ST. LOUIS COUNTY • A marked county patrol car was parked and vacant, but the sight of it helped give two terrified teenage prostitutes the courage to stop running and call for help in their escape from a pimp, police said Wednesday.
The take-home car was assigned to an officer who was off-duty at home nearby and unaware that the young women, 17 and 19, had just climbed through a bedroom window a few blocks away to get away from a sleeping man they said held them captive.
Police arrived to find the two standing on the front porch of an unoccupied house along the 6500 block of Dallavis Drive, surrounded by loose clothing and other belongings they managed to take along.
They told officers they didn’t want to run too far because a third teen didn’t get away and they wanted authorities to go back for her.
Police discovered that girl, 16, at the home of Anton Morris, along the 11600 block of Fox Hall Lane. St. Louis County prosecutors charged Morris, 39, on Tuesday with two counts of sexual trafficking of a child and one count of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.
Morris remained in custody Wednesday with bail set at $100,000.
The teens were referred to social service agencies and are staying at secret locations.
They were not charged with any crimes.
The scenario would have played out differently as few as five years ago, when law enforcement would have viewed the women as criminal suspects, not victims, said St. Louis County police Sgt. Adam Kavanaugh.
“We would arrest the girl, she goes to jail and we’re done. But it has become apparent to me and others in law enforcement that that’s not the way to go,” Kavanaugh said. “Sure, there are those who are working independently in prostitution, but the good majority of the time, there is usually someone behind the scenes pulling the strings.”
Even the vernacular of police and prosecutors has evolved to reflect a more enlightened view, he said.
“Words mean a lot,” Kavanaugh explained. “When you say, ‘a teenage prostitute,’ in your mind you might see a 16- or 17-year-old. But the average age of a girl going into prostitution is 12 to 14.
“So when you say, ‘Sexual exploitation of a child,’ you might think of a 10-, 11- or 12-year-old girl being prostituted out.”
Kavanaugh said his department has stepped up efforts to investigate pimps who increasingly use social media to entice prostitutes and advertise sex for pay, a shift from traditional streetwalkers.
“We quickly realized having just one guy working on these cases part time wasn’t going to be enough,” he said. “Now, I can make a call and have at least eight officers available to work on a case.”
Morris befriended the 16-year-old girl on Facebook, said Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch.
He declined to say how many people answered Morris’ online advertisements.
On April 15, Morris advertised the 16-year-old’s services on various Internet sites, according to court documents. He allegedly coerced her to recruit the 19-year-old girl on April 25, and then coerced her to bring in the 17-year-old.
They briefly worked out of a motel at an unspecified location but were moved, against their will, to his home because they weren’t making enough money, police said.
But one of the girls “didn’t want to go along with the program,” McCulloch said. Her reluctance led to the escape.
Kavanaugh said the family of at least one of the young women had reported her missing.
Neighbors said Morris was quiet and kept to himself. Some said they saw a police raid at the home Saturday and had no idea what it was about.
Belinda Zachary, 47, said she was sickened by the allegations that came out Wednesday.
“This is shocking to me,” she said in a stern voice as she looked across the street at Morris’ home. “I don’t know anything about him. Right across the street. That is too close for comfort. He kept everything quiet over there.”
Kavanaugh said he doesn’t believe sex trafficking is worse in the St. Louis area than elsewhere, but he suggested the public would be shocked to know how much of it goes on.
“It’s usually not their first time doing this by the time we catch them,” Kavanaugh said.
One of the most challenging aspects in building cases like the one against Morris is getting cooperation from the girls, he said.
“Usually they think that, ‘If I go to the police and tell them about my pimp, I will get locked up,’” he said. “But that’s not how it works.”
County Police Chief Tim Fitch called Morris “the 2013 version of a pimp” in a changing world of prostitution.
“Before, for most women, this was voluntary and they could get in and get out of it as they pleased,” he said. “But now we’re seeing this go on with much younger girls and they are keeping them as slaves who are not free to come and go.”
Denise Hollinshed of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.