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The Howards' operation may begin to provide police with the answers Kleiser is looking for. But solutions may be harder to come by. These girls aren't out on the street for police to target and pick up, so exactly where they are at any given time is hard to ascertain, especially when pimps drive them to meet johns at apartment complexes without advertising first.
"Even if you pull them over," said Simmons, "they'll just tell you they're with their boyfriend." Simmons said if police knew where the girls were going, a search warrant could be obtained. But even then, the most serious charges police could bring would be solicitation or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Running sting operations on escort services like the one the Howards eventually ran, or those increasingly being run from Internet sex sites and online sex ads, could help. But dozens of advertisements for "services" appear and disappear from month to month. Many of them draw from the same pool of women -- including the underage girls -- that most of the city's escort services share. But again, the most serious charges investigators could hope for would be solicitation and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and those don't send defendants who make their livings off these women away for long periods of time.
Conspiracy charges such as those Ila Howard agreed to in a plea deal -- and that Tracy and David Howard were convicted of in federal court last month -- carry dozens of years in prison, but they take years of police work and cooperation from the women on the inside. And federal prosecutors only pick the worst of the worst for trials that take thousands of man hours to put on. As at the federal level, the state has conspiracy laws, too, says Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Sgt. Katherine Scheimreif, of the violent crimes unit, but the underfunded system is too overwhelmed and lacks the resources to make use of those laws.
At the moment, police say they know of other sex enterprises in Charlotte that they believe are exploiting girls as young as 14. But without lucky breaks such as those they got in the Howard case -- from women who were beaten so badly that they were scared into talking to police -- the authorities' hands are tied.
Unlike most prostitution busts, the leads in the Howard case came not from vice or officers on the street, but from the missing persons division. "I'm walking down the hall one day and a detective says we have these teenage girls prostituting themselves," said Scheimreif. "They just started looking at the case reports for these girls and the same names kept coming up."
Many of the girls, it seemed, were either associated with the Howards or people who knew or worked for them.
After Krissy Roach disappeared in March 2001, Det. Will Faulkner of the CMPD's missing persons division spent five years looking for her. Tracy Howard was equally determined that the short, pretty, heavy-set East Mecklenburg High School freshman wouldn't be found.
Howard was 19 at the time and fresh out of jail after serving a stint for robbery, eluding arrest and possession of a stolen car. As far as investigators can tell, Roach, who had just turned 16, was Howard's first prostitute. Roach said she met Tracy Howard through Broderick Nelson, Howard's best friend since their early teens, when Howard and Nelson lived together at a youth home.
Roach wasn't homeless, hungry or desperate, like many girls attracted to prostitution. She'd just been arrested one too many times and was tired of the restrictions the juvenile court put on her. And she wanted to be Tracy's girlfriend.
She could be his girlfriend and live with him, too, he told her, but she knew what she had to do. Roach claims Howard took her ID from her right away because she was underage and he didn't want her to get caught -- or to get caught with her. A few days after her 16th birthday, she moved to the Grenelefe house. By then, Roach said, her missing persons report was running on Channel 16.
Roach was working for Howard when he and Elizabeth White, his ex-girlfriend, got back together. The three moved together to East Pointe Apartments near Eastland Mall. White says she figured out who Roach was from a missing persons poster Roach's father hung up.