Cruisin' for a Bustin'
Last July 3 was a gorgeous day, about 85 degrees by early afternoon, and the 37-year-old park visitor was dressed for a spirited summer outing. He wore a hot-pink tank top over a woman's black, one-piece bathing suit filled out nicely by the pair of latex breasts strapped to his chest. Strutting his stuff beneath a blue sky on Independence Day weekend, the Boulder resident walked from car to car in the parking lot of Commerce City's Lafayette Park, greeting his fellow outdoor-recreation enthusiasts with a smile -- and with his penis and testicles, which squeezed out the side of his bathing suit, according to police reports.
One of those he approached was Commerce City resident Jesus Santovena, 34, who'd brought his family to the park for a picnic. Leaving his wife and kids at a nearby table, Santovena was getting a cooler from his car when the man walked up with Mister Happy saying howdy. Santovena got a good look, freaked and flagged down a uniformed Adams County sheriff's deputy in a marked car who just then happened to be passing by on a routine patrol.
The deputy pulled into the parking lot at the intersection of Highway 224 and Lafayette Street, and "Jesus stated he had just witnessed a man walk up to his car with his penis hanging out of his shorts," he later reported. Santovena pointed out the culprit, who was still walking car to car, "never staying for more than a few seconds." When the man spotted the deputy, he hopped into a black Ford Mustang. The deputy blocked the car in, then questioned him through the car's window just long enough to establish that he "showed signs of minor intoxication" and was, in fact, still hanging brain out the side of his suit.
The deputy placed him under arrest for indecent exposure and then took Santovena's statement. Santovena said he was "shocked" by the incident.
Adams County law-enforcement officials, by contrast, were less than stunned. They say that the Boulder visitor, with his latex breasts and hot-pink tank top, is just a particularly colorful representative of the droves of men from all over the Denver area, married and unmarried, who come to Adams County seeking illegal, anonymous sex in public parks, particularly Lafayette Park.
"We've been aware of this growing problem for about five years, and it just seemed like it got worse and worse every year," says Sergeant Louis Dixon, spokesman for the Adams County Sheriff's Office. "The cruising for sex got so heavy that we were receiving an increasing number of complaints from citizens who were in the park just to go for a walk and get some exercise, and they were approached and bothered by men who were there to obtain sexual favors, because these men assumed anyone who was in the parks was there for sex."
Deputies investigating citizen complaints last summer found side paths and small groves behind the main trail that were littered with used condoms, pornography, sex toys, soiled catheters and enema kits. They also observed men engaged in oral sex, mutual masturbation and what Dixon loosely terms "medical fetishes."
"Let's just say it was an unacceptable use of the park," he says. "We want our citizens to be able to use the parks freely and comfortably and safely, and not be worried about being approached by people looking for illegal sexual favors or having their kids be exposed to any of this illegal activity. We have a lot of kids using our trail systems, and we didn't want any children in danger of being taken advantage of, so we decided to confront the problem head-on."
Making busts was a walk in the park.
While working in an undercover capacity in Lafayette Park in plainclothes I was walking east on the trails west of the park. I observed two males walking west on the trail. The first person was a white male. The second was a Hispanic male. The two males were not walking together. The Hispanic male was about 25 feet behind the white male.
As I watched them walk west I noticed that the white male went down an embankment and when the Hispanic male reached the same location he also did the same. [My undercover partner] called me on my cell phone to check in and I asked him to come over to where I was. I waited a few seconds then went to see what the two men were doing.
When I reached the area where I thought they had gone down the embankment I looked down and noticed that the white male was facing southeast and was leaning against a tree. The Hispanic male was on his knees in front of the other, his face by his crotch. The white male looked up at me and motioned for me to come down and join them.
I walked down a dirt trail and walked up to them. I could see the Hispanic male had the white male's penis in his mouth. The white male again motioned for me to come closer. The Hispanic male took the white male's penis out of his mouth, looked at me, and then continued giving oral sex. I told the two males "The gig is up. That's enough."
-- report on the arrests of a 42-year-old Commerce City man and a 36-year-old Boulder resident at 3:30 p.m. October 7.
Adams County's anti-cruising operation got under way early last September, when five undercover sheriff's deputies, four men and one woman, began trolling Lafayette Park and Lowell Ponds. Since then, 91 men (no women) have been arrested for illegal sexual activity in the two Adams County parks, which until recently were both featured on the adult website www.CruisingForSex.com, which highlights parks, public restrooms and other hot spots for quick, anonymous sex across the country and in Europe, Canada and Australia.
Other metro-Denver locales still featured on the site include the second-floor men's room at the Denver Pavilions ("I got my first blow job by a college guy here!"), a public toilet in a park near the Denver Broncos training facility ("I've had great lunch here on a regular basis!") and a men's room in the Cherry Creek Foley's, on the third floor, in the women's lingerie department ("Very cruisy!").
Information on the Adams County parks disappeared in December, presumably in response to the crackdown. Up until then, the site had featured maps with specific trails marked by arrows, along with driving directions and tips for avoiding arrest: "Remember, there's nothing illegal about driving through a park. There's nothing illegal about parking in a park. There's nothing illegal about walking down trails in a park. And there's nothing illegal about looking in the eyes of other men in a park. Of course it's illegal to have sex in a park, no matter how deep you go into the bushes, but every one of the 50 states on this site has parks where sex happens. There's something universal and probably even natural about it. If you happen to live in a city where the police won't accept reality, then don't do it where people who don't want to see you can see you, and don't do it with undercover cops. You can figure out who they are. Hint #1: The hunk cruising you is completely out of your league. Hint #2: The stud cruising you doesn't grasp the subtleties of the game. Hint #3: The hunk cruising you suggests something dangerous or out-of-character for the park in question. Hint #4: The stud cruising you keeps at it well after you've realized something is not right and spurned him."
Despite these cautions, the studs and hunks of the Adams County park patrol had little trouble making undercover sex busts.
The deputies typically worked in pairs, with one cruising the parking lot while the other worked the trails. They made up to six arrests per hour in Lafayette Park, operating like an assembly line. All of the arrests were made in broad daylight, generally between noon and five p.m. (Many of the men arrested were on lunch break or driving home from work and told deputies they had just stopped off in the park for a quickie.)
The 91 arrestees were charged with some combination of indecent exposure, creating a public nuisance and unlawful sexual contact, all misdemeanors or petty offenses. Most of the men arrested in the sting, which some local and national gay-rights groups refer to as "Bag-a-Fag," were fingerprinted and booked on site, then issued a summons and released on their own recognizance without having to go to jail or post bail.
According to Steve Bernard, assistant district attorney for Adams County, thus far, none of the men have chosen to take their cases to trial. "We're seeing a lot of plea dispositions, where we stipulate that if they plead to public indecency or disorderly conduct, they don't have to register as sex offenders," he says.
The men ranged in age from 30 to 71, with home addresses in Golden, Lakewood, Boulder, Commerce City, Thornton and Denver. They were almost all white.
Cross-referencing personal information from their arrest reports with Colorado marriage and divorce records shows that of the men arrested, more than a third -- 31 -- are currently some woman's husband.
"Anytime you have these sorts of sting operations, the headlines always read ŒGay Men Arrested Cruising for Sex,' when in reality, a lot of these men wouldn't necessarily identify themselves as gay, either because they're married or they identify themselves as primarily heterosexual," says Denise de Percin, executive director of Equality Colorado's anti-violence program.
"These stings create the misperception that the gay community is hypersexualized and deviant. And I really resent the implication that this behavior is a threat to children in Adams County. There's no rational basis for making a direct connection between pedophiles and men who are making bad decisions about where they have sex."
The suspect walked up to me and said, "Hey." I said, "Hi." He asked me if I was a cop. I laughed and said, "No, are you?" He laughed and then said, "Can I get a blowjob then?" I assumed he was asking me if I wanted to engage in oral sex. I shrugged my shoulders and he began to unzip his pants. I then placed him under arrest.
-- arrest of a 49-year-old Denver man at 3 p.m. September 6.
As area parks go, Lafayette is pretty lame. There are no grassy fields, no basketball courts or playgrounds or horseshoe pits. The entrance is a large, mucky parking lot that cowers beneath a gargantuan highway overpass; the park is sandwiched between Highway 224 and Interstate 76, so the roar of traffic is ever-present. There's a small, slimy pond near the parking lot, and a concrete bike path runs east-west along a brown, gurgling stream whose banks are lined with towering, prickly weeds.
Sergeant Dixon grew up in Adams County, and when he was kid, he and his friends called Lafayette "Mosquito Park, because you'd get swarmed, man," he says.
By bugs, not guys.
No two ways about it: Lafayette Park is butt-ugly. But it's perfectly designed for public sex. It's in a large metropolitan area and easily accessed off a major road, with groves of trees on one side of the main path and weeds on the other that are so dense and high that it's easy to disappear from view and still be within 200 yards of highway traffic.
Five minutes on foot in either direction from the parking lot, well-worn paths begin to appear, leading off the bike trail and down into the woods or closer to the stream, into a tangled warren of trails in the tall weeds. Walking there is like navigating a cornfield maze.
The Adams County undercover deputies made about a third of their Lafayette Park arrests in the parking lot, and the rest on the side trails. With each bust, a deputy either observed an alleged sex act in progress and arrested those involved, or inserted themselves into a situation where a suspect exposed himself or tried to touch the deputy's penis.
Dixon says the deputies didn't undergo any special training prior to starting their park patrols, but reading the arrest reports, it's obvious that the deputies followed a carefully pre-constructed script in their conversations with suspects. If a man asked what a deputy was doing in the park, he replied, "Just hanging out." If a deputy was asked what he was into, or what he liked, or what he was looking for, he answered with a suggestive but non-specific "just about anything."
To make a good legal bust, an undercover deputy had to get the suspect to make the first physical move, usually by unzipping his pants and whipping it out or by reaching for the deputy's crotch. By law, a law-enforcement officer is not allowed to touch suspects in a sexual manner prior to making an arrest -- that's entrapment. But there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding the kind of non-verbal cues -- such as eye contact, gestures and body language -- that undercover cops in sex parks can give off.
Working undercover, I was sitting in my pick-up when [the suspect] approached my truck and saw my CU hat. We started talking about their loss to Baylor over the weekend. I told [the suspect] I needed to get going. He reached in my window and grabbed my penis and tried to kiss me. This made me very uncomfortable. I then placed him under arrest.
-- arrest of a 37-year-old Golden man at 1:13 p.m. October 7.
Seven of the 91 men busted in Lafayette Park agreed to speak about their experiences with Westword. Two claim they were arrested purely by mistake: A 44-year-old Littleton man charged with alleged fondling on September 3 says he had jock itch and was innocently scratching his balls off-trail; a 33-year-old Denver man arrested the same day for indecent exposure says he has a bladder problem and a hard time controlling his need to urinate. "I wasn't jacking off," he explains. "I was just taking a piss in the woods."
The other five admit they were in the park for sex. But they all insist they were unfairly enticed by the undercover deputies who busted them. They claim the deputies leered at them and stared at their crotches or motioned them to follow them off-trail.
"He was giving me the look," says a 65-year-old Lakewood man also arrested on September 3. "I know the look, and he was giving it to me."
His arrest report is short and to the point: "The suspect walked past me pulling up his shirt and began rubbing his chest and winked his eye at me. He then turned around and walked back and reached toward my groin area. I then placed him under arrest."
After this is read to him over the phone, the Lakewood man sighs and agrees the report is accurate. "But they left something out," he adds. "The undercover agent winked back."
Another man claims that the deputy who arrested him was walking ahead of him on the concrete path, looked over his shoulder, then motioned with a sideways nod of his head for the man to follow him. Once they were hidden from view, this man says, the deputy put his hand on the man's shoulder and ran a finger over the button of the man's jeans: "He acted like he was teasing me, like he was about to unbutton me, so I did it myself, and that was when he arrested me."
In January, Lambda Legal, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for gay, lesbian and bisexual civil rights, published the Little Black Book, a pamphlet that "tells men who have sex with men about their legal rights if they are harassed or arrested while cruising for sex in public."
The publication advises, "Be aware that undercover cops may be 'cruising' you. A cop doesn't have to tell you he's a cop, even if you ask. If you're cruising for sex and an undercover cop hits on you, what you do can still be a crime, even if he comes on to you first."
In the summer of 2002, five Michigan men who'd been arrested during a six-month sting in Detroit's Rogue Park won an $850,000 judgment against the City of Detroit when a federal judge determined that undercover officers had made sexually suggestive gestures to the men prior to arresting them, which the judge ruled was illegal entrapment. The men each received $170,000, and their arrest records were purged.
"These stings are not just bad community policing; they're also potentially a liability issue," says Equality Colorado's de Percin. "It's really the most Neanderthal way of addressing the problem. You don't see them cracking down on heterosexual teens having sex in cars in Adams County. You don't see the same sense of moral outrage over teens getting it on. It's a double standard, it's selective enforcement, and it's not right."
I observed the suspect walking eastbound on the county trails. He passed me and made eye contact and asked me what I liked. I said, "Just about everything." I then asked him what he liked and he said, "I like to suck." He then told me, "The cops have been hitting the park quite heavily and had almost ruined what had been a good place to cruise." He then attempted to grab my genitals and I placed him under arrest.
-- arrest of a 68-year-old Denver resident at 2 p.m. September 18.
Word of Adams County's undercover sex busts first surfaced in October, after an off-duty Colorado highway patrolman was arrested at Lafayette Park, where an undercover deputy reportedly observed him engaging in oral sex with another man on October 7. According to the arrest report, the suspect identified himself as a state trooper and pleaded with the deputy to issue him a summons with a court date set on a Saturday, when no courts are in session, thus ensuring that his case would be dismissed. The deputy refused, and the patrolman was fired ten days later after a speedy internal investigation by the Colorado State Patrol determined that his conduct was "inconsistent with agency tradition and values."
On November 12, the Adams County Sheriff's Office held a press conference to publicize the ongoing park sting and issued the following release:
"Over the past couple of years, Adams County Deputies have been working diligently to stop the illegal sexual acts occurring along the trails in Adams County. The trail system is designed and provided for citizens within our community and is used for hiking, biking, and family outings. Adams County Parks and Trail system has been targeted as locations to frequent the park for sexual acts and favors from other men. The Sheriff's Office is taking a proactive approach and targeting males who frequent our parks for illegal purposes. Taking a strong stand against this type of behavior we believe will not only reduce this behavior, but also hopefully eliminate this behavior in our parks. Our ultimate goal is to provide safe parks and trails for the families of Adams County and to improve the quality of life."
But in the days following, the sheriff's office came under fire from gay-rights activists who branded the undercover investigation homophobic, unfair and a waste of law-enforcement time and money. (Although Dixon offers no estimates on the cost of the undercover operation, the arrest records indicate that the five deputies have spent at least sixty hours total in the parks thus far.)
"It doesn't take a law-enforcement genius to come up with a more efficient, more humane, more intelligent way of curtailing this activity," says Michael Adams, Lambda Legal's director of education and public affairs. "For example, why not just have a single uniformed officer park his or her car in the parking lot and then patrol the park on foot, in uniform? Why the need for a squadron of undercover officers posing as gay men, trying to lure other men into sexual behavior?"
Local activists point to the Denver Police Department's less confrontational approach to cruising in Cheesman Park as an example of a community-based policing model that Adams County could have followed. In the summer of 2000, the DPD cooperated with gay-rights groups handing out fliers to motorists in Cheesman warning that police enforcement of traffic problems, curfew violations and "inappropriate activity" was being stepped up and that owners of vehicles engaged in "suspicious activity" might receive letters at their homes. Cheesman Park residents credited the campaign with cutting down on the park's more blatant cruising.
That's not to say that Cheesman has been rendered sexless. More than one Denver scofflaw who has run his dog off-leash in the park has suffered the consequences when a pooch that goes off to retrieve a ball returns with a used condom in its mouth. And during her January 31 concert at the Pepsi Center, Bette Midler gave a shout-out to all the "Cheesman Park boys" in the audience. "I'm glad you stopped cruising long enough to come visit me," she joked.
But the cruising at Cheesman has a distinctly different flavor than the cruising in Adams County. The gay men who hang out in the central Denver park are generally sharper-dressed and drive nicer cars than the men cruising Commerce City, many of whom look like they buy their clothes off the rack at Sears. They look more like NASCAR dads than party boys, and they appear to be way more in the closet than out.
The Cheesman Park boys openly display non-sexual affection -- hugs and arms thrown around shoulders. They blast music from their cars, talk and laugh. All in all, they seem more comfortable with themselves and their sexuality than do the lurkers in Lafayette Park.
"Denver has their strategies, we have ours," Dixon says of Adams County. "Some people have said we're targeting the gay community, and that's not true at all. We're not passing judgment on anyone's sexual orientation. The only group we're targeting is people who come to our parks for illegal sex. We're just trying to make our parks safe and enjoyable for everyone to use, and our message is, if you're thinking about coming to our parks for sex, you'd better think again."
Not all of the sexual activity targeted by the undercover sting was gay in nature, he adds. The female deputy arrested six men -- one who slid his hand up her thigh while she was sitting at a picnic table, the other five after they exposed themselves to her off-trail.
"It seems that at least some of these men weren't coming to the park for one kind of sex or the other; they were just coming for sex -- man, woman, it didn't matter," Dixon says. "It's not a homosexual issue or a heterosexual issue; it's an illegal-sex issue."
Working Lafayette Park in an undercover capacity I was sitting at a picnic table approximately ten feet from the pedestrian trail. The defendant sat next to me at the picnic table and stated he had been to the park in the past and stated he was at the park to find some company. He leaned into my body and placed his hand on the inside middle of my left thigh. His hand continued in an upward direction to my genital area. I then placed him under arrest.
-- arrest of 64-year-old Thornton man by female undercover deputy at 1:30 p.m. October 23.
Today a metal sign outside Lafayette Park warns, "This park is under surveillance by the Adams County Sheriff's Office."
Sometimes, at least. But not on the afternoon of February 18, another gorgeous day when early-afternoon temperatures hit 70 degrees. A tall, short-haired man in his early thirties walks briskly through the muddy parking lot, trying to ignore the driver of the rusted white Toyota Celica creeping alongside him, crunching gravel at five miles per hour. The driver of this piece-of-shit hatchback is in his forties, wearing sunglasses, his brown hair crudely feathered in a style that wasn't cool even in the '70s.
He hisses out his open window and makes the universal sign for "blow job" by repeatedly thrusting his tongue into the inside meat of his cheek.
The Celica driver is definitely violating the Adams County park regulation that prohibits creating a general nuisance, defined as "any activity which causes annoyance or discomfort to any other persons utilizing this facility." That ordinance is posted on a second new warning sign in the parking lot.
But the cruising action is still hot and heavy. Parked in the lot at midday are fifteen cars, trucks and delivery vans with lone men sitting in the driver's seats, watching, waiting. Getting no play from the pedestrian, the guy in the white Celica makes the rounds of the parked cars, conversing briefly with several occupants. Another man gets out of his car and goes into the back of a delivery van with its driver.
On the concrete footpath, more lone men pace back and forth for a couple hundred yards in either direction of the parking lot, making furtive eye contact and occasionally pairing off to go down in the weeds or the woods. The only park users not blatantly cruising are cyclists who speed by, oblivious to the secretive rites under way all around them. No children are in danger, because no children are there.
Walking through the maze of weeds off-trail is like flushing quail. Several men pop out of tramped-down alcoves to make eyes at a man walking alone. Two more are interrupted in the midst of a makeout session. Seeing a reporter's notebook, they take off, running in opposite directions, perhaps mistaking the man for a cop about to issue them a summons.
Back in the parking lot, the atmosphere is less than festive despite the bright sunshine. Some men stand in the mud, conversing in conspiratorial tones through car windows. Others sit quietly in their vehicles, casting the eager but wary glances of the shamed.
"When the weather warms up for good, we'll be keeping a closer eye on them," says Dixon. "We're taking a stand in our parks."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.