BY NICK BUGLIONE, LIZ GOFF & TAMARA HARTMAN
There is high competition and a high profit margin if your Queens business is prostitution, according to the Queens District Attorney’s office, and the best way to fight back for a neighborhood’s quality of life is to attack the profit of the world’s oldest profession.
Queens Assistant District Anthony M. Communiello, Jr., chief of the Civil Enforcement Bureau, explained the Queens prostitution business profile in a recent interview with the Tribune. According to Communiello, brothel prostitution is heavy in the Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona area. Street prostitution gravitates toward Queensbridge, Long Island City and Queens Plaza, he said.
The brothels will look rather quiet from the outside. Some feature legal businesses, others are strictly residential buildings, and the brothel “manager” may only be another tenant.
A lookout, or “doorman,” is the first line of defense at the door. Once a customer makes it inside, they may now be required to take a shower with the manager, Communiello reported, because law enforcement activities have been so bad for business that it takes this legal strip down to insure an undercover cop has not just entered the premises.
Some prostitutes work independently, other managers will have twenty women working for them. These women will have “punch cards” which are punched with every new customer that they see. At the end of the day, the manager can tell how much he has to pay his employee by how many punches there are on these cards, Communiello said.
THEY KEEP COMING BACK
Over the past two years, on the Roosevelt Avenue corridor alone, police at local precincts have joined Queens Vice cops, police at the Roosevelt Avenue Task Force, the NYPD Legal Bureau and the Queens District Attorney’s office to padlock more than 250 brothels along the commercial strip.
According to Communiello, the Queens District Attorney’s office has effected 263 evictions for prostitute-related offenses since January 1, 1998 and the Police Department’s Legal Bureau has padlocked over 100 houses of prostitution over the past two years. From the “street walkers” that concentrate their activities in Queens Plaza and Long Island City to the brothels that thrive in Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst, Vice cops and the D.A.’s office have had to become original in their efforts to stop prostitution.
Communiello explained that the illegal act itself is the exchange of sex for money. “Sex for anything else is not illegal,” he said, and as a result it is difficult to prove someone is engaging in prostitution unless an undercover operation catches offer of a business transaction on tape or a former customer is willing to testify to the illegal purchase. Therefore, Communiello’s Civil Enforcement Bureau works to use Nussiance Abatement Laws, civil lawsuits and the Bawdy House Statute to address the quality of life issues involved with prostitution. Communiello explained that the Bawdy House Statute holds a landlord responsible for evicting a tenant if it is shown “by a preponderance of the evidence” that illegal activity is taking place.
Last year, the District Attorney’s office did a training session with the Queens Vice Police, Communiello said, to help them know the legal options available for fighting prostitution. And in turn, Communiello’s bureau reviews the prostitution charges each day to look for sites that have a history or a pattern which could put them into the civil enforcement realm.
FROLIC IN THE PARK
For years, a section of Forest Park has been known as a hotspot for male prostitution, a gathering spot for transvestites.
“It’s been a problem here for God only knows,” said Tom O’Neill, a 49-year-old firefighter and 10-year resident of Forest Hills.
According to O’Neill, prostitution is most rampant approximately a half mile into the park, where Metropolitan Avenue is on the east side, Park Lane South is on the south side and Union Turnpike is to the north.
Originally hearing rumors of a “Larry Lane” from his teenage son, a place where men allegedly went to have intercourse, O’Neill learned of the situation first-hand when he began walking his two dogs in the park. O’Neill said he’s seen men have sex in the open and in bushes, leaving condoms, lubricants and other sexually oriented debris in their wake.
“I’ve been complaining about this since I’ve been dog walking,” said O’Neill. “I’ve given up, I’ve been complaining so long.”
O’Neill’s complaints have not been ignored by officials at the 102nd Precinct, which covers Forest Park.
Precinct officials told the Tribune that police set-up a special meeting with O’Neill several months ago, attended by the precinct Special Operations Lieutenant, the area “beat cop,” Community Affairs officers and other ranking officials at the 102nd Precinct. Several representatives from the Parks Department were also on hand for the one-on-one meeting where O’Neill was encouraged to express his concerns and police advised him of enforcement efforts aimed at the transvestites.
Officials at the 102nd Precinct said they have been concentrating on the “lover’s lane” trying to rid the park of the men and put a stop to their activities.
But once again, the greatest enforcement tool available to police has nothing to do with prostitution or sex acts committed by the transvestites, authorities said.
The park officially closes at 10 p.m., police said. Anyone caught inside the park after that time is issued a summons answerable in Criminal Court for trespassing, and the offender(s) are escorted from the park.
Police said “sector” cops and officials re-enter the park several times each night, making sure the offenders have not returned – and summonsing others caught after 10 p.m.
“These are regular patrols, carried out night after night,” officials said. “It’s not like we summons and chose those people, then leave the area.”
Officials also said they have not witnessed sex acts involving young boys or teens and the transvestites.
“It’s an ongoing enforcement condition,” officials said. “We are on constant patrol in the area.”
MONEY CAN’T BUY THEM PROTECTION
A team of Queens Vice cops proved in September that you can’t buy Queens cops. Two Corona brothel managers allegedly tried to use some of their profit towards protecting their flow of business and sending the cops in the competition’s direction.
Detective Jason Houlihan was no stranger to suspect Gabriel Trujillo when the two men met outside a brothel on 44th Avenue last October. Houlihan, who had arrested the brothel lookout at least once prior to their October meeting, was part of a team of Vice cops who had just raided two brothels nearby. Trujillo expressed his appreciation for the cops “overlooking” the 44th Avenue house. So thankful was Trujillo that he spoke with the brothel manager who agreed to pay the cops to keep the house “safe” from enforcement.
Houllihan got approval from his bosses, and began a nine-month probe into two brothels (sister operations) that led to 55 bribes totaling $102,000. The terms were simple. The cops would ignore the 44th Avenue brothel and another on Roosevelt Avenue, and concentrate instead on shutting down four nearby “competitors.”
The Vice cops busted the brothels, where they arrested six people and uncovered what police and the Queens District Attorney’s office described as a $2 million-a-year business. The charges included bribery, enterprise corruption and promoting prostitution.
Then District Attorney Richard Brown filed a civil lawsuit seeking forfeiture of the nearly $2 million in proceeds from the houses.
ROOSEVELT AVENUE TASK FORCE
In Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst, the problem is illegal conversions turned in to brothels, Communiello explained. Multi-family homes and commercial use space with illegal apartments or converted basements have become home to tenants that run lucrative prostitution businesses.
Police officials in northern Queens have established a revised course of action to clean out brothels located along Roosevelt Avenue. The highly-effective Roosevelt Avenue Task Force (RATF) has been refocused to concentrate efforts on identifying brothels and arresting patrons and prostitutes.
Police will also engage in active enforcement of illegal acts committed by transvestites who frequent 37th Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue between 70th and 75th Streets in Jackson Heights.
Residents and merchants along the strip have voiced numerous complaints to police about the influx of the cross-dressers into the area. “We have little patience for this type of behavior,” said one merchant who sells material for custom-made saris.
“We want them out of here.”
YOU WANT THEM GONE?
Communiello stressed that the best first line of defense against prostitution impacting on a neighborhood is the residents of the neighborhood itself. He urged local residents who have a problem to call the police department’s Queens Vice Squad, report what they have witnessed and leave their names. Complaints with names attached get priority in investigation and Communiello said that his office, as well as the police, work hard to structure investigations that will not require a neighborhood resident’s testimony. But it is possible that a neighborhood complainant could be called to testify, he added.
Queens Vice in turn recommended that local residents call the Department’s Organized Crime Control Bureau (OCCB) Field Operation Desk at 212-374-6620. Police said the desk is a warehouse for prostitution complaints, and from there the complaint is farmed out to the appropriate squad.
Communiello stressed, “People need to know that their voice does count, that their neighborhood does count” and they need to get involved in its quality of life. However, he added, there is no way to stop what has been dubbed the “world’s oldest profession.” This business will move to the neighborhood site of least resistance and continue in Queens as long as there is the chance to profit.