City Paper is not for tourists
By the summer of 2006, Levar Simms wanted out of Washington. His hometown offered nothing but stress. Childhood friends kept getting locked up, or killed. Because of a neglected speeding ticket, he says he was fired from his job driving disabled people around the District. Things got so bad he had to ask his mom for help with the rent.
So Simms, then 28, decided to take advantage of his bad luck. “I figured right there I was going to go on vacation,” he says. After signing up for unemployment, he sent his son to stay with his ex and headed for the family home in Greensboro, N.C.
The laid-back atmosphere was just what he needed. Simms’ cousins, always ready for a party, took him to clubs all over the state and beyond, sometimes driving as far as Atlanta, and helped him make a little money with odd jobs. The cost of living was low enough, he says, you didn’t really need a steady paycheck. Simms and his cousins talked about opening a gentleman’s club—he says it’d be legal, of course—in the apartment they had in town.
The place was already something of an all-hours hangout. His cousins and their friends went there to party, he says, “playing cards, drinking, things of that nature.” There were girls, too. Simms was dating one of them, Kimberly, who he knew from back in D.C. She was an exotic dancer and took tricks on the side through “erotic service” ads on Craigslist, but Simms says it wasn’t like she was a full-time prostitute.
“She had a plan where she was going to do that—dancing or Craigslist—for a minute and then go to nursing school,” he says. Simms says he had nothing to do with it.
One day a new girl showed up at the pad. She was petite, pretty, and a little chubby. Her name was Lynette. She knew another girl who knew Simms’ cousins. Right away, she gravitated to Kimberly and her clique. Simms says he didn’t notice much about Lynette right away. “It was a party atmosphere,” he says. “She did a lot of communicating with the other girls.” Lynette told everyone she’d had some trouble with the aunt she’d been staying with in Greensboro, and she seemed to enjoy the group’s vibe. “She came around more and more and more,” Simms says.
He picked up on one thing about the new girl. “She looked of age,” he says. Lynette made a big deal about celebrating her 22nd birthday.
In July, Simms says, he and a few of the ladies, including Lynette, decided to take a trip to D.C. They drove north in two cars, he says, and Lynette didn’t ride with him. Camping out at his apartment on Jay Street NE, the friends continued their vacation with an assault on D.C. nightlife. The women went dancing at clubs almost every night. Lynette, Kimberly, and another girl were all taking tricks on Craigslist, Simms says.
He still insists he had no stake in the enterprise. He says the women took their own pictures for the ads and made and spent their own money. They just happened to be crashing at his place.
On Aug. 14, 2006, D.C. police officers patrolling Rhode Island Avenue NE noticed a baby-faced girl walking the run-down strip in a miniskirt and heels. They pulled her aside. It didn’t take long to wear down her resistance. She offered one name first, then gave police her real one. She was 16 years old, she told them, and had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a man named Var. She pulled out a cell phone and dialed the number listed under “Daddy” and told police he drove a dark, late-’80s Ford Thunderbird. She said he’d have a laptop in the car and maybe some weed. Minutes later, Levar Simms pulled up in an ’88 Thunderbird.
Lynette told police her version of how she and Simms ended up together in D.C.
Like Simms, she went to North Carolina seeking an escape. The 16-year-old girl from Harrisburg had been under legal supervision since catching an assault charge at age 12. Growing up, Lynette’s frequent violations of the terms of her release kept her in constant contact with case workers and in and out of foster homes, treatment facilities, and juvenile detention centers. She would later tell government attorneys that she’d been raped by her mother’s boyfriend just before her life in crime began.
In June 2006, Lynette decided she wanted to go to North Carolina to attend the Super Jam hip hop festival. Her probation officer said “no way,” but her mom said “yes.” She took the bus down by herself, violating her probation once again and generating a warrant for her arrest. Lynette ended up settling in for an extended stay at the home of her friend’s mom.
The adventure ended when relations soured with her host, who kicked her out and called police. Lynette soon found herself in a nonsecure facility for teens called Act Together, waiting for authorities to figure out how to ship her back home. She made the most obvious decision and jumped out the window to freedom.
Walking down an unfamiliar street, she heard a man call out from a passing car. He asked if she needed assistance. When she said no, he started urging her to get in. His come-ons became commands. He said, “You are going to get in this car or I will make you get in this car,” she told police. Lynette said he physically “snatched” her off the street. In the car, she asked what he wanted and told him she was just 16.
“I want you to make money for me,” he said, according to police testimony. Then he slapped her in the face. Lynette told police she spat back in his face, and he slapped her again. Simms drove her to a home with a gravel driveway, a place Lynette called a liquor house, where there were prostitutes and booze and gambling. Simms locked her in a room with no windows, and she fell asleep. When Lynette awoke, Simms returned and asked again if she would work for him. This time, she said yes. She told police she began working as a prostitute in North Carolina. Sometime later, she agreed to accompany Simms to D.C., where he thought she could make more money. The whole time, she said, he kept her under watch. He collected all her money and threatened her with violence.
It’s not surprising that police believed Lynette’s version of events. The evidence corroborated her story. A search of the Thunderbird netted, as Lynette promised, bags of marijuana and a laptop. There were also “ho clothes” (an investigator’s words, under oath), condoms, and a tube of lubricating jelly. At the scene, Simms floundered under questioning. Asked how he knew Lynette, he told the officers that she was his cousin. Pressed for more details, he said she was his brother’s sister. Wouldn’t that make her his sister, too? He said they had different fathers.
In fact, Simms was an only child. But police didn’t need that information to know he was lying. A search of the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database revealed a missing persons report listing Lynette as a runaway from Pennsylvania. On Craigslist, under “erotic services,” police found ads with photos of her and the other women. She swore that Simms had posted the pages.
Investigators made color copies of the ads: nude photos of Lynette posing in hotel rooms, coupled with coded narratives describing her services. One read: “Taking you to ecstasy. Hello, gentlemen, my name is Tara Lin—I enjoy entertaining men very much, I promise you you’ll always want to come back for more because my only objective is pleasing you. I am the special cure for every man’s curiosity. Call immediately. Available for in-call and out-call.” Another: “This Greek goddess will make you rise. Hello, Gentlemen, come join me in a lovely night filled with heart-throbbing excitement. I love to show my affection in all the right places. If you are ready to be pampered and catered with your utmost fantasies, I am the girl of your dreams. Call me. I’m available days and nights, with at least one hour advance notice.”
The price for time with “Tara Lin” was coded too: “125 roses gets you her with a capital E.” Lynette told police that meant she’d have oral and vaginal sex for $125.
Lynette and Simms’ entry into prostitution reflects new openings in an old business. Craigslist and other online venues for placing ads have made it easier for novices to get into the game, creating new niches for dabbler pimps and freelance prostitutes. D.C. police say former drug dealers are turning to part-time pimping on Craigslist to make easy cash. The online medium also limits the risk of marketing sex with underage girls, whose youth can be more easily disguised on a Web site than on the street. But there are new risks as well. Online pimps are particularly vulnerable to internet sting operations. And ignorance of a girl’s age doesn’t equal innocence. In Simms’ case, the charge of transporting a minor for the purposes of prostitution hinged on strict liability. He could be found guilty regardless of whether he knew she was 16.
From the moment of his indictment in September 2006, Simms showed an unflagging determination to get himself off the hook. In November, his lawyer (the second of six) filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision to deny bail. Simms made a play for sympathy by calling attention to civic contributions one might not expect from a street-hardened pimp.
After graduating from McKinley Technology High School in 1996, Simms had worked for the Earth Conservation Corps, a D.C. nonprofit that hires underprivileged youth to work on environmental projects. The corps helped reintroduce eagles to habitats on the Anacostia River and was invited to introduce President Bill Clinton in a ceremony on the White House lawn in 1999. Simms was picked to do the honors. In a short speech, he said his experience had given him the confidence and ability to do something good with his life.
“I’m going to come out of this program and go to college and be successful,” he said.
Simms used the scholarship money he earned in the corps to enroll at Montgomery County Community College. He dropped out less than a year later to care for his son and got a job as a security guard at Hecht’s. He lost that job months later, he says, when a group of his friends were caught stealing on his watch, even though court records indicate he was caught on tape stuffing cologne into shopping bags. Simms was convicted of second degree theft and got off with probation. As for the other dings on his record, mostly misdemeanors (including a domestic violence complaint from the mother of his daughter), he blames chance, being at the “wrong place wrong time,” and “guilt by association.”
“He didn’t know how to be nobody’s pimp,” says Wanda Harper, Simms’ maternal aunt. Harper helped raise Simms while his mother, Rolette Harper, worked nights as a security guard. Simms’ father was out of the picture before his son’s first birthday; he came home early this year after serving a 30-year sentence for the murder of Rolette’s brother.
Given the circumstances, Wanda Harper says, Simms did better than most people expected. “He was a pretty good boy,” she says.
Simms says he was never a thug or a street corner hustler, but he also doesn’t want to be seen as a goodie-goodie. “I’m a product of Northeast Washington,” he says. Simms portrays himself as the responsible father who liked to roll with dangerous dudes on occasion, an open-minded guy who enjoyed a little grit but didn’t break the law himself. In recent years, he says, he’d become a connoisseur of strip clubs. In formal letters to the court, he signs his name with two dollar signs for the S’s.
Coming to Simms’ aid, friends and family members sent in 16 pages of handwritten letters pleading with the judge to grant bail. One came from Shaquante Simms, Levar’s son. “Dear Judge, I really miss my father. I haven’t seen him for some months, he took me to places that I enjoyed and I love him very much.…I am 9 years old and when I grow up I want to be a football player.”
Shaquante told the judge he hoped nothing would prevent his dad from getting books out from the library. Like his father, Shaquante is now being raised by his aunt Wanda.
Simms’ strategy of spotlighting his good deeds backfired big time. It didn’t impress the judge, who denied his petition for bail. The tactic might also have obscured his best defense: Lynette was a liar.
Days before Simms’ trial was set to begin this January, Lynette came to prosecutors with tears in her eyes. She confessed she had lied to the cops and lied under oath to the grand jury. Simms hadn’t really forced her as much as she’d said. He hadn’t “snatched” her from that street in Greensboro. He hadn’t kept her under guard. It was her decision to take tricks, she said, and Simms never took all the money she made. She’d said she never drank alcohol or did drugs; those were lies, too. She had fun with Simms and didn’t want to leave.
Despite this untimely development, the U.S. Attorney’s Office pressed forward with the case against Simms. They had already dropped the most serious charge, for interstate sex trafficking of a minor by force. Two counts remained: sex trafficking of a minor and transporting a minor over state lines for the purposes of prostitution.
The question now was if the jury would still take Lynette’s testimony as fact.
On the stand, her story began with the same account of her escape from the youth facility and her encounter with Simms on the darkened street.
At several points during three days of testimony, she copped to exaggerating Simms’ use of force to get her into the car. But she seemed reluctant to sacrifice her story completely. She said he got out of the car, touched her softly and acted like he was “trying to talk to me…like get with me.” He asked if she wanted a ride, and she said no.
“That’s when, like, the nice side just switched, like he became real aggressive,” she said. “Like he jacked me up, like he put me in the upper torso.” The prosecutor, assistant U.S. Attorney Julieanne Himelstein, asked what she meant. “Like that is when he had your hands behind your back and like somebody jacks you up,” Lynette said. “Like I can’t explain it.”
Her resistance faded. “Like I fought him for a minute, but then I just gave up,” she said. “You know, I mean he threw me in the car, and I tried to get back out, but he stood there for a minute, and I was like I am not going nowhere, and he ran around on the other side and got in the car.”
As she’d told police, Lynette testified that Simms brought her back to the liquor house, where he locked her in a windowless room. In the original story, she said she fell asleep, woke some unspecified amount of time later, and agreed to work as a prostitute. This time, in court, she made a point of saying Simms left her in the room for two whole days. She told the jury she ate nothing and peed on the floor. When Simms came back in, she said, she agreed to do what he wanted.
“When I was in that room,” she said, “I kept thinking to myself like I ain’t got nothing to live for. I don’t got nobody to love me. I don’t have nothing. I don’t care. I didn’t care. So I say yes.”
Simms told her to go into the front room of the house and dance for the men hanging out. Lynette said she took three shots of vodka, smoked some weed, took off her clothes and danced “like strippers dance.” She made $200 in tips that night, she said, $50 of which went to Simms.
After that night, she said, she came to decide that she liked her situation. Simms took good care of her, buying her food and clothes. And she was treated well by the two other prostitutes who lived there, Kimberly and Davena.
Contrary to the story heard by police and the grand jury, Lynette told the jury that she never prostituted herself in North Carolina. After just a few days at the liquor house, she said, Simms told Lynette they’d be heading to D.C. He drove the whole crew—Lynette, Kimberly, and Davena—in the Thunderbird. They crashed at his place on Jay Street NE and set about putting ads up on Craigslist. Changing her story again, Lynette said Simms wasn’t the only one to shoot her photos for the ads. In fact, most of the pictures were taken by the other women.
On the stand, Lynette explained the mechanics of Internet prostitution. Simms and three or four women, including Lynette and Kimberly, would all gather at a hotel room in Maryland or Virginia, places like the Marriott Courtyard in Fairfax. Simms would upload ads offering in-calls and listing their cell phone numbers. Then “we would all go to the room,” Lynette said, “and wait for our phones to ring.”
Himelstein asked Lynette how many times she had sex in hotel rooms. “I can’t count,” she said.
“Would you say it was more than one?”
“Would you say it was more than five?”
“Would you say it was more than 10?”
“It was a lot,” she said. “I can’t count like.…”
At the end of the night, she said, Simms would always ask her how much she’d made. “He would ask for a portion,” she said, “and I would give it to him.” Previously, Lynette had sworn she gave all her earnings to Simms.
After a few weeks, Lynette said, Simms told her she was going to walk the track on Rhode Island Avenue NE. Himelstein asked if Lynette knew what that meant. “It is where you go to get pussy,” she told the jury. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” Simms dropped her off on Rhode Island Avenue and promised to stay nearby. “He gave me some condoms and told me to walk,” she said.
Pretty soon, a man waved her over to his car, and she asked what he wanted. “And he basically told me what he wanted, and I told him how much it was going to cost,” she said. What did he want? “Sex.” And how much would it cost? “$70.” Lynette had sex with the man in his car on a side street, then went back to walking the track. “That’s when the cops stopped me,” she said.
And that’s when she began lying.
Prosecutors addressed the problem head-on during direct examination. They tried to frame their witness’s duplicity as an innocent defense mechanism.
Lynette said she lied because there was a warrant out for her arrest for violating the terms of her probation in Pennsylvania. “I felt like if I had told them what really happened, that I wasn’t forced, like I already had a warrant out for my arrest,” she said. “I thought I was going to jail.”
Lynette said she embellished the truth to make it seem like she’d been forced.
“Like I just like put—I just put little stuff into it,” she said. “Like I wasn’t snatched. I mean I might have been gripped up, but I wasn’t snatched.”
Asked to tell the jury what she did wrong, Lynette said: “I basically degraded myself. I did everything for the least.…I did everything for the least bit of nothing like for money,” she said. “I handled everything wrong.”
Lynette stood up to a brutal cross-examination. Simms’ attorney accused her of deciding to tell the truth because a defense investigator had uncovered a witness who would undercut her story. Lynette just stuck to her talking points. She said she lied out of fear and later realized what she had done was wrong. “I cried and everything,” she told the courtroom.
She instructed Simms’ attorney to do his homework. “Actually when I lied, I was scared, and I was alone,” she said. “If you look through the court papers, I didn’t have no family with me. I didn’t make a phone call to nobody. I was scared.”
Simms’ counsel interrogated Lynette about embarrassing photos and text from her MySpace page, shots of her flashing gang signs and describing her preference for big dicks. “I’m bad and you love it,” one banner read. Lynette demurred. She said someone else made the page, and she didn’t know how to take it down.
In addition to Lynette’s testimony, prosecutors offered forensic evidence linking Simms’ computer to the ads placed on Craigslist. According to transcripts of a bench conference, Simms had identified the computer as his own at the scene, but the judge wouldn’t allow the statement to come out in open court.
After the three-day trial in January, Simms was convicted of just one crime—transporting a minor over state lines for the purposes of prostitution. He faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison but could serve as many as 11 under sentencing guidelines.
Simms found little sympathy from the jurors. Lynette, however, feels pity for her pimp. “I don’t fully put him to blame,” she says. “It was my decision to make. He didn’t force me.” She says he wasn’t much of a hustler. “He wasn’t that attractive,” she says. “I mean, you wouldn’t expect him to be no pimp. He wasn’t that classy.”
Lynette agreed to talk about her experience on the condition that her last name not appear in print. She spoke on the phone from a friend’s apartment in Harrisburg.
“I feel bad. I basically put myself out there,” she says. “But at the same time, I felt like I had no choice. But in a way I did have a choice. He asked me, and I said ‘Yeah.’”
Lynette lacks Simms’ flair for self-promotion and doesn’t elicit much sympathy with her crass delivery. She swears profusely and yells into the phone. In later interviews, she talks about her introduction to prostitution while shopping with her boyfriend. “Oh it doesn’t matter,” she says. “He knows.”
Lynette says it was easy to get the hang of how to do the job. “Talk real respectful,” she says. “Talk basically like a valley girl, and you’ll get what you want.”
For her first trick, she says, Simms rented two rooms in a motel and waited in one while she went to meet her john in the other. “And then,” she says. “I did the do.” What was it like? Lynette says she can’t recall. “I just was thinking about the money,” she says.
She sees herself as both a victim and as a willing agent of her own self-interest. There was something exciting, she says, about getting paid for how she looked and what she could do with her body. “It ain’t every day that a girl would turn that down,” she says. Life as a prostitute wasn’t just dirty hotel rooms. Lynette went to clubs and partied with grown-ups. She enjoyed herself. “Whenever we would go to the club we would drink, like, five shots and smoke, like, five blunts.”
In the end, Lynette loses interest in re-telling her story. “Leave me alone,” she writes over MySpace, where her page is now set to private.
Simms, meanwhile, is still busy fighting. He wasn’t satisfied with a verdict that cleared him of the most serious charges. He fired his trial attorney and now spends three hours a day in the law library at the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility, filing motions for a new trial. His sentencing is scheduled for June 10. “I’m gonna keep going through my fight because I definitely think I was railroaded through,” he says. “I don’t see how I can do any more damage.”