The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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January 9, 2013

Online prostitution stings in Joplin turning up runaways

JOPLIN, Mo. — She knocked on the door of the room at the Holiday Inn on Range Line Road.

The police officers let her in. She was the girl they were expecting, the 14-year-old runaway Springfield police had asked local authorities to help locate.

The girl with the adult-services ad on Backpage.com. The girl with a posted rate of $230 an hour.

As she was being detained, she let slip that her pimp and his girlfriend were waiting for her in a car in the parking lot. The officers checked it out and wound up arresting Louis G. Venning, 32, and Kourtnie M. Eldridge, 22, both of Billings, Mont., on felony charges of promoting prostitution.

Joplin police consider the detention of the girl and the arrest of the couple Nov. 20 as an example of the type of criminal activities they hope to curtail through the Internet prostitution stings they have been conducting since April of last year.

For the most part, the stings have been producing misdemeanor arrests or citations for prostitution, according to police Sgt. Chad Allison. But they can lead to felony cases as well, he said.

Allison said the girl’s detention and the arrest of her alleged pimp and his girlfriend were a sort of “emergency sting” prompted by the request from Springfield police. The girl had run away from her grandparents and was known to be prostituting herself in Joplin, he said. Detectives in Joplin simply looked up her ad and sought a “date” at the hotel.

The girl was turned over to juvenile authorities in Greene County, Allison said. Venning and Eldridge are being prosecuted in Newton County Circuit Court, with their preliminary hearings set for Feb. 19.

Allison said this reportedly was not the first time the girl ran away and engaged in prostitution. She grew up in another state and lacked a stable home life, he said.

She told police that she hooked up with Venning and Eldridge only recently. Venning had sent her a message at her Backpage.com listing and offered her an opportunity to travel with them, she told police. A probable-cause affidavit alleges that they scheduled her dates and took the money she received.

“When we arrested her, she didn’t have any money on her, but Venning had $4,650,” Allison said.

Police found brochures in the couple’s car that suggested they may have been planning to move on to Arkansas from Joplin. Allison said investigators believe Venning moves from city to city and may have had other women working for him.

The vast majority of those charged in the stings in Joplin have been adults who were advertising on Backpage.com. But the girl who showed up at the motel in November was not the first juvenile officers encountered via those ads. In late May, one of the females who responded in dates made by investigators also proved to be a juvenile runaway from another state.

Allison believes the sting operations are having some impact on the posting of ads for the Joplin area on Backpage.com. For instance, he said, police arrested two women and cited four others in the most recent operation in December.

“Out of those six, only one have I seen posting an ad since then,” he said.

Federal interest

SGT. CHAD ALLISON of the Joplin Police Department said federal authorities are aware of a case involving a 14-year-old runaway who was detained for prostitution in November and may eventually take over prosecution of the matter. But investigators have yet to find any evidence that her alleged pimp took her across state lines for the purpose of prostitution, he said.

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