It's a familiar story: A quiet evening on Third Street in Old Town Eureka. Well-heeled tourists stroll catty-corner from their berths at the Carter House Inn to the Carter House's tony Restaurant 301 for a nightcap. Working-late lawyers in the several law offices along the historic street shuffle a few last thoughts.
And in front of the Humboldt County Library, down where the street makes a jerky jog of right angles, a woman paces the street hoping for some kind gentleman to stop and offer her some money. Sometimes she might even settle for some speed. And in exchange for the money or drugs? Well, lucky man.
Unless the cops are bored. Like last Wednesday night, when they arrested three men, including a prominent Eureka businessman, for soliciting prostitution on Third Street from a female cop pretending to be a hooker. The men -- Richard William Littlefield, 58, of Eureka; Eric C. Peterson, 58, of Phillipsville; and Juan Jose Salazar, 33, of Arcata -- were booked and charged with solicitation for prostitution, a misdemeanor.
Littlefield, who owns Eureka Natural Foods, also was charged with driving with a suspended license. Peterson additionally was charged with possession of methamphetamine. (Incidentally, he is not to be confused with the similarly named president of the Humboldt Association of Realtors. After the sting made the news, and some jokey calls came into the Humboldt Association of Realtors, HAR sent out a memo to its membership just to let everyone know that, no, it wasn't their president who was arrested, said Lois Lee Busey, HAR's executive officer, on Tuesday.)
Reached Tuesday, Littlefield declined to comment on his arrest.
Lt. Murl Harpham of the Eureka Police Department said the sting began just before dark. He wasn't there, but he described the general approach:
"The decoy officer just basically walks in that area around Third Street, from about J Street to the library," he said. "And then we have officers that cover her, watching her from a distance and listening to her -- she's got a wire on her. And then when a person approaches her and commits the act -- wants to have sex for money -- then she says, 'OK, I'll meet you at the motel.' And then when he drives away we arrest him in the area of the motel, which shows that he was planning on going through with it. It's called 'furtherance of the act.'"
Harpham declined to say which motel the sting used. "We were using one motel for awhile and we tried to do a Craigslist thing, and everybody got suspicious of that motel and wouldn't go there," he said.
They do one or two stings a year, whenever they've got some time or when the complaints have piled up. "We have what we call a training day," he said. "And every officer works that day, but half of ’em work the street on patrol, and the other half are in a training mode -- or special projects. If they don't have training scheduled, then they do special projects. And this was a special project."
A lot of complaints come from businesses in the area, and library personnel have been complaining for years, Harpham said.
"And, also, we've had complaints from women who go into the area on business and they get asked from some guy if they're a prostitute -- just because they're in that area," he said.
Library Director Victor Zazueta said he, personally, hasn't called to complain about the prostitutes hanging around on Third Street, but he said his staff can see stuff going on from their second-floor lunchroom, which looks out over Third Street.
"We're very aware it's going on," he said. "I think it's sad that it goes on. But you know, I've worked in a lot of libraries over the past 20 years, and a lot of them are in tough neighborhoods, and there'd be street prostitutes coming in. It's a public space."
Harpham said about two-thirds of the stings target the prostitutes, and the other third the johns. The prostitutes are easier to go after -- except for the ones using Craigslist or who have a regular, cell-phone-reachable clientèle. Plus, the EPD only has three to four female officers, Harpham said, compared to its 45 male officers.
"And the women [decoys] are quickly recognized," he said. "And we're always hiring male officers, so we like to put the new male officers down there because they're unknown. Because with the prostitutes, we're in contact with them all the time for other things: for drugs, for thefts, for forgeries, for fighting with their boyfriends or whatever."
The johns are harder to track because they just drive by. "We've never got the same guy twice," said Harpham. "We've gotten the same woman multiple times. But you never get the johns twice."
The charge is the same for the prostitute and the john -- soliciting prostitution. Maybe they contest it, maybe they don't. Probably they're fined. And then, said Harpham, the prostitutes go back to work.
"They've got to make their fine money," he said. "That's the way the whole system is. You rob a bank and you get out and you rob a bank again."
And thus it has always been, and shall be, apparently, on Third Street.