Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd in 2008 (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Lawman

Florida’s Prostitution Buster

Controversial sheriff Grady Judd launches massive sex stings and then posts pictures of the alleged johns on the Internet. He talks to Christine Pelisek about his mission—and some of his wildest arrests.

Grady Judd is a veritable one-man prostitution-busting operation.

On his most recent sting, the Florida sheriff, with the help of dozens of deputies and detectives in his cybercrime unit, netted 78 alleged prostitutes and johns—from a police-academy trainee who was set to graduate in less than a week and a retired, married American Airlines pilot to a California porn star named Asia.

And that sweep was nothing unusual. Now, despite criticism that his stings wrongly target consensual adults, Judd is happy that his operation has become a national model. More and more communities have been conducting such sweeps, often publicizing the names of johns and prostitutes on the Web, as Judd does. (See here, for example.)

“People say you shouldn’t mess with prostitutes, but they don’t know about some of the mean, nasty folks who try to procure them,” Judd says in his own defense. “We save girls’ lives because they were arrested by us and there wasn’t some weirdo who killed them.”

Judd, whose turf is located between Tampa and Orlando and is made up of orange groves, phosphate mines, and mostly small conservative towns, says his undercover squad will continue to conduct these massive periodic investigations—because where there’s prostitution, there’s drug use and crime.

“Our whole focus is quality of life,” he says. “It is all about keeping a healthy, happy community and looking out for the best interests of the prostitutes.”

Not all of the johns heed his warnings, though. “We catch some of them over and over again,” Judd gripes. “There are some that are still stupid and come here.” But, he says, “The ones who are wise to us don’t come back. It is tough when your wife wakes up and reads it in the paper.”

The prostitutes, meanwhile, get the hint. “We continue to get more prostitutes online that refuse to come here, so it is definitely working.”

Judd even said that one of his undercover cops once called a prostitute who declined the job, warning him to high-tail it out of Polk County. “The sheriff there is a beep beep, and he will put you in jail,” the prostitute said, as Judd recalled.

If nothing else, Judd has collected some colorful stories.

“I have a pressroom that rivals the president,” says Judd.

One of the women he caught, he says, was a porn star who accompanied another woman on a trick. “We didn’t catch her for a sex-related charge—we caught her with marijuana. She said, ‘I’ve done 174 porn movies and I even give autographs.’ Who wants her autograph? She’s a legend in her own mind.”

Another arrested man asked deputies to call his wife to bail him out. “She said, ‘He’s been where? You can tell the SOB he can rot in jail.’”

For Judd’s unlucky targets, Polk County now charges a civil penalty of $5,250 for some violations related to prostitution—as if it’s not bad enough that their faces will be plastered over the Internet. The bulk of the fee, $4,500, helps to fund safe houses. The previous penalty fee was $500.

“The statute in my opinion is unconstitutional,” says a Polk County attorney, Thomas C. Grajek, who has represented a number of men busted by Judd.

Grajek says the bulk of the men who are picked up in the stings are regular guys just going through life issues. Instead, they end up with formal convictions that can’t be taken off their records. “Good luck dating whomever you want to date,” Grajek says. “They are 60 years old and they have never been in trouble in their lives. It scares the hell out of them being arrested.”

In the latest sting, from Jan. 10 to Jan 13., undercover deputies with the Polk County Sheriff's Office spent four days arresting the suspects, targeting them through websites such as Craigslist and Backpage. A large component of the operation is the female undercover officers who take turns advertising their services on the website, setting up dates at a local motel in the county.

“The girls post their photos,” Judd says. “They disguise themselves up. They dye their hair and wear extra makeup. It is kind of like playing dress up.”

The popularity of the girls depends on the night. “Some nights it’s the blondes, some nights it’s the brunettes. When you work undercover you assume the identity. “

By the end, deputies had arrested a number of johns with past felony arrests, including a suspect who had 38 total arrests in the central Florida area; a man wanted for grand theft; and a sexual predator who had failed to register. Also picked up in the sweep were 21 unemployed suspects—14 of whom told deputies that they were receiving government assistance. “We work hard and they get state money and spend on prostitutes,” Judd quipped.

Others that were arrested held jobs as information technologists, medical technicians, laborers, restaurant servers, even a microbiologist. One of the more disturbing elements of the bust, Judd said, are the suspects who wanted to pay extra to have unprotected sex. “Many of the married men wanted unprotected sex. Imagine what they would be taking homes to their wives. It’s the crazy part of it. One of our focus is health hazards.”

Judd has made national headlines over the years, for not just his stings but how far he will go to fight crime. In 2010, Judd’s deputies arrested a man in Colorado who wrote a how-to guide for pedophiles; the man was wanted on a Florida felony arrest after undercover deputies from Polk County bought a copy of his book through the mail. In 2006, Judd also arrested the deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for using the Internet to seduce what he thought was a teenage girl.

He has a fan page on Facebook with 30,000 friends, he says. A recent commenter stated: “Is it just me people or is he hot.”

“I have a pressroom that rivals the president,” says Judd, who was elected to his third term as sheriff in November. He attributes his success to proactive policing. “A lot of agencies don’t proactively police,” he says. “As a result we arrest big-time criminals hand over fist. My detectives are really talented and are simply the best in the business.”

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