get help or get locked up.

The four-hundred-plus women Sullivan sees are, on average, over the age of 31 and sexually abused drug addicts; some are mentally ill, dropouts with an eleventh-grade education and the mothers of two children. Some have HIV, and at least one study suggests that close to 30 percent of the women have hepatitis C, another deadly disease.

And no one resembles Julia Roberts.

Many are overweight, filthy from living on the streets, sick and desperate. They don't wear seductive garb; instead, these women sport dirty T-shirts and shorts or discarded clothing thrown away in alley Dumpsters.

When they appear in his court, Sullivan lays out their choices:

One possibility is the "blue-light special," 45 days in jail -- half of the 90-day maximum sentence. The only thing the woman has to do is wait out the time behind bars.

The other choice is to accept the help Sullivan offers -- drug treatment and extensive counseling.

Sullivan, a former prosecutor and public defender, is pragmatic. This second option is no get-out-of-jail-free card.

"It takes a number of times for an individual to go through drug treatment programs. A 30-day drug-treatment program is good, but in and of itself, for a longtime user, I would not be so naïve to think it will be successful and the person will never use again," Sullivan says.

So he holds a great big club over the women's heads:

Screw up, and you'll do more time -- much more time -- than the blue-light special.

Sullivan owed that much to the neighborhoods.

And the women owed that much to themselves.

Tammy was one of the first women to take Sullivan up on his offer.

She had fifteen tickets: prostitution, street demonstration, even one for walking on the street instead of using the sidewalk.

Tammy took the help. But she also accepted the consequence; 90 days on all fifteen tickets, to run consecutively. It came out to 45 months. Slipping up meant she'd spend close to four years in jail.

Tammy messed up.

The first time, Sullivan let her sit in jail for about eight months before letting her out. The second time, she did about four months in the workhouse. The third time, she sat for another eight months.

On June 21, 2002, she was telling Sullivan she was ready to try again.

He relented and placed Tammy on probation. She was ordered to report to Mission Gate, a place for homeless women; to get outpatient drug treatment at Queen of Peace; and to attend a multitude of Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

But instead of following through on the treatment plan, Tammy slipped back onto the streets.

When Sullivan found out, he issued a bench warrant for her arrest. Several days later, after Tammy had already eluded a probation officer, Sullivan decided to drive by Tammy's haunt. He was returning from a community meeting when he spotted her. The judge summoned the police, but by the time they showed up, he'd already tackled Tammy.

Thirty years ago, prostitutes and johns gathered at Gaslight Square.

On hot summer nights, women lined the streets, openly advertising sex. Cars, sometimes bumper to bumper, snaked down Olive Street, drivers motioning for hookers to hop in.

But after the fatal shooting of a police officer, a few street sweeps and the introduction of crack, the concentrated strolls gave way to scattered pockets of prostitution.

Prostitutes work in neighborhood pockets throughout the city, as well as in a few St. Louis County municipalities.

They work all hours.

During the day, they're hard to spot.

At night, they're impossible to miss.

On a recent Thursday after 11 p.m., men wearing white sleeveless T-shirts sit in tiers on front steps of a house on Wyoming Street, about a block west of Jefferson Avenue. Some of the guys hold open cans of beer. A couple of women stand on either side of an open front door. Bodies spill out onto the walkway, cascade into the street. Men watch the cars that periodically crawl past.

A young man breaks from the crowd and approaches a slow-moving car, its windows down, the occupants strangers.

"Hey!" he shouts, a slight smile on his lips. He clearly wants their attention, and he wants them to stop.

Nearby, a man is passed out under a bench at a bus stop.

A guy standing in the bus shelter yells to a passing car: "Looking for some pussy?"

A woman in a silky nightshirt, robe and hospital scrub pants stands on Jefferson, a foot or so away from the parked cars, out in traffic. She, too, watches the cars go by.

Down the street, a woman's figure is illuminated by a humming streetlight. Minutes later, she's gone.

A middle-aged man driving a 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan also roams the streets -- Jefferson, Utah, Texas, Wyoming.

White police cruisers, gleaming against the inky darkness of night, haunt the same streets.

Everyone is playing a part.

There are crack dealers out, hoping to make a sale. But they're smart enough not to hold. That's the job of the seven- or eight-year-old standing nearby.

Women out on the street tell cops they're just outside to get relief from the heat. One woman clutches a videotape in her hand as her alibi -- she was about to walk down to a relative's house to return the movie, she says.

The outsiders -- people from St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties -- tell the cops they're lost.

Plausible and implausible explanations make it hard for the police to press charges that will stick.

That's why so many prostitutes end up before Sullivan for public drunkenness, street demonstration and not using the sidewalk.

The same kinds of flimsy charges Tammy got hit with.

Sullivan is familiar with the charges, the prostitutes and the police officers. In the past year, the judge began meeting on a monthly basis with Sergeant Terry Sloan. Sloan is a compact, muscular man with 30 years of police work behind him. For the past two years, he has headed up the vice squad.

"I wanted to open a line of communication with the police department," Sullivan says.

"It started out as a prostitute task force, but it has evolved over time into a health task force," Sullivan says, noting that representatives of the city's health department also attend the meetings between Sloan and the judge.

Sloan says police back Sullivan's effort: "I support it 100 percent, and I know all my detectives do," Sloan says.

Officers attend many of the same neighborhood meetings the judge visits, and the department is working on its own initiatives to get prostitutes off homeowners' lawns and johns off the streets and to stop sex acts from being performed in public alleys.

Major Roy Joachimstaler, head of the South Patrol, assembled one sergeant and six officers to form the Neighborhood Response Group, which helps combat so-called quality-of-life crimes. Part of the NRG's mission is to pair with Vice for undercover prostitution stings. Joachimstaler supplies the extra staff for the stings, and Sloan oversees the sweeps, which are made day and night, weekdays and weekends.

At 9:30 on a Thursday morning in August, Sloan drives around in his unmarked car, monitoring the radio transmissions of the detectives working a sting on the near South Side. A bleach-blond woman who appears to be in her midforties waves down an undercover officer driving a dark-red Taurus. She's wearing jean shorts and a lime-green shirt.

The detective stops, and the woman gets in.

Sloan describes what typically happens inside the car.

"They have to ask you what you want -- it's a name-playing game," Sloan says.

"You tell them, 'Yeah, I'm here to party."

"Then they say, 'Well, I'll suck your dick for twenty bucks."

It's critical that the undercover cop doesn't coach the prostitute, Sloan says: "They have to say what they'll give you and the price."

Usually money is what the women want. But they've also asked for food -- a sandwich from a nearby convenience store, even a bucket of chicken from KFC.

"They're gonna judge it by what their needs are," Sloan says. "Do they need a rock? Do they need something to eat?"

After the bargain is made, the detective pulls the car over to the side of the road. That's when another unmarked car, which has been following close behind, turns on its lights. In the car are two detectives, a man and a woman.

The female detective frisks the prostitute. The undercover detective continues playing the part of the john.

After about an hour and two arrests, Sloan calls for a reversal. This time, undercover female detectives, working in a pair, set up on a South St. Louis street.

The women are wired.

Sloan says of the real prostitutes: "Their physical appearance, their hygiene -- they aren't the cleanest people."

A female detective trying to look the part may put on the clothes she mowed the yard in. Sloan has watched as one officer prepared to go out on the street by picking up a handful of dirt and smearing it on her clothes and face before taking her post on a street corner.

The women are bait, and within about fifteen minutes, guys are circling them in vehicles. Some just get a thrill off being around "naughty" girls; others are trying to figure out whether the police are nearby.

Sloan says most of the guys they snare are in their thirties and forties. They even had a 70-year-old guy trying to pick up a hooker.

"It is a crossbreed of every profession, every status," he says. "You have a guy in a Cadillac pull up, a guy in a nice car who obviously has money, nice Rolex watch, nice jewelry, a pocketful of money. Why is he down here, picking up what he thinks is a $10 crack whore on the corner?"

Eventually a car moves in: two men in a white pickup truck, the name of a roofing company prominently displayed on the cab door. The women saunter up to the car door. They want to nab both guys.

The female detectives working this beat can't be prudes, nor can they act shocked. The women have to think fast and respond quickly when asked to perform out-of-the-ordinary sex acts, Sloan explains while simultaneously watching his two detectives banter with the guys in the roofing-company truck.

When one undercover officer was asked by a man and a woman to perform a bizarre sex act with the two of them, Sloan says, the detective didn't miss a beat.

"That'll cost you," was her businesslike response.

The police radio beeps twice, interrupting Sloan's story.

"It's a go! It's a go!" says the detective who has been monitoring the conversation between the officers and the guys in the truck.

An unmarked police car, lights flashing, pulls in just in front of the truck. Another unmarked car pulls in behind. Officers wearing vests marked "POLICE" jump out of the car and arrest the men.

They search and impound the vehicle.

During this vehicle search, an officer reaches in and pulls out a rifle with a scope -- not something usually found in a construction worker's belt.

It is loaded.

A detective empties the shells onto the ground.

In an hour's time, the officers arrest four men. They're taken downtown and booked, their cars impounded.

Later they'll stand before Sullivan on charges of patronizing prostitution.

And if Joachimstaler gets his way, the names of the johns, along with their home addresses, will start appearing in the Suburban Journals, identified as having been arrested for patronizing prostitution.

Sullivan is considering some creative sentencing of his own:

"I'd like to assess a fine that will cover the cost of a 30-day drug-treatment program for the prostitutes."

The front door at the Washington University satellite clinic on Taylor is labeled "Health Street."

In the foyer, a small water fountain gurgles. There's a magazine rack stocked with Ebony, Reader's Digest and Health. A child's chalk table is nestled into one corner of the pink-linoleum lobby.

Most of the chairs are empty. Occasionally a woman comes in to get test results. Another young woman with closely cropped hair wears a T-shirt bearing the message: "Guys are like parking spaces, all the good ones are taken."

A Lifestyle condoms poster, showing a close-up of a screw, reads: "If you're going to have sex, don't get screwed."

An older woman opens the front door and shuffles up the steps. She's got a reddish-black gash in her head. It starts just behind her temple and runs horizontally across her skull.

Dr. Linda Cottler, a psychiatrist running the federally funded Women's Health Study, and Symphony Brooks, a nurse, know this woman.

But they don't know that she was stabbed in the head a couple of days ago while walking the street. She was stitched up and spent a couple of days in the hospital. She's just been released.

Physical violence is one of the job hazards of being a prostitute.

Maury Travis, who may have tortured and murdered at least eleven prostitutes before he died in custody, is still on everyone's mind.

Seven of the murdered women were on Sullivan's docket -- and the judge wonders whether he did enough to get those women off the street.

"Is there something that we could have done that we didn't do that might have assisted them in seeing the light, so to speak?" Sullivan asks. "But, realistically speaking, it was hard. By the same token, I've been told numerous times, 'You can't save everybody.'"

Sloan also knew many of the women. When the corpses started turning up, his squad took to the streets, trying to compile information for the Homicide Division.

"A lot of the girls he was picking up were in Baden and on the North Side," he says. "We'd go up there in the evenings and not even lock them up, just pick them up and get them a soda and say, 'Tell us about some guy.'"

Sloan regrets that he never got a chance to talk to the man who tortured and killed so many women.

But murder isn't the only health hazard for prostitutes.

Although HIV infection appears to have stabilized at around 4 to 5 percent of drug users, there's been a rapid increase in the number of cases of hepatitis C, Cottler says.

"Hepatitis C cases represent about 25 to 30 percent of court-referred women," Cottler says, "and it's not injection drug use that seems to be causing it -- it seems to be sharing crack pipes [that helps the disease spread]."

Men who patronize prostitutes are taking the diseases to other sex partners, Cottler says, pointing to a map of the metropolitan area that shows that every single ZIP-code area has confirmed HIV and hepatitis C cases.

Cottler's study is focused on sexually active women between the ages of eighteen and 46 who either drink alcohol or use illegal drugs.

One hundred of the women in the study were referred by Sullivan. Of the additional 300 being studied, many have been in his courtroom at some point in their lives.

"They're usually drug-addicted women working the streets, plain and simple," says Joyce Williford, outreach coordinator for the Wash. U. study.

She spends at least one day a week at a table set up outside Sullivan's courtroom. Representatives from the health department are also at the table. A video about HIV runs on a TV set, and literature describing HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted diseases is there for the taking. People who fill out a questionnaire are given a packet of three condoms.

Williford also walks the streets, all over the city and some inner suburbs, to bring women into the clinic.

Most of the time, she says, the women are friendly.

"I'm kind of outgoing and make them laugh, especially if they tell me no," she says. "I'm, like, 'What? Free testing -- are you kidding? Just because you're true to your partner doesn't mean your partner's true to you.'"

Even if Williford gets women to agree to come in, few show up. She tries to sign up 80 women a week, just to get eight through the door.

Once one of those eight women walks through the door, an assistant with the study takes her history. Nurse Symphony Brooks draws her blood, then sits down with her, at which point, she says, she talks "down and dirty with these ladies."

She brings out a plastic penis and demonstrates the proper way to use a condom. She shows the woman a female condom and gives her a sample. She talks about dental dams and flavored condoms. Women resist using a condom for oral sex, she says, because they don't like the taste of latex.

"Now they have flavored condoms, so they are more apt to try that," Brooks says.

"I also teach them about drug use as well, the bleach, bleach-water method for cleaning needles," Brooks says. "We also give these kits away to IV users that are still using, with the bleach and the cotton balls."

They do not, however, give away clean needles.

She teaches them about venereal disease transmission and hepatitis C.

The women come back four and twelve months later to be interviewed about any changes in their sexual behavior.

Getting the women to convert to safe sex is tough.

"Men will pay more for sex without a condom," Cottler says, "and if [the women] really want money, then they won't use a condom, and that's a danger."

Even though Sullivan refers defendants to the program, Cottler says the visits are confidential. Whatever information the women share about their johns, their drug use or sex practices stays with the researchers. But Sullivan gets regular updates on the women's participation in the program -- whether they completed their required evaluations.

Cottler and Brooks say the prostitutes referred by Sullivan talk about the judge's tough requirements, and they're not always happy.

"The women complain, but they also say, 'He really cares about us,'" Brooks says.

Cottler and Brooks also have their own opinions about Sullivan's efforts with the prostitution court.

"He is the best," both women say.

"Quote me," Cottler says. "He is the best."

Jim Sullivan's courtroom is in a converted office building. It lacks the dark-wood paneling, antique-looking chandeliers and high ceilings that are found in the state courts a few blocks away. Instead, the 50-year-old man with salt-and-pepper hair sits up on the bench in a room with cheap flooring, lit by fluorescent lights. His office, just behind the bench, resembles a closet.

Sullivan calls defendants up to the bench one at a time.

"Good morning," he says to a woman in a skintight blue top and snow-white hair. Her stomach hangs over the waistband of her jean shorts.

Sullivan already knows her name.

"I talked to your caseworker this morning, and I'm hearing really good things about your progress," he says.

The woman beams.

He asks whether she's still taking medication prescribed by a doctor to help with her mental problems. She says yes.

"Are you suffering any side effects?" he asks in a concerned voice.

If a defendant answers yes, Sullivan will order her to go back to the doctor to discuss the side effects and find out about alternative medications. And he'll share with them that it takes a while for the medicine to start working.

He'll ask about the woman's living situation. Is the group home working out? What about her kids?

Is Alcoholics Anonymous helping?

Are you getting enough to eat? is another common question.

And the judge wants the defendants' opinions on the services of the not-for-profits he's enlisted.

Sullivan sounds more like the father of a troubled teen than an impersonal decision-maker trying to get the line moving.

He'll ask the woman when she thinks she should come back next. Is she comfortable with four weeks, or does she think she needs to be back in two? Some people prefer two, afraid they'll never make it four.

At Christmas, he'll ask the women, "Did you get your kids any crackhead-prostitute Barbies?"

They laugh.

He presses them on the issue, and the women will say they'd never get their children such a toy.

"Why should you expect any less for yourself?" he asks.

What many of the women don't realize is the lengths to which Sullivan has gone to offer them help.

This year, the city gave Sullivan $100,000 in grants to reimburse providers of housing, drug treatment, job training and health education. The year before, he received $140,000.

Nor is this a full-time gig for the judge. He makes $76,648 a year for 30 hours a week of work. But his work doesn't stop after the 30th hour, and when he leaves the courthouse, he still has clients to attend to in his law practice.

Each day, before court begins, Sullivan convenes a meeting of all the not-for-profits and city agencies donating their time and efforts to reach out to the women. He wants a report from them on how the prostitutes are doing with their treatment plans.

But it isn't just the prostitutes who need to be evaluated. Sullivan knows that his own program must undergo evaluation, needs statistics to justify to City Hall its very existence.

Warren Thomas, a probation officer who works with Sullivan, says that measuring success is difficult. Is it defined by women who don't relapse into drug use or by women who don't pick up new charges?

"Sometimes the police will arrest women they know as regulars even though they aren't doing anything," Thomas says.

But he says a rough analysis shows that the program is succeeding for 40 to 50 percent of the women passing through. And other people connected with the program say they're recruiting a local university professor to conduct a statistical analysis.

It is also unclear whether City Hall thinks the program is worth backing.

In April, Mayor Slay announced he was cracking down on nuisance crimes. In addition to problem properties and derelict buildings, he named prostitution as a target.

Since that time, many of the problem-property cases have ended up in the lap of the state courts, not the city courts. Since February, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce's office has filed 700 new problem-property cases.

As far as prostitution cases are concerned, she says that the circuit attorney's office used to handle the cases but that "about eight years ago, the police department started taking them over to city court."

She says there have been some discussions with the mayor's office about moving the cases back to the circuit attorney.

"I don't have the staff to handle the additional misdemeanor caseload," Joyce says.

And without more money to hire another attorney or clerical staff, she doesn't anticipate any change in the way the cases are handled.

Whether Slay intends to change that, City Hall's not saying. His spokesman did not return repeated calls.

But Alderman Craig Schmid (D-10th) is happy with the effort. "I'm a strong believer in the community court," he says.

Although most people don't care what others do in their personal lives, Schmid says that attitude changes when someone's behavior affects the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

"Most folks probably don't care how we deal with the problem, but we're not going to have any long-lasting, enduring, sustainable effort unless we're getting to the root causes," Schmid says, "and it seems to me that that's the path we're headed in with the community court."

Tammy Curtner, who spends her days and nights at the city workhouse, has her own opinions about what the politicians should do:

"The mayor and everybody else wants to talk about how to keep the prostitutes off the street, how they need to clean up the drugs.

"And when they've got somebody who actually opens up a program and is giving it all they got, instead of trying to help, they're just talking about it," Tammy says.

She thinks Sullivan runs a good program, even though she's stuck in jail until June 15, 2004.

"He offers you everything you need to stay sober -- he gives it to you on a silver platter," Tammy says from behind wire mesh in the workhouse visiting room.

"He can get you into a rehab that won't accept you, he gives you that little pat on the back, he asks you questions. I was in court one time, and I literally listened to that man offer to get their family insurance.

"It is up to you to do the footwork," Tammy says. "It is your choice. And I chose inside -- apparently.

"Dumb, but I did."