Pimps aren't generally known by their given names, and the 14 alleged flesh peddlers arrested in Atlanta last January were no exception. Law-enforcement officers hauled in "Playboy," "Worm" and "Poochie," among others. But while the suspects were busy being charged with 226 federal crimes in one of the biggest strikes ever against purveyors of underage prostitutes, they were most curious about a name most of them had never heard before. "Who," they asked, "is RICO?"
RICO isn't a person but a law--the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It is most frequently used to combat organized crime, but thanks to the creativity and determination of Richard Deane, the U.S. Attorney for Georgia's northern district, Atlanta's pimps became the nation's first to be charged under RICO statutes. Last August, members of Deane's community-resource team reported that local girls as young as 10 were being lured into prostitution. Most U.S. Attorneys leave such seemingly unglamorous crimes to local police, but in this case, police were discouraged by the law on the books. Pimping in Georgia is a misdemeanor offense--hardly worth pursuing. (Only recently have state legislators moved to make it a felony carrying a mandatory five-year term.) "I don't think the Atlanta police department lacked interest or motivation," says Deane, "but they lacked the tools. We had the tools to investigate and recognized we needed to do something."
Deane dispatched a team of investigators to "the Track," a section of Atlanta's notorious Metropolitan Parkway, to do some digging. They soon discovered that the pimps specializing in underage girls weren't just independent street-corner operators but a loose organization that worked like a cartel. According to the government's indictment, the pimps relied on each other for condoms and drugs, routinely traded girls and even collaborated on professionally produced training films for fellow pimps and their young prostitutes, with such titles as Really Really Pimping in Da South and Pimpology. They also equipped their charges with fake IDs and transported girls across state lines to places as far away as New York and California. Deane's office had essentially discovered a group of criminals working together in an organized fashion to break federal law; in other words, the prosecutors had a classic RICO case. "They had their own vocabulary and rules," says assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Gordon, who will prosecute the case when it opens March 21. "It was a friendly competition that could succeed only with cooperation."
If convicted, the Atlanta suspects face 10 to 20 years of jail time. Using RICO, Deane has also confiscated several of the pimps' luxury cars, and hopes to seize $14 million in illegally obtained assets. Not bad for an unglamorous local crime.
--By Josh Tyrangiel. Reported by Amy Bonesteel