Grand Rapids, Michigan has well-documented problems with prostitution and sex trafficking, spanning decades. The extreme end of the scale includes at least one serial killer who targeted Grand Rapids women engaged in prostitution, and other cases of murdered victims of commercial sex, murdered pimps and attacks on johns.
The city is one of the pioneers in U.S. efforts to combat demand for commercial sex. The Grand Rapids Police Department was among the first in the nation to conduct reverse sting operations, using female police officers as decoys to arrest male sex buyers as early as 1967, if not before. Grand Rapids established the country’s first “john school” program in 1981, and in 1991 established the only systematic “after care” option for john school graduates. Local officials were also among the first in the nation to require that individuals convicted of solicitation complete community service as part of their sentencing.
Although the identities of arrested sex buyers were not routinely released following early sting operations, local media outlets carried the names, ages and arrest photos of three johns picked up during a street-level reversal in July 2015.
The John Group
Grand Rapids’ John Group was established long before the term “john school” was coined to describe efforts to prevent or deter arrested sex buyers from reoffending through education or counseling programming. The phrase “john school”, coined by a reporter in the late 1990s writing about San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP), has since become a generic term. The John Group in Grand Rapids was established 14 years before the FOPP was launched.
Unlike many subsequent john school programs, the John Group was structured as a condition of a sentence, and not a diversion program. Participation is not voluntary, and completion of the program does not result in charges being dismissed. Offenders convicted of soliciting can be sentenced to serve a term of probation involving participation in the John Group as well as other sanctions and rehabilitation and/or restitution efforts, such as community service. John Group participants must pay a fee of $100 to cover court costs and $50 for a therapist to run the sessions.
The program is composed of four group counseling sessions, plus one individual session at the end of the series. The time spent in the John Group typically run between six and seven hours across all five sessions. Elements of the curriculum include:
- Health risks
- Health screening/tests
- Legal consequences of soliciting
- Impact on survivors
- Impact on communities
- Healthy relationships
- Sexual addiction
The Department of Public Health or Planned Parenthood provide the health education material. Partners from organizations may be available to discuss with the group issues of sexual addiction and healthy relationships. Survivors of commercial sex discuss the impact that prostitution has had on them, as well as the dangers men face when buying sex. Other content is delivered by the probation officer managing the program.
Between 1981 and 2008, over 700 men participated in the program.
An independent organization developed a form of program “after care” for men completing the John Group. The Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill in 1991 launched a set of group counseling sessions into which the courts may decide to route arrested sex buyers after the John Group; men may also participate voluntarily. Participants attend three individual sessions, then 16 weekly group counseling sessions. The topics covered are essentially the same as those in the john group, but others may be covered since the group counseling format is flexible and men may bring up topics on which to work.
Judges have discretion in how many hours of community service is required, and what the men are required to do during those hours. A common activity is sweeping and cleaning the very streets where the men were arrested for trying to buy sex (a requirement similar to one in the Red Zone Program in Indianapolis).
- Grand Rapids Police Department
- 61st District Court’s Probation Department
- Department of Public Health
- Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill
- Men’s Resource Center of Western Michigan
- Human Resource Associates
- Planned Parenthood
- Sacred Beginnings
- Survivors of commercial sex (presenters in john school program)
- National Assessment Survey and Interviews
- Grand Rapids Police Department Annual Reports
- John School:
- Street-Level Reverse Stings (with Shaming as of 2015):
- “Right Moon But the Wrong Idea”, Montreal Gazette, October 25 1967.
- “Church Elders to Decide Arrested Pastor’s Future”, Sumter Daily Item, May 3 1977.
- “Prostitutes Arrested in Grand Rapids”, Owosso Argus-Press, June 16 1983.
- Community Service:
- Neighborhood Action:
- Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:
- “Ky. Teen Assaulted by Man Who Wanted Her to Be Hooker”, Williamson Daily News, July 26 1977.
- “Landlord Accused of Torture”, Owosso Argus-Press, July 26 1977.
- “Teen ‘Hookers’ Force 13-Year-Old Girl into Acts of Prostitution”, Sarasota Journal, August 19 1981.
- “Forced Prostitution Charged; Grand Rapids Man Accused of Making Girl Solicit in Fraser”, Detroit News, April 16 1999.
- “Prostitute Helps Police Stop Accused Child Predator’s Plot”, ABC/WZZM-TV 13, March 10 2007.
- “Feds Arrest 19, Break Up 4-State Prostitution Ring”, Buffalo News, May 4 2011.
- “Grand Rapids Man Arrested for Running Prostitution House in Four-State Ring”, Grand Rapids Press, May 5 2011.
- “Alleged Victims Testify in Teen Prostitution and Human Trafficking Case”, Grand Rapids Press, February 7 2012.
- “Jury Will Determine Guilt in Teen Prostitution and Human Trafficking Case”, Grand Rapids Press, February 8 2012.
- “GR Man Convicted of Recruiting Teens for Prostitution in Muskegon”, FOX/WXMI-TV 17, May 1 2014.
- “Grand Rapids Sex Trafficker Gets 30 Years in Prison”, Detroit Free Press, September 16 2014.
- “Man Sentenced for Child Sex Trafficking”, NBC/WOOD-TV 8, September 16 2014.
- “Man Accused of Sex Trafficking Minors, Adults in Kent, Ingham Counties,” Grand Rapids Press, September 29 2014.
- “3 Accused of Sex Trafficking of Minors,” NBC/WOOD-TV 8, October 15 2015.
- “Woman Charged with Sex Trafficking of Girls in West Mich.,” Grand Haven Tribune, October 16 2015.
- Background on Prostitution in the Area:
- “Grand Rapids Is Labeled as Wide Open in Attempt to Force State Crime Probe”, Owosso Argus-Press, April 25 1951.
- “Grand Rapids Cuts Robberies”, Owosso Argus-Press, December 16 1968.
- “Prostitution Ring Smashed”, Owosso Argus-Press, October 20 1973.
- “Massage Parlor Raids Net Varied Charges”, Owosso Argus-Press, May 10 1977.
- “Police Escort Service Gets Jump on Another”, Calgary Herald, March 6 1978.
- “Escort Promoter Arrested”, Saskatoon Phoenix, April 1 1978.
- “Michigan Jailbreak Has Town Nervous”, Reading Eagle, August 19 1988.
- “Mid-America Roundup”, Kansas City Star, March 20 1992.
- “Neighbors Are Negative; Nuns Would Like to Offer Shelter to Prostitutes”, Toledo Blade, December 1 1992.
- “Plan to Help Prostitutes Leaves Nuns in Turmoil”, Wichita Eagle, January 2 1993.
- “Prostitution Indictment Eyes Nine Cities”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 3 2002.
- “Prostitution Round Table: Innovative Solutions Help Women Make Better Choices”, Grand Rapids Magazine, September 4 2003.
- “Court Records Show Undercover Officer Was Offered Sex for $250 at Mystic Massage Parlor in Grand Rapids”, Grand Rapids Press, August 14 2009.
- “Did You Ever Pray with a Prostitute in Grand Rapids? She Wants to Thank You Today”, Grand Rapids Press, August 7 2012.
- “Grand Rapids Street Prostitution Hiding in Plain Sight”, FOX/WXMI-TV 17, February 18 2013.
- “Former Grand Rapids Prostitute Works to Keep Women Off the Streets”, Grand Rapids Press, November 17 2013.
- “Prostitution: Internet Classifieds Create Element of Secrecy, Challenge for Grand Rapids Police”, Grand Rapids Press, November 17 2013.
- Documented Violence against Individuals Engaged in Prostitution in the Area:
- “Teacher Is Held in Death of Prostitute”, Tuscaloosa News, March 21 1991.
- “Trial Under Way for Teacher Charged with Killing Prostitute”, Owosso Argus-Press, September 12 1991.
- “Jury Convicts Teacher of Murdering Prostitute”, Tuscaloosa News, September 20 1991.
- “Task Force Looks at 11th Murder Victim in Grand Rapids with Prostitution Link”, Ludington Daily News, October 31 1996.
- “Prostitution Link Grows Stronger in 11 Unsolved Michigan Killings”, Owosso Argus-Press, November 14 1996.
- “Serial Killer Suspected in Deaths in Flint”, Owosso Argus-Press, October 11 1999.
- “Beaten Prostitutes Testify in Assault Cases”, Grand Rapids Press, November 1 2008.
- “Prostitute Allegedly Beaten by Troy Blake Gives Powerful Testimony”, Grand Rapids Press, March 24 2009.
- “Troy Blake Sentenced for Rape; Will Serve at Least 18 Years”, NBC/WOOD-TV 8, April 21 2009.
- “Prostitute Testifies How Man Threatened Her Life Days Before He Allegedly Murdered Another Woman”, Grand Rapids Press, June 24 2009.
- “Mother of Murdered Prostitute Faces Her Daughter’s Killer During Sentencing in Court”, Grand Rapids Press, August 4 2009.
- “Suspect in Dahlinger Murder: Prostitute & Friend”, WOOD-FM 106.9, November 22 2013.
- “Online Sex Trade ‘A Hundred Times More Dangerous'”, NBC/WOOD-TV 8, May 29 2014.