Nearly one year ago, Las Vegas police broke down the door to an illegal brothel, caught San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks inside and marched him at gunpoint out of the building and into the street.
Now a San Mateo County Times investigation into what happened that night has prompted the county's two U.S. representatives to call on the Board of Supervisors to conduct a thorough inquiry into the sheriff's alleged misconduct.
"This cries out for a comprehensive external investigation, because the highest law enforcement officer in the county should not be under any suspicion of illegal activity at any time ever," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough. #1 "I don't think the public is naive, and I don't think they're stupid."
Added Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, "The whole element of accountability is missing. People simply don't know what happened that night."
It was shortly after 9:30 p.m. on April 21, 2007, that Munks and Bolanos were detained during Operation Dollhouse, a two-year investigation targeting an alleged ring of sex traffickers.
Officers lined the sheriff up alongside a row of "Johns" who had also visited the bordello in a gritty residential neighborhood about two miles off the neon-lit Las Vegas Strip. At the sheriff's side stood his right-hand man and best friend, Undersheriff Carlos Bolanos.
Neither the sheriff nor the undersheriff was arrested, nor were any other brothel visitors.
The targets of Operation Dollhouse were the suspected pimps and panderers who allegedly sold sex with women, many of whom police believe were indentured sex slaves.
That night, police arrested six alleged pimps, detained 25 Asian and Latin-American prostitutes and confiscated 3,500 tablets of the drug Ecstasy. Six suspected brothels were raided, including the one in this run-down ranch home.
Like other men caught at the six illegal brothels that Saturday night, the sheriff and the undersheriff were briefly detained, then released.
The incident occurred a little more than three months after Munks began his term as San Mateo County's sheriff.
He and Bolanos had traveled to Las Vegas with 52 employees from the sheriff's office, Probation Department and district attorney's office to run the Baker to Vegas Challenge Cup Relay, a 120-mile footrace that attracts law enforcement from all over the West Coast.
The reason Munks and Bolanos were at the brothel, Bolanos told a Las Vegas reporter, was that the sheriff was feeling sore after the relay race, and the two men had hired a limo driver to take them to a massage parlor.
#2 "I believed I was going to a legitimate business — it was not," Munks told reporters in Redwood City three days after the brothel raid. The sheriff called the incident a "personal embarrassment" but insisted he never broke the law. Then he told reporters he wouldn't "be answering any more questions or talking about this anymore in the future."
The sheriff has been true to his word. For nearly a year, Munks and Bolanos have refused to comment publicly on anything related to the Las Vegas trip — in spite of widely held suspicions that the sheriff and undersheriff may have intended to commit a crime and #3 evidence that both men violated their own department's general orders of professional conduct and ethics.
A nice massage
Law enforcement sources have told the Times that #4 "Munks and Bolanos spent the weekend at the Mandalay Bay an opulent resort on the Las Vegas Strip with two world-class spas offering more than a dozen types of massage, including in-room service, to its guests.
"Anybody that is a tourist in Las Vegas and stays in one of our resorts can readily find a legitimate massage," said Lt. Karen Hughes of the Las Vegas Police Department's vice section. "It's not rocket science. If I am going to find a meal, I go to a restaurant. If I am going to find a suit, I am going to a retailer that sells clothes."
"I'll let your sheriff and undersheriff answer questions about how they were found in one of our city's brothels," Hughes added. "All I'm telling you is that if you're staying at the Mandalay Bay, that hotel offers a spa that caters to tourists and anyone else."
#5 "Although no official record exists that Munks stayed at the Mandalay Bay, a clerk at the hotel confirmed that Bolanos booked a room there between April 20 and 22, the weekend of the relay race. A subsequent call to the hotel to find out more details of the undersheriff's stay revealed that the hotel's computer system no longer contains a record of the reservation. Both the sheriff and the undersheriff have refused to answer questions about where they stayed in Las Vegas.
Whether Munks and Bolanos did or did not stay at the Mandalay Bay, the Las Vegas Strip boasts at least 20 legitimate spas offering massage services. From the end of the Strip to the residential area where the two men were detained, there are at least four more legitimate spas that offer massages.
It is unlikely that men wanting only a massage would hire a limousine, according to hotel workers and other sources familiar with the mechanics of the sex trade in Las Vegas. A limo ride in Las Vegas ranges between $50 and $150 per hour, whereas Munks could have gotten a massage at most first-class spas on the Strip for well below $150.
Men who hire limos for sex may not have a specific destination in mind, said Lt. Hughes of the Las Vegas Police Department. But many taxi and limo drivers know where to take them, according to people familiar with the trade.
That's because the pimps who manage Nevada brothels — both legal establishments outside Las Vegas and illicit establishments in the city — often bribe taxi and limo drivers to bring tourists to their establishments, Hughes said.
Brothel owners sometimes offer the drivers kickbacks in the form of a small percentage of the proceeds generated by each potential client. In turn, the drivers tend to reward hotel valets with a piece of the action in exchange for steering clients their way.
For Las Vegas tourists, finding sex is often as easy as asking a hotel valet or a taxi or limo driver a simple question.
"'Where can I get a nice massage with a happy ending?'" Hughes said. "That's the terminology that's used."
'Halfway in the cookie jar'
Munks and Bolanos ended up at 3474 Eldon St., an off-white ranch #6 home fitted with barred windows and furnished sparsely with a couch and TV in the front room and nothing but mattresses on the floors of the bedrooms, according to police.
Outside the house, there was no business sign. Inside, there were large boxes of condoms and great quantities of lubricant, said Lauren Hermosillo, a social worker with the Salvation Army who assisted the women inside once police arrested the people accused of selling their bodies.
Describing the house, Hermosillo said, "It smelled like urine, it smelled like feces, it smelled like cigarette smoke. It didn't look like a massage parlor. It was very obviously not a massage parlor."
Neighbors who spoke on condition of anonymity described a building where men came and went at all hours of the night, often shouting, playing loud music and occasionally urinating on the street. The brothel owners routinely left large bags of trash outside the home that spilled used condoms and other refuse into the road.
"It was very disgusting," one neighbor said. "The place made our lives miserable, because how can you live in a neighborhood like this?"
#7 Most of the women working at the six brothels were indentured sex slaves, said Las Vegas police Lt. Dave Logue, who commanded the raids in Operation Dollhouse. The majority of the 25 alleged prostitutes detained that evening were Asians of Chinese and Japanese descent, undocumented residents working off their debts to smugglers over a period of years, Logue said.
The pimps who managed the women charged their clients between $150 and $300 for sex; the women received only a fraction of the earnings, much of which went to pay their rent and their smugglers' fees, according to the officer.
The women who work in brothels like the one at 3474 Eldon St. would have sex with as many as 40 clients a day, said Hermosillo, the Salvation Army social worker. But many of the details surrounding the women's treatment remain unknown since "a lot of the girls wouldn't talk to us because they feared for their lives," Logue said.
The night police swarmed the house produced a racket that few on the street will soon forget, according to one neighbor. Lined up outside the building, Munks and Bolanos identified themselves to Las Vegas police as top-ranking law enforcement in California, according to Logue.
To the best of the Las Vegas officer's recollection, Bolanos had been outside the building when the SWAT team tore into the home. Logue said Munks was inside, but he does not believe money changed hands between Munks and anyone in the bordello.
Nonetheless, Speier believes the county should seek a definitive account of what happened inside the brothel.
If someone's hand is "halfway in the cookie jar," Speier said, "do you slap it? Do you take out the hand?"
Ten hours before police found Munks in the brothel, at 11:30 a.m., the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office had begun the relay race in the desert of Baker. Munks was the second of 20 runners, traversing 5.6 miles over a stretch that began with low rolling hills and concluded with a steady downward descent. He likely finished running his leg of the race sometime in the midafternoon.
Now it was 9:30 p.m. and he and Bolanos, who hadn't run in the race, were lined up outside a brothel. Both men had a look of shock on their faces, Logue said.
"They were just standing there with everybody else," he added. "They weren't really saying anything."
Silence after the storm
In the weeks and months that followed, few people familiar with the details of the brothel raid said anything either.
Las Vegas police promptly reported that Munks and Bolanos had been detained, but little else. "Operation Dollhouse" investigators were not permitted to speak to the media.
Police reports from the raids on the various brothels were sealed by local and federal courts. Prosecutors have either provided few details regarding the case or simply not returned calls for comment. Attempts to contact the accused pimps and panderers through their attorneys were unsuccessful.
Today, most of the police reports from the Dollhouse raids remain sealed, pending the conclusion of the cases against four people charged with racketeering and prostitution in federal court. Attorneys representing the alleged pimps are remaining silent until their clients' cases are completed.
"Really, all we know about what happened is what the sheriff said happened, but that can't be confirmed because there's never been an investigation into what the facts are — why the sheriff was where he was and what the sheriff was doing," Eshoo said.
The lack of information surrounding the night of the raids has served to damage the sheriff's office, according to former employees interviewed by the Times on condition of anonymity.
#8 When the news first broke, some deputies felt ashamed to be part of the department, according to former employees who were still with the sheriff's office at the time and others who have maintained close ties to current deputies. And when the sheriff denied any wrongdoing, evidently refusing to discipline himself or the undersheriff, those deputies became cynical, the former employees said.
"The stories were so lame and so blatantly arrogant and hypocritical," one former employee said of the sheriff's and undersheriff's accounts of what happened.
Other deputies have confided that the episode has made policing the public more challenging. "Do you remember Rodney King?" one former deputy said. "We were all told back then, 'What are you going to do, Rodney King me?' You catch a lot of heat in the streets as it is — but you catch a lot more for things that you're not even involved in. This Vegas thing, it affected every current or past member of the office. #9 It was the worst thing that could have happened to the office. "
Low morale in the sheriff's office doesn't come as a surprise to one chief executive officer of a Bay Area police department, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Everyone in law enforcement can sympathize with the strife in this department," the chief executive said. "These types of very public controversies can only lead to destruction internally."
That's especially true when the controversy surrounds top law enforcement officers, and the matter is not properly investigated, the chief executive said.
#10 "If the sheriff is not held to the standards of conduct that he expects of his officers, the deputies lose their credibility and their ability to enforce the same codes of conduct within the administration," the chief executive said. "I can't imagine how the department could now enforce these standards of conduct against a deputy involved in a similar situation. This compromises (the sheriff's) ability to uphold high standards within his own organization."
Morale and ethics
The Times recently confronted Munks with accounts of low morale and internal strife in his department, but the sheriff dismissed the allegations flatly.
#11 "I have the support of my men and women of the Sheriff's Office, and I'm proud to have that, and I have the support of the community ," Munks said.
Asked whether he should have been disciplined for violating the department's general orders, Munks said, "I've had a policy in the past of not really discussing that in the press. I made my statement, and I'm going to stick to my statement."
#12 "I didn't break the law ," he added. "And that's what I'm sticking to."
When informed that some present and former employees were upset at the apparent lack of punishment, he replied, "Anyone that wants to say that I didn't go through some level of discomfort and pain, I can assure them that's not the case."
The sheriff then suggested a conversation with Heinz Puschendorf, president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association, a union representing 405 employees of the sheriff's office.
One week after the Las Vegas raid, Puschendorf and the DSA's five-member executive committee released a statement of support for the sheriff and undersheriff, proclaiming a desire to "move past this incident."
Puschendorf said Wednesday that he issued the statement only after conducting his own inquiry into the affair. The union president, a 10-year veteran of the department and an experienced investigator, admitted, "I did what I had to do just to make sure that no crime was done."
Puschendorf did not deny the department is suffering from low morale in some quarters, but said Las Vegas has little to nothing to do with the matter. Instead he chalked up the morale issues to the routine discomfort and alienation deputies may feel when a new sheriff arrives with a different approach to law and order.
Puschendorf said the union leadership does not dwell on the incident for the good of its members, the good of the department and a commitment to truth over rumor.
"To allow personal emotional, moral high standards — we don't get into that," he said. "We deal with facts and what's known."
"Everybody has their own opinion," Puschendorf said. "They're like armpits — we all have them and they all stink."
Why would Munks have risked his reputation and political future by seeking a massage in a residential neighborhood and walking inside a building that lacked signage or any other accouterments of a legitimate business?
That question occurred to many of the individuals who were interviewed for this story, including sheriff's deputies, law enforcement officials in other departments, local officials, people familiar with the Las Vegas sex trade — even the Las Vegas police officers who detained the sheriff alongside his number two man.
"I can't speak for what the sheriff was thinking, I just have to stand silent on that," said Lt. Logue of the Las Vegas Police Department. "He was not in his own city, and I don't know if he knows how things work around here."
At the very least, the sheriff now understands something about Las Vegas they don't tell you on television, according to the Las Vegas Police Department's Lt. Hughes.
Said the vice detective: "The adage, 'What goes on in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas' — that isn't necessarily the case."
Staff writer Julia Scott contributed to this report. Michael Manekin can be reached at 650-348-4331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.