Super Bowl Special

Houston's game will beckon the big leagues of a profession far older than the NFL

They were two hotties from Houston looking for a good time, and both were that rare combination of eager and pretty. One woman said she was looking for "Mr. Right, as well as Mr. Right Now!" The other claimed to be a look-alike of both Julianne Moore and Julia Roberts.

So they posted their plans on an Internet message board: They were going to San Diego for the 2003 Super Bowl. Anyone up for a rendezvous during their California stay should just let them know -- and be ready with their Visa or MasterCard.

So Jim MacKay and his co-workers did just that, eventually arranging a dalliance at a local hotel. And it might have been that promised "good time," but for one small problem: MacKay and his office mates were detectives in the San Diego vice squad. The party ended before it began; Houston's traveling twosome was busted for prostitution.

In getting arrested, the Texas duo did their bit for Super Bowl legend. The story goes that the NFL's championship game brings a rash of prostitution to its host city. It's easy to see why. Game day, after all, fills a stadium with high rollers, many looking for fun in a strange town, sans wife. No matter how thriving a city's escort scene, the conventional wisdom goes, there's plenty of business to go around.

Sex workers don't deny the booking bonanza. A Houston-area call girl, who identifies herself only as Karla, says the typical $200 fee should go up to $300 for game week. And Robyn Few, a self-described former prostitute who runs the Prostitutes Rights Organization in San Francisco, says the travel factor can't be underestimated: "You're going to see women who are very high-priced call girls brought in from out of town. These are men with money, and they want the best."

Indeed, an informal survey of recent Super Bowl cities indicates that many of the busted hookers are, in fact, out-of-towners. Captain Marlon Defillo of the New Orleans police worked the plainclothes beat during the Super Bowl two years ago and netted nearly a dozen pickpockets and streetwalkers -- and not one was from New Orleans. "These are traveling criminals," he says. When MacKay and his cohorts arrested some 30 women during last year's festivities, they counted call girls from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, even Florida and Louisiana. The Houston pair fit right into the mix.

The Houston Police Department claims to be ready for the visitors coming to town for the big game on February 1.

"We're doing planning, not just about prostitution, but to make sure we keep our city safe," acting executive assistant chief Charles McClelland told the media. "As always, we feel the vice division is equipped with the staffing to meet these challenges."

How exactly the squad plans to meet them, McClelland refused to say. "I won't talk specific tactics," he said. He wasn't kidding: A department spokesman subsequently declined to provide even a head count of officers assigned to vice. Unlike other cities, which shared their information freely, Houston is playing its cards close to the vest. The only thing McClelland would allow was that he'd looked at San Diego's experience.

And that could be bad news for the sex scene. Of the last three Super Bowl host cities, San Diego was clearly the most aggressive against hookers. New Orleans didn't run any stings for call girls last year, Defillo says, though it did patrol for streetwalkers. Tampa, which hosted the big game in 2001, was similarly laid-back. Tampa Police Captain Bob Guidara says his department was more than willing to act on any complaints it received. "But think of this: How many calls are you going to get from visitors complaining about escort services?" he asks.

San Diego, a city of sunny weather and cheerful family values, didn't wait for complaints. Detectives even monitored hotel entrances for the sex trade. "Our City Council and elected officials like to keep San Diego a nice place to come," MacKay says. "We like to keep a lid on it." Be it the biotech convention or the Republican National Convention, he says, his detectives expect more activity during big events and hike up their efforts to match. "You get these CEOs and corporate guys flying in," MacKay explains. "You don't think the Enron guys were doing that?"

Tracking down the perps is usually far from difficult. Within a month of the Super Bowl, San Diego detectives were finding plenty of solicitations on the raunchier message boards. "They advertise that they're coming to town, and you get people talking, guys comparing who's good at what," MacKay says. The stings ended with the women held in jail overnight, charged with a misdemeanor -- usually punishment enough to send them packing the next day.

Few, who is lobbying for prostitution to be legalized, is openly scornful of San Diego's efforts. "It's just such a waste of resources. Wouldn't it be nice to clean up the streets instead?" She also doubts that stings are effective: "It's not going to stop the prostitution that goes on during the Super Bowl. The demand is there. Men will find what they want."

Tampa's Guidara seconds her. "I don't believe we have any true victims," he says.

It's unclear how such thinking will translate in Houston. In his interview, McClelland seemed to straddle a fine line between appeasing TV reporters, who were shocked -- just shocked! -- by the idea of prostitution here, and the rather mundane reality of consensual sex in a hotel room. His first inclination seemed to be to play down the arrest possibilities: "I don't think it will be the windfall that people think, that they'll get rich in the two weeks that the Super Bowl crowd is here."

Then again, he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't taking the threat lightly. "If I was someone thinking about engaging in some type of prostitution, I might want to think twice."

It may be no more than a good sound bite for TV. It may be the first warning of a sting, San Diego-style. Only the cops know for sure; the hookers, be they from California, Cleveland or even Katy, should find out soon enough.

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