DULUTH AP) -- Tim Campbell got pretty good at picking up prostitutes by the end of the night.
He slowly crept by downtown's Kozy Bar in a beat-up Chevrolet pickup, wearing a red bandanna and a ratty tank top with a bottle of vodka at his side.
Campbell pulled over, and women would approach his truck.
"Wanna party?" he would say. "I'm not from around here."
"You got 30 bucks?" Chrystal Ferguson said with a smile. Campbell pulled out his wallet and found $40.
Hop in, he said, let's go for a ride.
Campbell and Ferguson pulled away, he turned right and they headed up the hillside.
Within seconds, a Duluth police car pulled behind the truck and turned on its flashers.
Campbell appeared to panic. "Hide the vodka," he said. "I lost my license, I'm not supposed to be driving."
Other squads soon followed.
An officer approached Campbell and another spoke with Ferguson.
Soon, she was put in the back of a squad car, arrested for prostitution and led to believe that Campbell was in far more trouble.
But Campbell, a Duluth patrol officer, was a decoy in a prostitution sting operation focusing on First Street, primarily outside the Kozy Bar.
"This is one of those things that 95 percent of the people in Duluth have no idea goes on," patrol officer Ryan Temple said of the city's prostitution trade.
Duluth police have conducted three prostitution sting operations this year. They are beefing up enforcement to curb what officers say is a growing problem in the city.
In the past 14 months, police have arrested about 50 people connected to prostitution, an even split between those selling and those buying sex, according to the city.
Duluth's prostitution trade has gone on for decades. Women and girls sell sex to the crews of ships, and women are selling sex on the streets, in alleys and in cars.
The owner of the Kozy Bar said prostitution has always been a problem, but that it seems to be getting worse lately.
"It's happening, there's no question about it," owner Paul King said.
Duluth is mentioned on several Internet sites for people who seek out the sex trade. The sites tell people where to go, what to expect to pay and how to avoid sting operations. They even highlight local escort services.
During that night's sting operation, police arrested four women -- Ferguson, Christine Ross, Mary Ellen Franklin and Denise Lewis -- for prostitution in two hours. It appeared a seamless operation -- so seamless that Campbell was able to separately arrest two friends who had been working together.
Police say that the money is frequently used for drugs and that the women are usually so desperate that everything is negotiable. On First Street, no sex act costs more than $50.
"It's almost too easy," Temple said of the arrests.
The sting was simple but coordinated. Several squads stayed out of sight, ready to make the arrest. Police parked a van about 50 yards away with audio equipment to record the deals, for use in court. Finally, police stationed spotters on the roof of a nearby building who would watch the women and report to Campbell who might be in business.
Once an arrest was made, Campbell got back in his truck and resumed his laps around the block. He joked that 9 miles per hour is the perfect speed to pick up prostitutes in Duluth. The trick is to drive by over and over again, circling the block sometimes a dozen times. Many men drive by, eyeing women like they are shopping for cars in a used car lot.
"These guys are like vultures," said patrol officer Michelle Rafferty, who helped coordinate the sting.
That would prove prophetic the following night, when police reversed the sting and used undercover female officers posing as prostitutes to arrest men cruising for sex.
Within minutes of starting the sting, police had arrested Gary Holter of Duluth for offering the officer $20 for oral sex.
Police pulled him over on his motorcycle outside the Technology Village. He was stunned when three officers pulled him over, creating a scene as people left Pizza Luce in awe of the commotion.
"It was a joke," Holter told the officers before being handcuffed and taken to the St. Louis County Jail, charged with soliciting a prostitute.
"Now I'll have to call my wife and tell her I won't be home," he said from the jail.
Minutes later, the undercover officer had another taker. She instructed the buyer to drive around the block and meet her behind the Kozy, because there were so many police officers around.
He took the bait.
The officers were in a frenzy to arrest him before he made it back to the officer. Police raced through alleys and finally pulled over the driver in front of the Kozy.
Daniel Zdon, a businessman from Elk River, was driving a $35,000 GMC Envoy sport utility vehicle. He offered the officer $40 for oral sex.
Zdon barely said a word when he was arrested. In the car, police found a six-pack of beer in the back seat, a box of condoms and wet wipes. A wad of bills flew out of his pockets as he emptied them at the jail. "He seems a nice enough guy," patrol officer Gordon Ramsay said. "But this kind of stuff is no good for the neighborhood. It's not good for the people who live here."
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