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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Prostitution / Everyone Has an Opinion / Everyone is Wrong (Margo St. James / COYOTE)


This post is a continuation of my post of 9/29/14 (Prostitution / Everyone Has an Opinion / Everyone is Wrong).

Margo St. James was the principal organizer of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics); which was considered to be, in late 70s San Francisco, to be the prostitutes’ union (association).

I was an FBI Special Agent assigned to the Organized Crime Squad in San Francisco.  The Bureau, at the time, expected all Agents to cultivate ‘sources’ that potentially could have information of value to the FBI.  It was actually more than an expectation.  Part of an Agent’s performance evaluation was based on his ability to establish mission-related sources-of-information in the local community or the state.  Margo was something of a Bay Area celebrity with potentially all kinds of contacts, some with possible criminal connections.  I decided that I would attempt to meet her.

I read everything I could find on Margo St. James relating to her background, her current activities, and her expressed opinions.  Having committed much of that information to memory, I approached her at the offices of COYOTE.  I showed her my credentials and introduced myself.  I had brought with me photos of missing women and girls – a pretext of sorts.  San Francisco, in those days, was a magnet for girls and young women.  Pimps often roamed the bus terminals looking for runaways and na├»ve young women seeking the hippy lifestyle.  And, as might be expected, many young women simply disappeared; and more than a few ended-up as Jane Does in the local morgues.  When I first contacted Margo, she seemed receptive to talking – apparently curious as to what I was doing there.  From that initial contact, a somewhat friendly relationship gradually evolved.

As was customary (required in the Bureau), I formally opened a file on Margo as a potential source.  This allowed me some protection against compromise, as well as allowed me to buy her lunch on a few occasions – at Bureau expense.  It should be understood that I never paid Margo as an informant, nor would she have expected that.

Our meetings, unbeknownst to Margo, were monitored.  For example, another Agent was always in close proximity when I took Margo to lunch.  When I visited her, the other Agent waited discreetly outside, monitoring my demeanor when I entered her offices, how long I was in there, and my demeanor when I came out.  Margo would not have been above compromising an FBI Agent – and everything was done to prevent that possibility.  She once asked me if I wanted to meet ‘a woman.’  “Just describe her,” she said.  “And I’ll have her here in thirty minutes.”  Was she serious?  She appeared to be.  Although, I think her comment was meant more as a test than an actual offer.  If I had showed the slightest interest in meeting a ‘working girl,’ she probably would have quickly written me off as just one more sleazy cop on the ‘make.’  In her extensive career, I’m sure that she had met a few.  However, I made it clear that she was the one I wanted to talk to; and she ultimately accepted that arrangement.  In retrospect, I think that she welcomed, for what it’s worth, the possibility of having a perceived contact (a source) in the Bureau.

What was Margo St. James like?  It’s hard to describe.  She was intelligent, articulate, interesting, bizarre, outlandish, outspoken, profane and obscene.  Everything I expected her to be, and then some.  No longer, at that point, a practicing prostitute (to my knowledge), she described her early years, often plying her trade dressed as a Catholic nun.  Apparently, according to her, this had a particular appeal to many Catholic men.

Unfortunately, our relationship ended when, under The Freedom of Information Act, she requested any information the Bureau might possess on her.  Ridiculous as this might sound, the Bureau told her that she was currently a ‘source’ of Special Agent Nelson.  Upon learning this information, she called me and chewed-me-out, telling me in no uncertain terms that she wanted no further contacts with me.  That ended our relationship.

About a year after that, I resigned from the Bureau to pursue other endeavors.

I have sometimes wondered if I owed Margo an apology.  The status, as a ‘Bureau source,’ to which she strongly stated her objection, must have smarted just a bit.  It was, nonetheless, the only way I could justify my association with her; and, furthermore, allow me to discuss with her the many subjects that often had more to do with the protection of prostitutes and young women from criminality, rather than the criminality of prostitution.  Prostitution can be a dangerous, dirty business, a magnet for crime and criminals; and it is especially dangerous for young women or girls unfamiliar with all the aspects of the prostitution business.  In some respects, Margo and I had similar goals.  Anyway, in her own way, she was quite the educator.

Regarding FBI ‘sources’ or ‘informants,’ many might have a misconception as to how that works.  The FBI’s philosophy, at the time, was to have their Agents get out of the office, get into the local community and cultivate contacts.  Some might believe that the FBI only developed relationships with members of organizations like the Mafia or the Hell’s Angels.  This is, of course, sometimes possible and desirable, but very rare.  In attempting to gain information about Mafia members’ activities or movements, an Agent might want to build a relationship with someone close to a Mafia member, such as someone in his family or someone who works in a restaurant he owns where money laundering was suspected.  With the Hell’s Angels, who in the 70s were considered to be involved in several variations of organized crime, someone who worked on their motorcycles might be a good source.  How so?  Well, a motorcycle mechanic could furnish you names, information on leadership, banking information, club member personalities, etc.

As far as someone like Margo is concerned, it was a given that participants in criminal activities also frequented prostitutes.  For the Mafia, it was one of their passions.

Anyway, during the period that I knew her, she never gave me any information that directly related to my cases, or organized crime with any specificity.  I came to doubt she knew much about that sort of thing.  We did, occasionally, discuss lost or missing girls.  We discussed the prostitution business, and the reasons some women and some men enter that business.  When talking about adults, who are not coerced in some manner to enter prostitution, Margo’s description of the business was fairly straightforward and matter-of-fact.  Some women like the trade, but most are there for the money.  She did, nonetheless, acknowledge the many dangers involved.

To be continued…


True Nelson