The Twin Cities' largest locally owned prostitution website was shut down by Minneapolis police this week, the second major prostitution sex ring in the area officers dismantled in the past month.
The site, MyFastPass.com, was started in 2005 by a 46-year-old Woodbury woman who ran an illicit massage business in downtown Minneapolis for several years. In a search of her house last week, investigators discovered a database of more than 350 prostitutes and johns using her site, according to documents filed Tuesday. The bust created an exchange of hundreds of e-mails on sex message boards and chat rooms warning men to stay away from the site and a flurry of calls from lawyers to investigators to discuss their clients' chances of remaining anonymous if they cooperate.
Police were tipped off to the site during a yearlong investigation that recently resulted in the end of a prostitution ring involving 30 well-to-do business owners and professionals calling themselves the Minnesota Nice Guys. That tipster was a mortgage banker from Minnetonka, a MyFastPass user arrested after his visit with a prostitute.
MyFastPass had five times the number of johns than the Nice Guys network, police said. St. Paul Sgt. John Bandemer, who supervises a statewide task force investigating sexual exploitation, said the volume of customers using MyFastPass is significant, and taking down the business will be a tremendous help to the efforts by law enforcement to slow down prostitution.
"This will expose the johns and take a big bite out of the online business in the Twin Cities well into the future," said Sgt. Matt Wente of the Minneapolis Police Department's Violent Offender Task Force. "Their trust in these sites should definitely go down a notch."
Wente and the other lead investigator, Sgt. Grant Snyder, had some knowledge of MyFastPass before they started the Nice Guys investigation, but it wasn't their target until the tip. Then they enlisted prostitutes to work undercover to set up an ad on the website, which lured nearly a dozen johns. The officers expedited the investigation last week when they heard the site operator had been tipped off that police were looking into her business, and the officers didn't want her to destroy evidence, Wente said. Among the johns officers identified on the database was a local Cub Scout leader and they notified the organization's national office.
The woman, who police expect will be charged with state or federal promotion of prostitution, quickly became known as the best and only local mid- to high-level prostitution website in the Twin Cities in 2005. For a fee, she posted ads and set up appointments for women, did background checks on the men to make sure they were "safe" and created a blacklist of men whom the women should avoid. The men, who paid a $69 annual fee, had access to message boards and read reviews of the women, which included a top 40 list.
"The background checks to make sure the men were safe pretty much consisted of making sure they had employment," Wente said. "The women never really knew if their next appointment was going to be with an ax murderer."
MyFastPass also arranged sex parties for a $300 fee, once holding an informal get-together before the party at a popular Roseville restaurant, Snyder said. John St. Marie, a former assistant Hennepin County attorney who police said was in the charge of the Nice Guys ring, used MyFastPass to recruit women and johns, Snyder said. St. Marie hasn't been arrested or charged, but Snyder said investigators will present a case for review in the next few weeks.
If a group of women from MyFastPass wanted to form their own site, the woman in charge of MyFastPass interrupted their attempts, Snyder said. The men using MyFastPass knew the advantage of the site because background checks were streamlined and "you didn't need four or five references from other prostitutes to be approved to use the site," Snyder said.
"I know my experience in the prostitution world was that MyFastPass was a way for a large number of women working as prostitutes to evade law enforcement," said Bandemer, the St. Paul investigator.
On Monday, investigators Wente and Snyder posted an alert on the home page of MyFastPass that the head of the website had been arrested and that investigators had extensive evidence against people using the site. They wrote: "As part of our ongoing investigation, it is our intention to have face to face contact with people [on the subscriber list]."
'They won't find another local site'
Since then, message boards at a popular national prostitution website have been bustling with people chatting about the investigation, and customers have been changing their user names. Informants told Snyder that prostitutes planning to come to the Twin Cities for business have canceled flights. Late this afternoon, Wente received a telephone call from a prominent Minneapolis defense attorney wanting to meet about his client from Iowa who was a MyFastPass member.
"They may go and use another site to find women, but it's a risk," Wente said. "But they won't find another local site like MyFastPass."
Vednita Carter, who founded Breaking Free in 1996, a St. Paul organization that serves women involved in prostitution, said she never heard of a local online prostitution website close to the size of MyFastPass. She said she is not surprised that a prostitute became the person who now sells and advertises the services of other prostitutes because "they feel there is no other life for them."
"But stopping this site isn't enough," she said. "Police now have to focus breaking the demand side of this business."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465