Suffering on Sullivant: Part 1
Bobbi McCalla could hear the bumping bass of the car stereos before she rounded the corner of the rundown apartment building, and she knew it signaled the crowd had gathered just a block south of Sullivant Avenue for a vigil to remember her sister.
McCalla was running late, rattled because she had left home without any zip ties. Without them, the bunches of plastic pink and orange flowers that she and others carried would be gone in no time, stolen by thieves who destroy everything here — even the fake carnations wedged into rows of rusting utility meters to serve as a makeshift memorial for a troubled soul so many loved and tried to save.
It is painful for McCalla to visit this Franklinton neighborhood, to mourn at the spot where then-Columbus police vice Officer Andrew Mitchell shot and killed Donna Dalton Castleberry on Aug. 23, 2018.
“Everybody knows what happened to Donna wasn’t right,” McCalla told those who gathered in the secluded back lot where Mitchell had parked with Castleberry inside while working on what he later said was a solo undercover prostitution sting without his badge. “We need to make sure police are held accountable. What they did to Donna was wrong.”
But if it wasn’t for what happened in that unmarked police car — its passenger door blocked against a brick wall — a light might never have shone on a neighborhood that is so stricken with ills, one so drowning in vices and addictions and swallowed by urban blight, where some say police officers preyed upon the most vulnerable and no one seemed to care.
Nowhere in Columbus is there an area more plagued with prostitution and drug abuse than a 3-mile span of Sullivant Avenue that runs from Dodge Park along the west bank of the Scioto River across from Downtown to Hague Avenue. That stretch covers parts of two neighborhoods: the Hilltop and Franklinton.
Of 1,880 prostitution arrests in Columbus between 2017 and July 1 of this year, more than half (965) were on Sullivant or just a few blocks off the street. The second-largest concentration of prostitution arrests was in Linden, yet those arrest numbers were less than a third of what Sullivant saw.
Columbus police responded to 1,100 drug complaints in the areas along Sullivant in 2018. There, in the ZIP codes straddling Sullivant Avenue, Columbus Fire paramedics and other first responders administered naloxone to counteract opioid overdoses at the highest rate in Franklin County and among the highest rates in Ohio, according to state emergency medical data.
Last year, first responders administered one dose of naloxone for every 18 people in Franklinton's 43222 ZIP code. On the Hilltop, in the 43223 ZIP code, it was one for every 57 people.
"Drugs are at the root of 100% of our problems," said Columbus police Lt. David Griffith during a roll-call meeting in late August at the Hilltop police substation on Sullivant Avenue. The 10 officers and two sergeants present worked the city's six-month Safe Streets Initiative, a concentrated form of community policing and enforcement done mostly on bicycles. "The narcotics breed everything else."
Spider web of trouble
Every day of the week, night and day, prostitutes walk along Sullivant past boarded-up houses trying to get the attention of passing cars and potential johns who will pay them as little as $20 for a sex act.
Many of the women want the money to help pay for their heroin or crack cocaine addictions. Or it's demanded by their traffickers — once commonly referred to as pimps — who send the women out on the streets with a quota. Make enough money, the women will tell you, and they are rewarded with more drugs and maybe a place to sleep. Come up short, and their traffickers beat them and force them to stay out on the street with nothing, not even food or water.
This way of life on Sullivant was routine — and mostly invisible to all but those who live there — until the 5-foot-4, 116-pound Castleberry found herself trapped inside the unmarked Columbus Division of Police-issued Mitsubishi Galant driven by Mitchell, a 23-year veteran of the force.
Mitchell had no badge, police radio or anything else identifying himself as an officer when he fatally shot Castleberry. Authorities have concluded that the 23-year-old — a sister, friend and mother of two whose war with her own demons led her to the streets — believed the 5-foot-8, approximately 200-pound officer was just another man with handcuffs trying to abduct and abuse her for his own sick pleasure.
She stabbed him in the hand with what police are calling a knife before scrambling into the back seat.
Mitchell grabbed his Smith & Wesson .40-caliber, semiautomatic pistol and fired six times. Three bullets struck Castleberry, piercing her heart and right lung, her abdomen and her left leg. Columbus Fire medics rushed Castleberry to OhioHealth Grant Medical Center, where she died.
Authorities now say that Mitchell had a history of arresting prostitutes and offering them freedom in exchange for sexual favors. He has been charged with nine federal crimes, including authorities say, forcing at least two women to have sex and lying to federal agents about having sex with prostitutes. He will remain in federal custody until his trial in U.S. District Court in Columbus, scheduled for February. His murder trial for killing Castleberryis scheduled to begin that same month in Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
The women working the streets on Sullivant say they don’t know how many officers were using their power to get sex. Some told The Dispatch that the abuse was happening long before Castleberry was killed, and that Mitchell wasn't the only one.
After Castleberry's death, commanders suspended the activities of the 20-officer vice unit, then disbanded the unit in March. Police have made a focused effort since then to let the women know it is safe to come forward with allegations and evidence of corruption. Two other officers were suspended with pay and have been recommended for termination in connection with an ongoing investigation by the FBI’s Public Corruption Task Force, though it's not clear what allegations the FBI made.
And the already decaying Sullivant Avenue corridor grew worse.
In August 2018, there were 83 arrests for prostitution in Franklin County, according to court records. In the next month, with the vice unit gone, there was just one. In fact, from September 2018 through June, Columbus police made just 14 prostitution arrests citywide, and only three of those arrests were near Sullivant Avenue.
“Everyone knew those guys weren’t watching out here anymore,” said Columbus police Sgt. Fred Brophy, one of the two sergeants who runs the Safe Streets program in this neighborhood. "The loss of vice created a vacuum."
But abolishing the vice unit has allowed the women to open up about how they had been treated by some of the undercover officers, said Brophy, who has worked some of the city's most crime-ridden areas in his 24 years with the Division of Police, most recently nearly seven years on the West Side and along Sullivant.
How did the Sullivant Avenue corridor become the epicenter of drugs and prostitution?
Brophy pointed to Yale Avenue and noted the lack of streetlights. He jabbed the toe of his shoe at empty condom wrappers and hypodermic needle caps tossed into the weeds at the edge of an apartment parking lot.
“The concentration of dilapidated and vacant housing, that environment, precipitates the lifestyle here,” Brophy said.
Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said in late September that there are many challenges when it comes to ending prostitution, human trafficking, poverty and addiction — problems at the core of the Sullivant corridor’s environment. Ginther spokeswoman Robin Davis said the mayor travels the corridor often, and has ridden with police officers there.
“He is keenly aware of the challenges residents in the area face,” Davis wrote in an email. “We will continue to work cooperatively with neighborhood leaders and focus city resources on solving the challenges ... that have grown over time and that persist, but which are unacceptable in any corner of our city.”
Brophy sees it as a sad circle of life: Those suffering from abuse and addiction come to these West Side areas because they have nowhere else to go. Drug dealers follow, because the neighborhood gives them ready access to users and vacant houses to operate from. The traffickers move in to prey upon the most vulnerable population of women and give them a path to the drugs their brains and bodies crave. And the johns come because this is where the girls are.
It's a thick and sticky spider web for law enforcement. There’s no law against walking down a sidewalk or talking to someone who pulls over in a car, no matter what the ultimate purpose. So officers mostly can't arrest even the obvious transactions. Even if an officer comes across a sex act, that's public indecency. It generally takes undercover operations to witness the actual offers and transactions and to make successful arrests.
As Brophy walked to his cruiser, he nodded toward two men watching closely from a porch across the alley, and at two more peering out through a ripped screen on a second-story window just above him.
“You can see we aren’t well-liked here,” he said as he climbed into his car.
"Some of us want a new life"
Just after noon on a hot and humid August Wednesday, a prostitute with her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail picked up her pace as she walked around a corner, waving her hand to tell the car to go away.
Peggy Osborne Rice, an advocate who regularly helps and visits the women on the streets, was trying to offer the woman a cold Pepsi and information about an addiction clinic.
But the woman in the black halter top and white skirt, who looked about 18 or so, didn’t want help.
“Go away,” the woman told her would-be helper. “I want you to go away.”
She walked on up Bellows Avenue, having just come from outside Mary Jo’s Carryout at the corner of Sullivant and Hawkes avenues. That carryout parking lot is a ground zero of sorts, a hub of activity 24/7. It's a regular post for the women of the streets, hawk-eyed men presumed to be their traffickers who keep watch over them, drug dealers, and those buying anything they shouldn't. Rice continued trying, so the woman began screaming expletives, furious that someone who wasn't a potential customer was tracking her.
“Go the (expletive) away,” the woman screamed again.
She had been one of five women surrounding a young man wearing a long-sleeved, black jacket unzipped with no shirt underneath. He seemed to control them all. He pulled another of the women by the arm and shouted at her to keep moving.
A Dispatch reporter attempted to talk to one of them, a 39-year-old who said she’d been working on Sullivant Avenue for 11 years and was "dope sick" on this day, her body ravaged by the ugly withdrawal from heroin. The woman, wearing blue jeans with the fly partially unzipped, was open to talking until the man in the black jacket came to the corner and stared her down.
“I have to go,” she said, picking up her black purse, stuffed with shirts, Narcan and a toothbrush.
The cars of prospective johns pull up in front of the carryout for hours, like the line at a drive-through. The women give a nod, the vehicle rolls to barely a stop and then the strangers drive off together. Many of the vehicles head to a nearby alley, mostly overgrown with weeds, crowded with garbage and reeking of misery and rotting trash.
Most often, less than 30 minutes later, the women are back at the same spot waving again at passing traffic. On a slow day, the women say, they will do business with three or four customers. On a busy Friday night, they can see seven or more johns.
Across from the carryout, Linda Mitchell sat on a curb slumped over and sweating through her halter top as the cars rolled by. The 37-year-old was too sick from drugs to worry about customers.
She once had dreams of being a nurse, but the discovery of crack cocaine 13 years ago shattered all of her hope. She has worked on Sullivant ever since.
“Some of us want a new life,” said Mitchell, who has been arrested 20 times for solicitation since 2005. “But the drugs take hold of you, and you just don’t know how to get it.”
Nearing dark, two of the prostitutes retreated back to an abandoned home they had been using for shelter for a few weeks, one not far from where Donna Castleberry was killed. A pile of used needles was strewn between their sleeping bags as they counted the cash they earned for the day. This duo works for themselves, so they could each keep roughly $200. But they acknowledged the money would go fast after paying for heroin and a few groceries — if they weren't robbed before having a chance to buy both.
"It's about survival," one of the women said. "That's what it's about every day on this street."
"I am here. I care."
Sgt. Dana Hess didn’t wear her uniform this time, and rather than pull her hair back in its usual military-style bun, she let it fall across her shoulders and down her back.
She didn’t want to be seen as an intimidating police officer in the courtroom this Thursday in June — not in a room full of people still processing that they might finally be heard about how police officers such as Andrew Mitchell had treated them. Hess was in Franklin County's CATCH (Changing Actions To Change Habits) Court — which uses intensive probation and programming and support to help victims of human trafficking recover and leave the lifestyle behind — as an advocate, a woman, a friend.
Twelve women — each arrested by police officers for selling her body — stared in silence at her. Hess opened her arms wide in a gesture of sympathy and said: “On behalf of the Columbus Division of Police, I apologize to you. I am extremely sorry for what’s happened to you.“
She scrawled her cellphone number across a white board and told the women to call her if officers mistreat them, intimidate them.
“I want to help you. Clearly, what we were doing as a division wasn't working. I am here. I care. I will listen to you.”
The women were shocked. And moved. More than one wiped away tears as Hess choked up herself.
In an interview later, the longtime officer who used to work the West Side but now runs the Safe Streets initiative in Linden, explained that ending human trafficking has become a personal priority.
“Society doesn’t like to talk about prostitution because it’s not pretty. The women out there are homeless and addicted. The statistics will show you that almost to a person, the women who end up selling their bodies were sexually and physically abused as children. You can’t blame someone for doing what they were raised to do, for what they think is normal.
“They aren’t dirty whores. They are sick, beaten down. My goal is help reprogram officers’ minds to get them to understand that these women are victims and they need help.”