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Feb 2, 2012 8:03 PM by Drew Trafton

Prostitution: A crime with a past in Billings

BILLINGS - If you were to take a walk down Montana Avenue in Billings, you'd notice that business on the street seems to be thriving.

Bakeries, bars, restaurants and even fine art galleries line the street.

It's a sight which was completely unimaginable for those who had to patrol downtown Billings on foot during what many call the ‘street walker' era.

"Everybody comes down here now," said U.S. Marshal Darrell Bell as he sips coffee in the Log Cabin Bakery on Montana Avenue. "And no one even thinks about what it was like in the 70's when you had prostitutes and pimps and drug dealers and assaults."

To combat the crime on Montana Avenue and Minnesota Avenue, the Billings Police Department sent out officers, like Bell, to walk the streets to patrol the dozens of bars which covered the area.

One of the officers patrolling the beat worked his way up the ladder and ended up being a strong presence in the area for decades-facilitating and participating in undercover sting operations.

Tim O'Connell, who is now the Deputy Chief of Police, says the crime many refer to as victimless all too often would end poorly for "the Johns"-the term used for those who were searching for sexual services.

"You just didn't come down here and pick up a prostitute and get your services done for money," said O'Connell. "You might get robbed in the process. All kinds of things would happen."

As a former owner of the Western Bar and Grill on Minnesota Avenue from the mid-80's to early 90's, Craig Rose easily recalls some of the tricks he would see on a nightly basis.

"Two or three of the girls would get together and they would wait for a drunk to come out of a bar, like the Western or over there at the Empire on Montana, and two or three of them would surround him and start grabbing him in places he wasn't used to being grabbed, end up getting his wallet, and the other two would end up slowing him down," said Rose. "Usually the guy wouldn't report it because he was probably married and didn't want to make the news. So, they'd take off with his wallet and off they'd go."

O'Connell says that process was referred to as a ‘Hug and Mug'-commonly used by the girls who were part of ‘the circuit'.

The circuit was a system which rotated prostitutes from urban areas.

Many of the girls who were a part of the circuit came from Rockford, Illinois.

"They'd go through Milwaukee, down to Sioux Falls, and up through Utah," said O'Connell. "And Billings was on the map."

Of course, there were local girls working downtown Billings as well, and the mixture of competing pimps, prostitutes and drug dealing led to a massive amount of physical violence.

Rose says he remembers the Arcade Bar on South 27th Street and Minnesota Avenue as being the toughest bar in the entire state.

Now the bar has been turned into a Subway restaurant, something Rose says he never would have imagined happening in the mid-80's.

"We used to nickname that ' The Bucket of Blood ', to be honest with you," said Rose. "There was actually no chairs, no bar stools, nothing you can use in a bar fight in that bar. I've only been in that bar twice in my life and I had to fight my way out of it both times."

However, Rose says he was able to use the tough reputation of the neighborhood as a marketing tactic.

"One of my partners was a graphic artist and he made a t-shirt," said Rose."It said, ‘Please don't tell my mother I drink at the Western Bar and Grill. She thinks I'm a hoota-hoota girl on Minnesota Avenue."

However, Rose wasn't the only person who used their surroundings to make downtown Billings work to an advantage.

O'Connell and the police used relationships they built to thwart crime on various levels.

"When you worked down here you would know every bar tender, cocktail waitress," said O'Connell. "You knew every pimp, every prostitute, every drug dealer. You knew everything that went on down here."

The police ended up attacking prostitution through various aggressive sting operations and busts, targeting "the Johns" and publishing their name when caught.

"One time it was a Butte principal, I remember an ACLU lawyer," said Rose. "The one guy was, the guy we thought shouldn't have gotten fined, but he should have got a medal was, there was an 86-year-old guy. The guys in the bar thought that was pretty cool. An 86-year-old guy was out trying to pick up a working girl."

Eventually, the prostitutes on the street started to fade away as "the Johns" became hard to find.

However, law enforcement is more than aware that just because the streets are clear it doesn't mean prostitution is non-existent in Billings.

"I think a lot of it has gone with the internet, Craigslist, those types of things," said Bell. "It's still there. Whenever there's a calling for that type of business, you'll be able to find what you want."

Tonight, we talk to someone who says they know firsthand where to find prostitution in Billings.

And we ask if the police are aware of where prostitution is taking place, why more busts aren't happening in Billings.

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