WOBURN - From an unmarked cruiser in a quiet corner of the parking lot, Woburn police Detective Lieutenant Bob Rufo trained his binoculars on a man who had just parked a luxury car near the entrance to one of this city's chain hotels. The man, clad in a blazer, carried a cellphone but no luggage and walked swiftly to the door.
A textbook john, Rufo thought. As the leader of the department's vice and narcotics squad, he has tried to crack down on prostitution, a crime that has flourished in the suburbs with the help of classified advertising sites on the Internet.
Rufo quickly radioed his partner, Detective Angelo Piazza, who was conducting surveillance on the other side of the hotel.
"Angie, there's a guy going in the door right now, well-dressed guy, business suit, bald," Ru fo said. "Just looked at his phone."
Rufo was right. Fifty minutes later, Piazza spotted the man emerging from the room of a suspected prostitute on the third floor. He called down to Rufo, who stopped the man near his car, which bore a window sticker for a prestigious private school. The man confessed to paying $180 for a massage and a sex act.
A half-hour later, Rufo stopped a second man in the parking lot who admitted to paying $150 for a similar experience and said he'd been offered more services for $375. The detectives went to Room 328, where they arrested the woman on prostitution charges.
For Rufo, this was the 17th prostitution arrest he has made in less than 14 months. But the tally barely speaks to the prevalence of prostitution in the suburbs, he said, as the Internet has helped the crime to migrate far and wide from city street-walking encounters. If they had the time and resources, Woburn police could arrest prostitutes seven days a week, Rufo said. And other departments along Route 128 and Interstate 93 could do the same.
"Every hotel has hookers in them," he said, "especially along the major thoroughfares. That's the bottom line. People have no clue."
To illustrate the point, Rufo on a recent afternoon launched the Web browser on his office computer and scrolled through a list of sites he monitors for prostitution activity. He selected one, a popular classified-ads site, and clicked on "erotic services" for the Boston area. He tried a few search terms, like "Woburn" and "north," and returned dozens of hits.
Rufo clicked on a "BRAZILIAN BUNNY . . . SEXY BLONDE" headline and read a posting from "Nicolle" in Woburn, who listed measurements and prices ($150 for a half-hour, $250 for an hour) as well as claims of "5 STAR SERVICE!" and "FULL SATISFACTION," euphemisms for full-service prostitution, Rufo said. He called her number, which was listed to a New Jersey cellphone, and used his own cellphone to avoid giving himself away on caller ID.
"Hi, Nicolle?" Rufo said. "Hi, hon, how are you?"
"Good," she said. "How are you?"
"Good," Rufo replied. "Hey, listen. I'm looking for something around 4:30."
"OK," she said. She gave him the name of a hotel near Exit 36 on Route 128 and said to call again from the parking lot.
"OK, thank you," Rufo said. "Bye."
He looked up, wearing an it's-that-easy grin. "I've got to go lock her up right now," he said.
For the Woburn vice squad, finding and arresting prostitutes is easy; convictions are the hard part. Rufo monitors the Web and conducts busts during downtime from narcotics work, his primary responsibility, or in response to calls from hotel management.
The hotels, eager to discourage the activity, help spot prostitutes and provide the police access to nearby rooms for surveillance. Rufo has taught hotel staff to watch for signs of prostitution activity: Women who pay in cash, change rooms daily (to avoid customers who might return unannounced the next day), and request frequent supplies of new towels; men who arrive without luggage, head straight for the elevators, often with cellphone in hand, and leave anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours later.
The detectives typically monitor activity for a few hours in the hopes of catching two johns. They don't arrest the men but instead interview them to gain probable cause to arrest and charge the suspected prostitute. The men are named in the incident report and may be served a summons to appear later as witnesses or to face charges.
The Woburn detectives may reconsider that practice, Rufo said, but choosing not to arrest the johns makes them more likely to cooperate and spares them added shame. "It's embarrassing enough for them," he said. "We're just trying to stop the problem, not create them."
The prostitute is arrested at the hotel, booked at the department, and arraigned soon after in district court.
The charges carry jail terms and fines, but convictions are rare in an overburdened court system, Rufo said. Woburn District Court records show that the cases are often continued or dismissed without a finding, though the defendants must sometimes pay court costs or perform community service.
The hassle of an arrest and lost wages - the police have confiscated as much as $4,400 in a single bust - might discourage a prostitute from returning to Woburn and signal that local police are watching, but it does little to address the regional problem, especially since many departments do not track prostitution as aggressively as Woburn.
That's why Rufo, the commanding officer of the Southern Middlesex Regional Drug Task Force, recently applied for a state grant in an attempt to form a similarly collaborative force to counter prostitution near I-93 and Route 128.
He also is working with prosecutors to aim for convictions. Rufo's unit goes undercover for drug busts, but he is reluctant to ask officers to pose as johns, which might produce stronger evidence for prosecution. "I don't want to subject them to that," he said.
Although prostitution ranks as a lower crime-fighting priority than drugs, it poses a public health issue. It also often intersects with narcotics and sometimes has human-trafficking or illegal-immigration elements. "It's certainly not a victimless crime," Rufo said.
Time prevented Rufo from going after "Nicolle," but the next day he connected with a woman who advertised herself as "Stacy" on the Internet and who described herself as a "privately educated, perfectly groomed," and substance-free "Gentleman's Courtesan." Rufo arranged for a 4:30 p.m. appointment, learning her hotel location in the process.
At the hotel, Rufo and Piazza determined the woman's room number - 328 - in less than an hour, through surveillance and the help of a clerk. They also learned that the room was registered to a woman from Western Massachusetts whom they had suspected of regularly posting on a website for months, under a variety of names, but had not had the chance to arrest.
A little before 4 p.m., Rufo stopped the first suspected john in the parking lot. The man initially admitted only to a massage. "Of all the places in Boston you could go to and pay $100 for a massage, why would you go to a hotel in Woburn and pay $180?" Rufo asked.
The man then admitted to an additional act, but he disagreed with the police - and state statutes - that it constituted sex. "Well, what do you call" it? Rufo asked.
"I don't know," said the man, pausing briefly. "I don't call it sex."
Rufo told the man he might receive a summons, asked him to erase the number for "Stacy" from his phone (so he wouldn't tip her off as he drove away), and advised him to find other forms of recreation.
The next man Rufo stopped was younger and wore a knit cap with the name of a top university in the Boston area. The man looked instantly shaken and started blubbering; he mentioned his wife and family and pleaded to be spared jail time. "I don't want to arrest you," Rufo said, trying to sound reassuring. "But if you don't tell the truth, I will."
With that information, Rufo and Piazza called for a uniformed officer. The officer arrived at the same time as a Wakefield detective who has worked with Woburn on some prostitution cases, and the four headed upstairs, where they confronted the woman. They confiscated $1,190 from her room, where unopened condoms were found tucked into a phone book and towels and face cloths dotted the bureau. The clock radio was tuned to classical music.
"I want a lawyer!" said the woman, who later would plead not guilty to two counts each of sexual conduct for a fee and unlicensed massage; the case is pending. "I'm not going to say anything until I get a lawyer."
"We've been chasing you around for months," Rufo said, naming local hotels. "You can call a lawyer when you get to the Police Department."
It was a little after 5 p.m. The woman dressed for the ride to the station, with the police in her room and a reporter and photographer in the hall. A young man in a hat and dark jacket emerged from the bank of elevators and walked down the hall. Hearing the police, he turned on his heel and returned immediately to the exit.
He carried no luggage.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.