In an unusual scheme, a former Hennepin County lawyer worked as a pimp, flying in high-dollar prostitutes for well-off men, police say.
They call themselves "The Minnesota Nice Guys," a group of at least 30 older, well-to-do men who police say share a common love of expensive prostitutes. Their alleged pimp is a former assistant Hennepin County attorney once responsible for locking up the justice system's most unstable criminals and protecting its youngest victims.
The Nice Guys have been enjoying the services of prostitutes for three years, police say, getting weekly e-mail blasts that advertise women who are flying into town from Florida and staying at some of Minneapolis' finest hotels. One woman, a 34-year-old former teacher from Colombia, averaged four appointments a day, charging her clients $500 an hour.
The Minneapolis Police Department's Violent Offender Task Force has been building a federal case against the organization for the past year. Investigators say it is one of the most unusual prostitution rings they have ever seen in Minnesota and that its activities show just how sophisticated sex-trafficking networks to the state are becoming.
"I don't know of anything this organized happening anywhere in the country," said Sgt. Matt Wente. "This was like a gun or fishing club to these men."
Police have been shutting down the Minnesota Nice Guys in recent weeks through raids and questioning of members. The crackdown follows a lengthy investigation that included monitoring e-mail accounts, extensive surveillance, and having some undercover officers infiltrate the Nice Guys network. Its alleged ringleader, former attorney John St. Marie, is expected to be federally charged for transporting women across state lines for sex, police said.
Wente and his partner, Sgt. Grant Snyder, have recently detained and questioned six other Nice Guys but plan to go after them all. The investigation started after investigators received an anonymous e-mail from a john who said St. Marie was supplying illegal immigrants for prostitution.
According to police, the e-mailer made contact with St. Marie at the Erotic Review, an international website for self-described "hobbyists" looking for high-dollar escorts. On the site, St. Marie, 65, had "high status" because he was frequently praised in reviews for the quality of women he arranged to come to Minnesota, Snyder said.
St. Marie declined to comment when contacted by the Star Tribune. His attorney, Jim Dahlquist, said Friday that St. Marie is "looking forward to having a fair opportunity to bring forth the issues involved in this case.'' He said he was reluctant to speculate on what charges could be forthcoming.
Dahlquist said he's concerned that St. Marie will be treated with prejudice because of his background as an attorney with Hennepin County. During his county employment St. Marie was recognized with plaques for his excellent work, said Dahlquist, who has known him for 40 years.
Hotel sex, then son's ballgame
The Nice Guys, made up of business owners, lawyers, accountants and mortgage bankers in their early 40s to mid-60s, began communicating by e-mail. Snyder said the group was called the Nice Guys because members had clean backgrounds and regarded themselves as trustworthy to not mistreat the women.
St. Marie booked the women's flights and hotel rooms for their typical five-day stays and scheduled trysts for the other Nice Guys, police say. None of the women was forced into prostitution, but Snyder explained many fell into the business because they needed money. None of them is from the United States.
Prostitution is dangerous business. One of the Nice Guys arrested was in illegal possession of a gun, police say. A woman working as an escort with another service was killed at a Minneapolis hotel two years ago.
"I disagree with the premise that these women were treated well because they agreed to be escorts," said Lt. Andy Smith, head of the Violent Offender Task Force. "It's not just a simple case of prostitution."
Other law enforcement agencies have unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate the Nice Guys, Smith said.
But the initial e-mail helped Snyder and Wente track and arrest one of St. Marie's prostitutes, who agreed to help them set up a john. The officers then took on the identity of the woman and john, which led them to more Nice Guys and women, Snyder said. "A john would be writing me a sexy e-mail not realizing he was talking to a cop," he said.
The officers did constant surveillance once they learned about a Nice Guy. One time, police said, they saw a man drive to his son's baseball game after meeting up with a date St. Marie arranged at a hotel.
A 'Nice Guy' gets busted
St. Marie, who uses a wheelchair because of childhood polio, started the Nice Guys shortly after he retired from the Hennepin County attorney's office in 2003, police say. St. Marie didn't prosecute cases, but spent most of his 28-year career providing representation to social service agencies and approving or revoking family foster care licenses. He also worked in the Human Services Division doing criminal civil commitments of mentally ill and chemical-dependent people.
St. Marie advertised his ability to procure women on the Erotic Review website, but he never made any money, Wente said. But he was paid with free sex, investigators say.
For safety reasons and to protect their anonymity, Natalia Green, the former teacher from Colombia, and many others in the sex industry use fictitious names. Three weeks ago, Green was being watched by several officers as a 63-year-old Nice Guy picked her up at St. Paul-Minneapolis International Airport for an expected five days of sex with him and other Nice Guys.
Four hours after her airplane landed, Green prepared for her first client, a 63-year-old businessman from a small town about an hour west of Minneapolis. Snyder said the man, dressed in a Hawaiian print shirt, shorts and penny loafers, greeted her in the hotel lobby. He stopped at Lunds to pick them up a meal of sushi.
Before he arrived, task force members set up audio and visual surveillance equipment in Green's room. When things started to turn sexual, officers detained the man. Snyder said the man told him he met his first prostitute through St. Marie during an online chat in August, and had been having sex with two women a month ever since. The man also arranged for several of St. Marie's women to have sex at his friend's townhouse in Chaska, Snyder said, and is facing possible federal charges.
"You have to reach rock bottom, just like I did when I quit drinking 16 years ago," the man told Snyder when he was detained for questioning. "This became a new addiction with me. That's what gets you into trouble."
The Nice Guys could face charges from gross misdemeanor prostitution to potentially more serious counts such as conspiracy.
The future of the women in the network, and whether they will be able to remain in the United States, is unclear.
Saw prostitutes for 35 years
When police searched his Minneapolis home in late May to seize his computer, St. Marie expressed concern to them about what would happen to the other Nice Guys. Police said he was angered by the betrayal of four women, including Green, who worked with officers to bring down the network. The search warrant was filed late Friday in Hennepin County District Court. St. Marie has been cooperating with officials but has not been arrested.
"St. Marie knew he would be caught at some point because we monitored telephone calls with him discussing his own behavior as illegal," Snyder said. "He admitted he had been seeing prostitutes for 35 years, which would have been when he worked for the county attorney's office."
Some of the Nice Guys cried when they were arrested, police say, but each one told Wente and Snyder that they were trying to find a way to stop using escort services.
"This should send a message that people who do this should no longer feel you can do it anonymously," Wente said. "We blew that out of the water."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465