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Question of the Day
HAGERSTOWN, Md. — On a warm summer evening, a woman in a short orange skirt strolls from a downtown street corner to a pickup truck with Pennsylvania plates idling along the curb half a block away.
She leans in the passenger window, speaks briefly with the male driver, opens the door and gets in. They drive off.
Twenty minutes later, they return. He drops her at the corner.
It is a scene repeated day and night on the fringes of the central business district, where many storefronts are empty and the streetwalkers are bold.
Prostitutes are found easily in Hagerstown, a Western Maryland city of 37,000 that long has been a regional center for illicit sex and drugs. That may be changing, though, as police increasingly target prostitution customers with sting operations that have produced several high-profile arrests.
"It was explained to me early in my tenure here that this was a historical problem," said Police Chief Arthur R. Smith, a former Baltimore city officer who took command in November 1999.
Chief Smith was surprised by the openness of the sex trade, which local officials consider an impediment to downtown redevelopment.
His strategy: Cut the demand.
"We can lock up almost an unlimited number of people, but if we don't really think about this and make every one count and send a message, we're going to lose ground very quickly," he said.
No solicitation arrest resounded more loudly than that of William L. Van Hall, a high school principal from Frederick, 30 miles away, who offered an undercover Hagerstown policewoman $30 for oral sex in February. Mr. Van Hall lost his $82,000-a-year job and paid a $300 fine after pleading guilty to the offense.
Since then, the near-weekly stings have caught another Frederick school principal and a prominent businessman from Cumberland, 70 miles to the west.
Most of those arrested are from outside Hagerstown and often from neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia. That may reflect Hagerstown's location at the junction of interstates 70 and 81, making the city an exchange point for goods and services of all kinds.
"A lot of people in this area do not understand there is a New York drug contingent and a Florida drug contingent right here, and women get involved," said Christina Trenton, executive director of W House, a residential drug-treatment center for women.
"They get hooked up with the dealers in the area who provide them with drugs, and a lot of the time, they do get sucked into the sex trade."
Others say prostitution thrived along with the city's railroad and manufacturing employment in the early 1900s and stuck around after those industries declined. Some blame the nearby prison complex, which steadily releases ex-convicts into the community.
Mayor William M. Breichner recalls rumors of a brothel north of downtown when he was a teen-ager in the 1950s. He said prostitutes moved into the heart of the city as downtown businesses closed.
Whatever the reasons, there are plenty of hookers, said Susan Moon, a W House resident who said she turned tricks to support her crack cocaine habit before being convicted last year of running a drug house.
She estimated that eight to 10 prostitutes are working the streets at any given time.
"It's pretty much a buyer's market," she said. "All day — it never stops. People on their way to work, people on their way from work, in the middle of the day, when the bars close — it never stops."
One well-worn strip of sidewalk, outside the crumbling Holiday Motel, lies across the street from two churches and in full view of the St. Mary's Elementary School playground.
The parish pastor, the Rev. George Limmer, said hookers have worked the corner for at least the 25 years he has been in the neighborhood.
"Sometimes the prostitutes are out in the alley during school time in the mornings and also in the afternoon," he said. "They are down there Sunday morning until noontime. It's not just nighttime, it's not just evenings, it can be any time of day."
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