It should have been a routine prostitution sting. On Aug. 20, 2003, at 7 p.m., a husband and wife pulled up in an old Honda into the Hampton Inn parking lot in Goodlettsville. Just 45 minutes earlier, vice officer Thomas Rollins called the Hot Couple Escort Service, which had placed a racy ad in the adult magazine, Nashville Times. A man who introduced himself as Eric answered the phone, and the officer asked if Eric and his partner Audrey could pay a visit to his hotel room "for a session." Eric quickly agreed and said they charged $250 in cash, but for another $50, he'd make sure they arrived promptly.
After Rollins called the escort service, he gave a confidential informant (CI) around $300 and fitted hotel room 122 with audio and video equipment. As promised, Eric and Audrey arrived on time. The CI let them in, Eric then pulled his wife's blouse loose and began kissing her breasts. He asked the CI "shall we take care of finances?" The CI paid Eric $300 in cash, after which all three removed their clothes.
"I've been wanting to do this a long time," the chubby, middle-aged CI said. "I ain't never done it."
Right then, if not earlier, Metro officers could have stormed into room 122 and arrested the couple on felony charges of promoting prostitution. That's what Metro's assistant district attorney in charge of prosecuting these kinds of crimes says, anyway. But the CI wasn't about to call it a night. According to the police video, which the Scene reviewed, the confidential informant slowly reclined on the bed and allowed the attractive 28-year-old woman to perform oral sex on him. Meanwhile, Eric, the woman's husband, had intercourse with her while taking dirty. This went on for five minutes, interrupted briefly only when Eric took a phone call, before vice officers came in.
That's right. A paid confidential informant of the Metro Police Department engaged in a threesome, using taxpayer money to pay for the good times. This one case, above hundreds of others in which officers have allowed confidential informants to have sex with suspected prostitutes, prompted the district attorney's office to call for a ban on this highly controversial practice.
"This is the case that brought things to a head," says Tammy Meade, the assistant district attorney in charge of special operations prosecutions. "You won't be seeing three-ways on tape anymore."
Metro Police Department spokesman Don Aaron concedes that "this was a case that everyone agreed went too far." He says that the lieutenant supervising the case initially wanted to see if Eric would eventually perform a sex act on the confidential informant. That would have resulted in additional charges. In addition, Metro vice officers tried to interupt the act earlier, but Aaron says their hotel key didn't work.
Meanwhile, Meade says that the department's use of CIs helped compromise her case against the Hot Couple Escort Service (which at one time advertised in the Scene). Although charged with a felony, Eric and Audrey, whose real names are James and Landsley Abston, agreed only to a Class B misdemeanor prostitution charge. The felony charge of promoting prostitution was dismissed, even though they were practically caught in the act. The Abstons will each serve six months of unsupervised probation and pay a $1,000 fine.
When the vice officers crept into the hotel room that night, they lectured the couple. One officer told them that they faced up to eight years in the penitentiary. Obviously, that threat rang hollow. Considering that the Metro Police Department used six officers, a paid confidential informant and expensive recording equipment to target the amorous couple in an elaborate sting, it's safe to say the Abstons got the last laugh. Incidentally, they are now making adult movies in California.
Meade says that this was not the kind of case she'd want to bring to a jury. She says that they agreed to the settlement because of "obvious problems with the prosecution" and because the Abstons decided to leave Nashville. If the police-controlled CI had not partaken in a sex act with the couple, Meade might have been able to negotiate a tougher penalty, she says.
"All we need is an agreement for sex," she says. "Some of my best cases have been made without tapes."
The Abstons' lawyer, defense attorney Mike Flanagan, agrees. "There was an offer for sex for money, and that was completed before any physical activity," he says. Flanagan notes that had the case gone to trial before a jury, he certainly would have used the department's controversial use of CIs against them. "I was going to make an issue out of it if it went to trial," he says. "The legal problem I have with it is that I'm not so sure the CI isn't involved in criminal activity as well."
For more than three years, Metro vice officers have used paid confidential informants not just to infiltrate suspected prostitution outfits, but to repeatedly engage in sexual activity with the women who work there. Often with vice officers listening in on hidden recording devices, CIs have had intercourse and oral sex long after a pattern of prostitution had been established. Assistant Police Chief Steve Anderson, who oversees police investigations, says his officers use CIs in this way to build open-and-shut cases against illegal adult establishments. And yet, in one particularly egregious case, Metro vice officers had CIs visit the same Eighth Avenue establishment five separate times. In each instance, the CI engaged in sexual activity with a suspected prostitute, culminating in sexual intercourse during the last visit.
After the Nashville Scene exposed this practice, District Attorney General Torry Johnson recommended to the police department that it cease using CIs this explicitly. Johnson and Police Chief Ronal Serpas had lunch at Merchants downtown to talk about the cop shop's controversial tactic, but were tight-lipped about whether they'd agreed to abolish the practice.
Recently, however, Meade reached negotiated settlements in several cases like the Abstons' in which she agreed to more lenient sentences in part because confidential informants had sex with the defendants. So now she's intent on establishing parameters for the cop shop's special investigations. She adds that Johnson, who was out of town earlier this week, shares her sentiments.
"I am not opposed to using CIs in a prostitution sting because they can be very helpful," Meade says. "But they have to be very controlled. I will not allow them to have sex. The line has to be drawn, and it has to be respected."
Anderson, the assistant chief, won't confirm that his investigators have stopped allowing their paid CIs to have sex with prostitutes. "What I can say is that the police department, working in conjunction with the district attorney's office will continue to investigate prostitution," he writes in an email. "Precisely defining the techniques employed would be counterproductive to the investigative process."
But it's ultimately the DA's office that has the final word, given that it has to deal with the fallout of the cop shop's risky use of confidential informants. Says Meade, "If we feel that things are not as they should be, we try to guide them in the right direction."
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