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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF LITTLE BIT

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Within months, Belinda was heavy into crack. To pay for it, she began walking Colfax, selling herself to any man who'd pull his car over to the side of the street. The going rate on the street is $20 for fellatio, more for straight sex. But the street-smart johns know that when a hooker is "on the pipe," she'll give it up for $9 or $10.

Denver cops heard almost immediately that "a midget was working `the 'fax.'" Belinda was known on the street as "Shorty" or "Little Bit." By January 24, 1994, she'd racked up her first arrest. The charge was trespassing, but the police knew she was up to more. Picked up by a vice cop, she was given a Health Order In (HOI), a command to report for an AIDS check--mandatory for prostitutes upon each arrest. She was picked up again two weeks later, this time charged with prostitution, loitering and shoplifting.

Detective Ed Roy has spent most of his 23-year career working vice and narcotics for the Denver Police Department, and he was bound to run across Belinda while working undercover. The first time he arrested her was March 14. "It wasn't hard to deal with her or to pick her up," he says. "I pulled up in my car and she jumped right in. She stood on the front seat. It felt like I had a little kid in there." Roy pretended to be a john who'd been with Belinda before. She believed it. "They're doing so many tricks, they really don't know who they're seeing," he says. "I've picked up some of them two and three times."

Because Belinda had already been busted, she was starting to learn the ropes. She asked Roy if he was a cop. "No," he told her. But she reached down and patted his waist anyway, looking for a gun. Not finding a weapon, she was satisfied. She asked, "Your place or mine?" and then directed him to an alley off Emerson Street favored by hookers for its privacy.

Roy then signaled to his back-up officers, who arrested Belinda. "She was like, `I've been caught. No big thing,'" Roy recalls. But he wasn't about to let her think she was going to skate on this one. He wanted her off the streets for good.

"I told her that when [prostitutes] get three arrests within twelve months, the judge will hammer them and put them in jail for six months," Roy says, adding, "I don't know if it's true or not." Belinda said she didn't want to do the time. "That kind of scared her," Roy says. She told him it might be best for her to leave town.

Roy agreed and, driving home his point, lectured her about the dangers of her profession. "I said, `You're too young for this. Find some other kind of work.' I said, `You don't realize the dangers involved. Especially being so tiny.' I said, `You're probably not getting paid half the time.' And what was she going to do? Tell the police?"

Roy was neither the first nor the last person to try to talk Belinda out of her lifestyle. Rodney Fosburgh had tried over and over. He knew his daughter was smoking crack, and he knew she was hooking. But he didn't know how to stop her. He says he tried reasoning with her, yelling at her, cajoling her. "We'd talk, and she'd say, `I've got to quit. I just can't quit right away.' I just didn't know what to do. She was eighteen."

Eighteen is the legal age, but it's awfully young to be hooking for a living. Most of the women working Colfax are in their twenties and thirties, says Officer Kathy Deegan, and she doesn't feel especially sorry for them. She says they're old enough to make a choice. But when Deegan first stopped Belinda and learned her age, she was appalled. "I thought, `My God! This is a child.' Why would someone so young choose a path that's so goddamn hard?"

Deegan works patrol car 223, which is assigned to cruise East Colfax, the city's hooker hot spot. Only three years on the job, she is considered a "baby cop," still finding her way. She's warm and friendly with people on the street, a trait that sometimes isn't respected by other cops. She tries to keep a handle on her feelings. That isn't always easy. With Belinda, it proved impossible.

The first time Deegan stopped Belinda and learned she was hooking, she sat her in the cruiser and talked with her for an hour. "I told her, `You're a baby, and you shouldn't be out here,'" Deegan recalls. When Belinda said she had to make some money because her Social Security check was going to her mother in Las Vegas, Deegan told Belinda that she could help her get the checks sent to Denver. She said she could help her find work. But for every offer of help, Belinda found an excuse.

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Karen Bowers