Last year, Phoenix police shut down a large prostitution ring involving more than 100 prostitutes, some of whom still lived at home with their parents. So far, the participant facing the harshest penalty is the group's accountant, 57-year-old Peter Shifman.
When he was arrested last August, Shifman's home and vehicle were also seized. Neighbors in his quiet rural community were stunned, refusing at first to believe the charges. "They're just good salt of the earth, honest people," a neighbor told reporters, adding that he'd never seen anything suspicious.
But in April, Shifman pleaded guilty to money laundering, illegal control of a company, and using wire or electronic communication in the commission of the crimes. He also admitted to receiving part of the direct proceeds of prostitution. On June 19th, he was sentenced to three years in prison, seven years probation, and a fine of $100,000.
"The Largest Prostitution Ring in Arizona History."
Phoenix officials say that before the bust, the Internet-based prostitution operation was generating about $250,000 each month. The "escorts" worked for various entities, including Desert Divas LLC, Night Partners Entertainment, NPE Management Services, Hips Touring LLC, Escorts in Action, AZ Confidential, and New Mexico's Desert Divas.
The original bust occurred in August of 2008, but as recently as May 2009, police were still making arrests, taking into custody 19 more individuals. Forty-three criminal indictments were also handed down in May. Law enforcement is calling the Desert Divas investigation the largest prostitution ring in Arizona history.
Altogether, the arrests and indictments involve residents of four states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Washington and nearly 100 individuals, and the seizure of cash, drugs, and weapons. Among those arrested is a detention officer – 23 year old Jillian Lybarger – with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Four "VIP customers" were also indicted, on charges of money laundering, pandering, and illegal participation in an enterprise.
"This case is beyond prostitution," said Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas in a statement to reporters. "This was a major criminal syndicate that allegedly made millions of dollars. I am proud of the work done by our prosecutors and the skilled detective work of the Phoenix Police Department breaking the back of this syndicate."
Connected with the Desert Divas case was the arrest last February of David Elms, a "power broker" in the prostitution ring, who was very influential in the sex trade. Elms controlled how much the escorts were able to make by manipulating his recommendations of them to clients, in exchange for money or sexual favors. His arrest came after he approached undercover officers in the solicitation of murder for hire. Police were tipped off to an alleged plot to carry out a contract killing by one of the leaders of the prostitution ring, Paul Nichta. Nichta plead guilty last May to charges that arose from the investigation and is serving a two-and-one-half year prison sentence. Elms posted bail and then fled before his court date.