PART TWO: How Washington Police Turned Talking About Prostitution into a Felony Offense

Mueller said he started when a woman he patronized regularly, ViVi, asked him to become her booker; from there he became more involved, starting his own agency in late 2014. Durnal still maintained a full-time job as a professional photographer but had begun moonlighting in the sex business after dating a K-Girl himself.

After their arrests last January, both men were held in King County Jail on $150,000 bail. In February, they accepted plea deals, copping guilty to promoting prostitution in the second degree. There was no media blast from King County about this development.

While they’re still awaiting final sentencing, the penalties Richey recommended were relatively modest: 60 days in jail for Durnal, who pleaded guilty to two counts of promoting prostitution, and 80 days in jail waived as a first-time offender, plus 30 days of community service, for Mueller, who pleaded guilty to three counts of promoting prostitution. In addition, each man would get 12 months of community custody afterward, pay a $3,000 fine, “be available for interviews and testimony as directed,” and take a class on “Stopping Sexual Exploitation.”

It’s true that severity of crime and severity of punishment aren’t always perfectly correlated. Mueller and Durnal might have gotten favorable sentencing recommendations in exchange for offering testimony against bigger prostitution players, for example.

But there’s no evidence that’s the case so far. Instead, it’s likely that the lighter sentences and less severe charges reflect the true nature of these men’s actions, which did advance or promote prostitution, but not necessarily at anyone’s expense (except perhaps the taxpayers’, now that King County has gotten involved).

“If there was evidence that Mueller and Durnal were really like physically restraining or assaulting these women, we would have taken a more aggressive approach,” Richey, the King County deputy prosecutor, says. “But instead the evidence was more that [they were] providing a place” and “promoting the prostitution of numerous foreign nationals.”

Let’s just linger on that a second: For all the bluster about busting up a ring of international bad guys, the worst offenders in the case can only be said to have “provided a place” for consensual prostitution to take place.

Their move to managing commercial-sex businesses had been recent, a natural extension of the relationships they made with sex workers and other clients

Police and media reports were crafted to sound as if the sting took down a massive, coordinated criminal organization devoted to sexual exploitation. In fact, the “brothels” they busted were solo operations that worked more like talent or temp agencies, with willing workers showing up for short-term gigs brokered through the agency. The “sex trafficking website” they took down was a robust platform for independent sex-worker advertising.

And the shadowy sexual exploiters of The League? Just plain-old prostitution clients who occasionally liked to get together for beers.

Before being arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking, Mueller and Durnal were both frequent sex buyers themselves

With Mueller and Durnal out of the picture, it’s the sex buyers that prosecutors have been focusing on. But buying sex isn’t the crime these defendants were charged with: Like Mueller and Durnal, each faces a felony promoting-prostitution charge. Unlike Mueller and Durnal, however, League members aren’t accused of managing escort agencies, operating brothels, or having any direct hand in running a prostitution business. The activity used to sustain their charges includes posting sex stories in online forums, private emailing with and about sex workers, and meeting for drinks at local bars. Part two of this series will explore The League in more depth.