JAIL BAIT: Tigard Police Officer Oddis Rollins used this photo to lure Shawn Walsh into Washington County. Walsh had 3.5 grams of pot when he was arrested. ILLUSTRATIONS: Mia Nolting
Early one April morning, Shawn Walsh hopped online in his one-bedroom apartment in Oregon City and turned to the Casual Encounters section on craigslist.org.
Casual Encounters has done for sex what bathhouses and swingers’ parties used to do—made it convenient, available and anonymous.
Walsh uses Craigslist because, frankly, he wouldn’t have much luck scoring at a club in Old Town, or even at a bar in Oregon City.
Thirty-eight years old with a paunchy gut and a goatee, he grew up in Canby and used to work as a mechanic until he broke his back in 1991. Now he’s divorced, supporting himself on disability checks and by selling auto parts online.
On April 13 this year, he clicked into Casual Encounters and found this personal ad: “Tuesday is my Friday!! Wanna smoke and....;)”
The ad said a 23-year-old woman had posted it. Walsh clicked on the link and read more.
“Tuesday is my last day at work this week and I wanna party on Tues night!! I’m a hot blonde who has all the right moves.” The ad promised to trade those moves to anyone who could offer some “420,” or marijuana.
Walsh wrote back from his Hotmail account: “Hi how you doing my name is Shawn. I have some bomb 420 and would like to share it with you tomorrow night.”
“Perfect,” came the reply from email@example.com. “I’ve got a little pretty pussy for you to play with while I smoke all your weed ;) Wanna work a little trade like that??” The message was signed Kayla.
“That would be great. I like to play with pussy,” Walsh wrote.
“I promise,” the next message said, “this sweet pussy will be the best payment you’ve ever got for some bud. As long as you got sum good weed, I’ve got the best pussy for u. All night long if u can last that long.”
Attached to the email was a picture of three young women sitting on a bench at night. They looked like slightly buzzed sorority sisters who had just stepped out of a bar on spring break.
“I’m the blonde on the right,” the email said. “I havent had any dick in months so you’ll have to be gentle at first.”
They arranged to meet at 11 pm Tuesday, April 14, at an address on Southwest Hermoso Way in Tigard. Walsh made the half-hour drive from his home in Clackamas County west to Washington County.
When Walsh pulled his black Chevy pickup onto suburban Hermoso Way, he was surrounded by Tigard police. Officer Oddis Rollins, who had placed the Craigslist ad and written the emails, asked Walsh to step out of his truck.
Walsh had 3.5 grams of weed in his pocket—normally enough to earn him nothing more than a ticket. But because he’d agreed to trade drugs for sex, the cops charged Walsh with misdemeanor prostitution and delivery of drugs, a felony, and booked him into Washington County Jail. But Walsh insists he was just looking for a good time.
“I think they were looking to bust some huge drug dealer, I don’t know,” Walsh tells WW. “But the way they went about it, who are they gonna bust besides someone like me?”
It’s not unusual for police to conduct stings to catch prostitutes or the johns who hire them. Portland police do so several times each year, including along 82nd Avenue.
But Walsh’s arrest was part of a recent sting operation by Tigard police that observers call highly unusual. For one thing, the ads were written to appear as if they were from a promiscuous girl-next-door type rather than a professional hooker. Even more strange was the offer of trading sex for pot.
According to public records, Tigard police spent about eight months posting such ads online. During that time, they arrested 24 men from all over the Portland area, including an Oregon Department of Transportation employee, a Portland State University student and a former TV news producer visiting from Yakima, Wash.
Tigard police didn’t stop the practice until the Washington County District Attorney’s Office finally told them in May the tactic was producing cases they couldn’t prosecute. The reason: Prosecutors felt they couldn’t prove some of the men arrested ever intended to commit the crimes they were being charged with.
Much like Dateline NBC’s controversial series To Catch a Predator, the tactic by Tigard police has been assailed by defense attorneys, by those who fell into the trap and even by some law enforcement officials. Some describe the stings as a classic example of entrapment and police overreach.
“The police officers participating in this scam are using the same tactics that predatory sex offenders would use,” says Alex Hamalian, a prominent public defender in Portland who was not involved in the cases. “Some guy who is so weak he has to turn to the Internet for sexual gratification is calling these cops, and they are taking advantage of his desperation…that’s the epitome of entrapment.”
Even Oregon’s top law-and-order activist is critical.
Kevin Mannix is a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and author of Measure 11, a 1994 ballot measure that created mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenders. More recently, he wrote Measure 61, a failed 2008 ballot initiative that would have provided mandatory minimums for drug dealers and thieves as well.
Mannix says the Craigslist stings in Tigard leave him squeamish.
“How far do we go in trying to capture predators, in lowering ourselves to the same cesspool? At some point, you make yourself as dirty as the predator,” Mannix says. “This might be what I call the virtual version of crossing the line.”
Or, as defense attorney Gabe Bickle-Eldridge puts it: “Tigard must be a really great place to live if there’s no crime, and police need to spend their time trying to create crime and attract drugs to their community.”
DEFIANT: Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen stands behind the city police. PHOTO: Thomas Le Ngo
Even now, Tigard’s mayor and police chief both insist the sting was justified.
“I stand behind our police,” says Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen, who says he was briefed on the stings while they were under way. “I wouldn’t say they were bringing [criminals] in. I would say people outside the community were choosing to come in.”
Tigard lies nine miles south of downtown Portland, but also a world away.
A bedroom community of 50,000 residents, Tigard is white (82 percent), relatively well-off ($61,000 median household income) and best known by outsiders for its 1.46-million-square-foot Washington Square mall.
Politically, the town is a suburban battleground, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans there for the first time in 2006. Still, senior Bush adviser Karl Rove deemed Tigard a safe haven for a fundraising visit on behalf of the local Republican Party in 2007.
To some degree, Tigard’s effort to do something about prostitution is understandable.
Last August, Tigard made statewide news after police found a 15-year-old girl being pimped out of a local Motel 6. The next month, the 80-member police force decided to place ads on Craigslist offering sex for drugs.
Tigard police spokesman Jim Wolf says they chose pot specifically because it was the most common drug they found associated with prostitution. It was also the drug most commonly offered by johns and demanded by prostitutes in exchange for sex, Wolf says.
While prostitutes are most often paid in cash, it’s not unheard of for johns to offer payment in drugs or other goods. Detective Mary Wheat, a Portland police spokeswoman who formerly acted as a decoy in prostitution stings, says she was offered drugs in those stings. Once, a john offered to pay her with cash and beer.
Such deals are still considered prostitution, Wheat says, and those johns get arrested along with ones offering $50 bills. But she has never heard of Portland cops posting ads offering sex for drugs.
“It’s just not a priority,” Wheat says.
Tigard’s Craigslist campaign was primarily the work of two cops on the swing shift from 2 pm to midnight.
Officer Oddis Rollins, 33, was hired by the Tigard Police Department as a rookie cop in 2004. Officer Thomas Hahn Jr., 34, has been with the force since 2005, after serving with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and the Tualatin police.
Both refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. A third Tigard cop, Officer Thomas Clarson, 35, wrote similar Craigslist ads starting this year. He also refused to be interviewed.
The three were directly responsible for writing the ads and the corresponding email exchanges with the suspects. But their superiors the operation. Those commanders include Lt. Rob Harburg and Sgts. Neil Charlton and Tom Duncan of the Tigard police.
Tigard Police Chief Bill Dickinson says he knew his cops were trying to bust johns as well as prostitutes, but he says he did not know the specific nature of the investigations while they were happening.
Nonetheless, he defends those investigations today.
“If somebody comes here and wants to engage in sex for a fee, that’s illegal,” says Dickinson. “I’m interested in trying to keep that activity out of our city. That’s our goal. Whatever we do, that should be a priority.”
The three officers who wrote the ads—Rollins, Hahn and Clarson—are singled out by local defense lawyers for the relish they seemed to put into their work. The cops constructed personas for the women they portrayed, using photos that Hahn testified in court were pulled randomly from the Internet—an act that defense lawyer Bickle-Eldridge believes may qualify as identity theft.
The emails they wrote during their long hours on the swing shift are lewd and, in some cases, outright pornographic.
On May 8, Rollins placed a Craigslist ad titled “420 chic for a d*ick.”
“Looking for a guy to chill with tonight,” the ad said. “Need u to bring over some 420 and trade me for a hot bout of good ol fashioned sex! Any type of sex is cool, front door, backdoor. Whatever!”
A 55-year-old bald man from West Linn responded—“Come over to my place and i’ll smoke you out. Do you like mutual oral?”
Rollins’ response: “Of course I love oral! I love to be licked and have a tongue shoved way deep in my pussy! Thats hot. I love sucking dick too. Ive got a nice tongue stud that would drive you crazy! If you wanna come out, bring your bud and you can exchange it for some hot oral action;) Maybe more if u think u can handle it!”
The man asked Rollins if he was STD-free and whether Rollins would swallow his semen. Rollins promised him “the hottest bj of ur lifetime”—in exchange for an eighth of an ounce of marijuana.
They met at the same address on Hermoso Way—a ranch-style home that houses a lawyer’s office. The man was arrested for delivery and prostitution, but prosecutors dismissed the case.
The Washington County DA’s Office concluded many of the cases Tigard PD brought it were too weak to prosecute—adding weight to those who believe the Craigslist sting shows signs of a runaway law enforcement agency.
Rob Bletko, Washington County’s chief deputy district attorney, doesn’t go that far. But it was Bletko who advised police to shut down the operation.
“It casts too wide a net,” says Bletko. “Are they simply intending to hook up? Are we dealing with a drug dealer, or [just] someone in possession of drugs who intends to share them with somebody else?”
Such cases were starting to prove problematic for the DA’s office. It lost one case when a defense attorney argued the crime wasn’t committed in Washington County because the man had been online at home. And a prosecutor dismissed Walsh’s case after a grand jury declined to indict him for delivery.
Bletko says he first became aware of the troubles in April, when a deputy district attorney in his office declined to prosecute a Beaverton man arrested by Tigard police. The man had responded to an ad Rollins put on MySpace advertising private performances by a dancer named “Kayla.”
Initially, Rollins hinted the dancer wanted money for sex. But after exchanging emails where the man bragged about his sexual prowess, Rollins negotiated a deal in which the imaginary dancer would pay the man $20 for each orgasm she had.
The man was arrested for prostitution when he showed up on Hermoso Way with condoms, tequila, triple sec, and a bottle labeled “Stamina RX—Warning: Extreme Sexual Experience.”
Deputy District Attorney Allison Brown tossed out the case, noting it was Rollins who initiated the sex talk after the man simply asked about exotic dances. “We cannot prove the suspect actually intended to pay for sex,” Brown wrote.
But Rollins challenged her decision, and the case ended up on Bletko’s desk. He agreed with Brown’s call.
“I told them we are not going to prosecute these cases, that it’s a bad practice,” Bletko says.
Wolf, the Tigard PD spokesman, at first told WW his agency stopped posting the ads because commanders had reviewed the program. After Bletko gave his version, Wolf admitted it was the DA’s office that had prompted police to shut it down.
For those caught in Tigard PD’s web, however, the damage was already done. Some were found guilty of delivery and now have felonies on their records. Others pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Some had their cases dismissed by prosecutors. Still others are awaiting trial.
Defense attorney Bickle-Eldridge has defended seven Tigard Craigslist cases so far. In three, he says, his clients were scared and pleaded guilty to lesser charges of drug possession. Two other cases were dismissed by the DA’s office. Two more are set for trial.
Bletko says his office will continue to prosecute cases they believe have merit or in which a felony was committed.
Bickle-Eldridge has filed notice in court that he plans to use an entrapment defense.
“It just seemed like it was some rogue police officers who were having some fun with this and basically ruined some people’s lives who didn’t deserve this,” Bickle-Eldridge says.
People like Michael White.
White is a 31-year-old who makes his living blowing glass and selling pipes he makes to head shops. He wears tie-dye and, yes, smokes a bit of pot.
Last Nov. 14, White was sitting at home in Beaverton at 11:30 pm when he saw an ad on Craigslist labeled “Looking for 420 in exchange for whatever!” The attached pic showed a plump woman in a bikini mugging for the camera. White responded and asked if she was real.
“Hells yeah i’m real,” came the reply. “I only got 15 minutes to exchange for some bud, what u want?”
“Hmmm... how about eatin your pussy?” White wrote back. “Can you cum that quick? I’ve got a tongue ring :) I love making a girl cum... I’ll jack off later to thoughts of your eyes rolling back in your head.”
White arranged a meeting outside his condo. He was carrying one of his homemade glass pipes and 0.2 grams of bud—about the size of a thumbnail. He was arrested for prostitution and delivering marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school—a class A felony. But this time the cop was from Tualatin: Officer Cameron Montrose.
For a brief time last fall, police from Tualatin, which sits four miles south of Tigard, were posting Craigslist ads promising sex for drugs. They arrested five men on similar charges, including White.
Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden refused to comment, saying he knew nothing about the operation and needed to talk to the police first. Tualatin Police Chief Kent Barker defended the sting.
“You can’t tell me it’s just someone who wants to party,” Barker says. “It looks like all the other prostitution listings; it’s just that this particular undercover prostitute wants to exchange money for drugs.”
After 30 days in jail, White pleaded guilty to delivery of marijuana and was sentenced to time served plus two years of probation.
“I was set to fight it, but man, after 30 days, they say they’re gonna let you go, it’s like, ‘I’ll sign whatever you want, just let me out of jail,’” he says.
The ad the police posted looked nothing like prostitution, he says.
“The thing about Craigslist, there are people hooking on there, and you can tell those ads. I wasn’t looking for that. I just wanted to meet a girl,” he says. “The whole thing just blows my mind.”
Now he’s ordered to attend rehab. The bust cost him nearly $1,000 in fines. And it will be seven years before he can have the felony erased from his record. Until then, it will be difficult to find housing or a steady job.
In the meantime, White has some advice for Washington County law enforcement.
“If you’ve got time on your hands, go to the kids’ chatroom and try to catch some pedophiles,” he says. “Leave the stoners alone.”
In 2008, Tigard had 142 reported assaults, 46 robberies, 221 burglaries and 1,347 instances of theft.