SUN VALLEY - Dozens of cars zoom by businesses off Lankershim Boulevard in the industrial district of Sun Valley at any given moment. But every once in a while, a car will circle the block, its driver focused on the hot-pink skirt on the corner.
That's the car the cops have been waiting for.
On Thursday, 50 officers and detectives with seven vice units of the Los Angeles Police Department conducted an 18-hour sting, with undercover female officers posing as prostitutes on a six-block portion of Lankershim Boulevard, one of the most heavily trafficked areas for sex workers in the San Fernando Valley.
At least 17 people were arrested - mostly male johns, and at least one female prostitute.
At 2 p.m., during what officers described as a "feeding frenzy," two cars circled the block showing interest in the sexy decoy. Others drove up soon after. Within 30 minutes, officers arrested three johns.
One of the men arrested Thursday said he was just intending to ask the young lady out for a date.
"I work down the street and get lunch around here a lot and I saw a pretty girl," Brendan Pagan, 24, of Playa del Rey, told the Daily News as he was being handcuffed in a transport van. "I just wanted to see if she wanted to have dinner later."
Audio surveillance, however, told a slightly different story. It sounded as if the alleged john offered the officer $40 and said, among other things, "You have a room? Meet me in the alley.
Prostitution on that strip of Lankershim Boulevard has been an ongoing problem at least since the 1970s, said LAPD Sgt. Jesse Ojeda, officer in charge of the Foothill Area Vice Unit.
But for the last five months, the Sun Valley neighborhood had enjoyed a respite from the scantily clad prostitutes and their aggressive pimps after LAPD conducted two successful stings and increased bicycle patrols.
Community members also began coordinating monthly neighborhood walks at night down the boulevard in an attempt to take back their streets.
"Grandmas were walking around with their grandkids in strollers," said Cindy Sower, owner of Sun Valley Equipment Rentals. "You'd see a group of cross-country runners from the nearby school run around here. It was amazing."
"And once you get a taste of what it could be like, you don't want to go back."
But to the neighborhood's dismay, just three weeks ago, the prostitutes were back in full force, police and business owners said. On any given morning, Sower said she could spot up to seven prostitutes working the streets with johns brazen enough to pick up a prostitue in broad daylight.
"It's right in front of my face. I've had hookers walk right into my office while a customer and his son were here," Sower said.
"When my customer looks me in the face and asks me, `Why are they back?' it's appalling."
Ojeda said it's unclear why prostitutes are returning to the streets despite the police and community efforts. But he theorized that the warm weather lasting well into evenings has helped spur their business. Also, that the portion of Lankershim Boulevard is largely populated by commercial businesses where traffic is steady thanks to the easy access on and off the freeway.
There are also plenty of side streets and alleys to hide. An area behind Sower's business is used so often that officers dubbed it "condom alley" for the used prophylactics strewn about near the concrete walls and chain-link fences.
"There has to be a multi-pronged attack because there is not one silver bullet for this," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Marc Evans, officer in charge of the North Hollywood Area Vice Unit.
Evans said officers go after prostitutes on a daily basis with an emphasis on trying to arrest pimps, who often drop off the prostitutes on the street corners. Stings like the one on Thursday aimed at johns also combat the problem on the demand side.
Unfortunately, Evans added, stings can't be conducted all the time and, "I guess memories fade because they come back for more."
Evans, who has conducted more than 3,000 prostitution investigations in his six-year career with the North Hollywood Vice Unit, said johns arrested during these stings vary in age and social class, running the gamut from local firefighters and attorneys to rabbis, ministers and doctors.
On Thursday around 11 a.m., Evans said, the team arrested a man named Donald Hall, 43, of Palmdale, who identified himself as a minister and begged to be let go because he didn't want to lose his job or hurt his family.
"On one hand, you feel bad because if everything he's saying is true it is going to ruin his life," Evans said. "But on the other hand, he shouldn't have stopped here and put all of that at risk."
Sower said she also has empathy for the women who sell their bodies but has to protect her family business, which has been on the corner of Neenach Street and Lankershim Boulevard since 1959.
"I want it to go away," Sower said. "It was going so well, but it's back and all we want is for it to go away."
Even her sons, who have been propositioned by the prostitutes in the area before, have taken up the fight, with one set on becoming a police officer to help combat the problem that has plagued his neighborhood.
"This is where I grew up, this is my family business," Sower said. "I'm not going to be chased out of here by hookers."
Police identified some of the others arrested Thursday as: Samuel Rosales, 37, of Sylmar; Carolyn Seaberry, 19, of Victorville; Ernesto Rosales, 41, of Pico Rivera; Juan Garcia, 30, of Sylmar; Eric Espinoza, 24, of Van Nuys; and Donald Hall, 43, of Palmdale.
Identities of the others were not immediately available.