An exclusive look at Chicago’s dirty secret: Gold Coast escorts - FOX 32 News Chicago

An exclusive look at Chicago’s dirty secret: Gold Coast escorts

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

In one of the hottest spots for dining, shopping and partying in Chicago, there is a criminal industry that some people there say is getting worse. Sex trafficking tries to fit into the upscale scene around the Rush Street area and until a shocking murder, many people didn't even see the harm of so-called Gold Coast escorts.

SEE: Gold Coast Madam: First TV interview about her high-end Chicago escort operation

Brenda Myers Powell is a survivor of the seamy world of sex for sale; a world she says is not that far away. Powell says the Gold Coast is an area known for sex trafficking and she's knows firsthand, having worked the area for many years.

"I've been strangled in these hotels. I had a pillow put over my head where somebody tried to smother me," Powell says of her past encounters.

The Gold Coast is the land of $100 t-shirts and $100,000 cars. In fact, there hadn't been a fatal shooting in this neighborhood in years. That is, until last august when a 22-year-old woman from Texas with a history of prostitution-related arrests, was murdered in the historic Whitehall Hotel.

"Women are coming from all over the country, setting up, arranging customers and coming to our city, and prostituting," Brenda explains.

But, this kind of activity happening on the Gold Coast? The location is surprising to many, but perhaps the nickname of this neighborhood can be more sinister than it seems. It's been called "The Viagra Triangle," a place where older men come to meet younger woman.

A ward by ward comparison of police records shows Chicago's 42nd ward has the fourth highest number of prostitution related arrests, but it doesn't look like other hot spots.

"There are many other areas of the city where it's much more open, notorious and connected to street gang and other quality of life issues that are taking place," Chicago Police Vice Division Commander Ken Angarone says.

Angarone points out that this is one of the city's most vibrant hospitality districts.

"We want to keep it free of vice activity. We want to keep it safe for visitors to our city to enjoy," Angarone says.

"We hear a lot of men say, that we've interviewed, that they do purchase sex in the Rush Street area, and so I think again tourists who come here are told that that's an area where they should go," explains Rachel Durschlag, the Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, who has done extensive research on sex trafficking.

The type of trade in this area may be mostly pre-arranged 'dates' on the internet or fake flirting with a price tag. But, experts say it is the same ugly business underneath.

"There is no such thing as a safer or better place to be prostituted," Durschlag says. "We see high rates of violence for those in escort services. We see high rates of violence for those who are being prostituted on the streets as well."

We interviewed Brenda in the same hotel where the Texas woman was murdered. She told us that when she worked, she didn't feel any safer being behind closed doors.

"In this room right now, I could come in with a customer and he could hit me over my head and knock me out, and absolutely do anything he wanted to do," says Brenda.

When asked the same question, Chicago Police's Ken Angarone agreed that being in a hotel room wasn't any better, adding that it would just be "less likely to attract police attention."

Advocates complain that when there is police attention, it is usually one-sided.

"We continue to focus on arresting and re-arresting individuals who are being prostituted, and not those who are purchasing," Durschlag points out.

The Cook County Sheriff is well known for sting operations to arrest the johns. Would Chicago Vice do that on the Gold Coast? The commander says they do, when hotels see a problem.

"They will call us and we will partner with them and set up a sting operation," Angarone says. "Absolutely, we will do that."

But others are skeptical.

"People turn a blind eye, that's a better way of putting it," says a long-time Rush Street doorman. "It seems as though it's sanctioned."

Police won't say if they believe the man charged in Brianna Gardner's murder had something to do with sex trafficking. Her last prostitution related arrest was the week before, just a few blocks away from the hotel where she was shot.

The young woman would have turned 23 this week and may have spent her last day sending a wake-up call to a neighborhood in denial.

"It shouldn't be thought of as a woman who was a prostitute who got murdered here," insists Brenda. "A woman got murdered here, somebody's daughter got murdered here, somebody's sister."

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