Don’t tell vice detectives or prostitutes about victimless crime

Chris Baughman works the night. Not just the night shift as a Metro vice detective, but the darkness itself.

It is there, in the dark heart of the city, Baughman and his partners go to root out the pimps who hustle and exploit an endless string of young women and girls drawn to the valley’s sex trade.

I grew up in Southern Nevada hearing the tired tune that prostitution is a victimless crime, but those who have seen the damage know otherwise. “Pretty Woman,” it ain’t. For vice cops like Baughman, a former Rancho High School athlete who turned a tough upbringing into a crime-fighting career that borders on a personal crusade, that tune at times groans a funeral dirge.

You’re wrong if you think Las Vegas is foremost a gambling town. It’s sex and scintillation that really sell the city. Without the marketing of the female form and the Strip’s sensuous pleasures, Las Vegas would be little more than sawdust and strip malls.

But how do you police prostitution in a place that, at least from a promotional standpoint, holds the activity in such high esteem? That’s the challenge vice faces nightly.

There will never be a shortage of roundups and room stings. But in some respects, enforcing the law is the easy part. Making a genuine difference is difficult.

For his part, the 36-year-old Baughman is a member of Metro’s Pandering Investigative Team, which focuses on the pimps and human traffickers who make the real money and do the greatest damage in the local sex racket. Baughman is partnered with William Gethoefer and Albert Beas. They manage to rescue, or at least redirect, their share of physically and emotionally damaged women.

Take the story of Tiffany, who was nearly beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat by her pimp, Anthony Smith. The grisly ordeal moved Baughman to write a book about the case, “Anomaly: One Detective’s Quest for Justice,” which is scheduled for publication in early 2011.

The woman’s physical wounds healed in time, and Smith eventually was convicted and sentenced to a minimum of five years, but in some respects the violence and criminality were just another night in the Las Vegas sex trade. Baughman knows this, but remains undaunted.

“Writing the book was probably one of the most difficult things I have done in my life,” Baughman says. “These cases, for me, they’re so personal. You meet parents, the families. You talk to the women. It’s tough to deal with it personally when you find out what some of these men do to them.”

The detective’s dedication recently resulted in him missing a meeting with a local publicist just before Thanksgiving. The publicist managed to forgive him. He and his partners were rescuing an 18-year-old prostitute and making sure she was returned to her family in time for the holiday.

At a meeting last week with members of a law enforcement agency that is monitoring an element of the local sex racket, Baughman and Vice Section Lt. Karen Hughes told about a few of their experiences working cases riddled with violence, intimidation and the devastated lives of manipulated women and girls.

For the veteran cops who work the sex trade, the duty can be rewarding but runs contrary to an ingrained element of Vegas culture.

Baughman clearly enjoys running against that grain.

“Whatever I have to do in order to protect people who in some cases can’t protect themselves, that’s what I’ve always felt my job has been,” he says. “Some people tell me I take things too personally, and they’re right. I think maybe this would be a better town if more people took things personally.”

With that, Chris Baughman prepares for work as night approaches.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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