Houston: Brothel cases built on money, not sex

By BRIAN ROGERS HOUSTON CHRONICLE
March 19, 2009, 8:12PM 

A Houston couple arrested this month for allegedly running a high-end call girl service face prostitution charges. But it’s the money police say they made — not the illicit sex — that could send them to prison for a long time.

Frustrated by judges and juries reluctant to throw the book at people accused of what some call a victimless crime, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is taking a different tack in a few high-dollar cases by bringing money laundering charges that carry stiffer penalties. If prosecutors can prove that pimps made more than $200,000 off their enterprise through money laundering, prosecutors could win sentences of up to life in prison for the first-degree felony. The government also can seize assets.

“If you go after management, it has a more profound impact,” said Assistant District Attorney Craig Still. “Especially, if appropriate, you seize stuff that has been bought with illegal proceeds of crime. Once you start taking stuff and shutting down properties, it has more of an impact than popping the girls who are doing the sex acts.”

Deborah and Charles Turbiville were arrested March 10 and charged with aggravated promotion of prostitution, a third-degree felony, punishable by a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Investigators are reviewing bank and possible tax records from a Web site the couple is accused of operating in the hopes of filing money laundering charges.

Their attorney, Keisha Smith, declined to comment about the investigation, but said the Turbivilles are innocent.

With more than 300 “massage parlors” and “relaxation clinics” operating as de facto brothels in Houston, officers often lament the time and energy it takes to shut down just one. Building money laundering cases linked to prostitution can take years, police said.

“I could arrest them all if I had an army of men,” said Houston police Sgt. Mark Kilty, whose office spent more than a year investigating the Turbivilles.

Two similar area cases
Similar to the detailed investigation pursued against the Turbivilles, officers have posed as customers and prostitutes in other cases. Because of the length of time it takes to link the illegal sexual acts with the spoils of accused criminal enterprises, only a handful go to trial each year.

Two such cases involve alleged Houston-area madams, Eliamar R. Rodriguez and Dawn Elizabeth Giachino, who were arrested last year after extensive investigations. Each face life in prison if convicted of money laundering.

Police believe Rodriguez, 35, was a prostitute as well as a madam who bought the Velvet Touch, a converted house, for $125,000 in cash in 2002.

Specializing in “rubdowns” from “models,” the business at 1900 Texas Highway 6 advertised 24-hour service on its Web site.

For five years, the Houston Police Department’s vice squad began building a case including arresting prostitutes charging $160 to $280 an hour in trick rooms and questioning customers who told police they paid for sex.

In 2007, a female officer applied for a job at the Velvet Touch, gathering details about how the business worked. Undercover police began following Rodriguez to document what she owned and where she lived. In addition to a $300,000 house in Kingsland Estates, police also believe Rodriguez used money gleaned from prostitution to buy an Infinity SUV and a Jeep Commander.

Police also found hundreds of thousands of dollars in bank accounts that prosecutors hope to tie to Rodriguez. If she is convicted, prosecutors will seek to seize her assets in civil court.

Her attorney, Steven Rosen, declined to comment.

In Giachino’s case, the 36-year-old is accused of running a brothel advertising stress management in a strip mall on the Gulf Freeway since 2002. Neighbors last summer called police because girls going in and out of the business appeared to be underage.

Keeping with their playbook, police documented women taking money for sex, watched Giachino drive to her $140,000 Pearland home in her Lexus SUV and issued warrants for account information on a Web site advertising the business. Police believed she employed five prostitutes when she was arrested in December. Her lawyer, Allen Tanner, also declined to comment to the case.

Both Rodriguez and Giachino are slated for trial later this year.

brian.rogers@chron.com

Link to original on Houston Chronicle

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