By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – A criminal investigation involving two shuttered Rockford lingerie shops has resulted in 80 criminal charges against more than two dozen people, authorities announced Tuesday.
The charges are part of what authorities have dubbed “Operation Exclusive,” an investigation into reports of human trafficking at Chantilly Lace, 106 7th St., and Exclusive Lingerie Boutique, 77 7th St. Both businesses were condemned earlier this year as the result of those reports.
No charges were announced when the shops were closed, only business license issues and building code violations. Subsequent search warrants, however, were conducted at both locations, resulting in charges against the 28 defendants, including 57-year-old Chantilly Lace owner Peggy D. Smith. She’s charged with 12 counts of promoting a place of prostitution.
As of press time, Smith was lodged in the Winnebago County Jail. Bond was set at $100,000. She is the widow of longtime Chantilly Lace owner Robert Smith. She agreed to surrender her business license after the shop was raided May 23. During that raid, authorities say police found evidence that the business was being used as a front for a sex-trade operation.
The other 27 defendants are wanted by police. They are Bruce C. Wanke, 71; David A. Babler, 76; Denis T. Mabie, 76; Donald Davis, 72; Garelt S. Stahl, 75; Harry L. Nebergall, 57; Howard A. Richmond, 53; James Athans, 80; James F. Thomason, 68; Javier E. Saavedra, 45; Larry J. Flynn, 67; Dr. Larry O. Sy, 55; Dr. Mark K. Myers, 52; Martin G. Bertagnoli, 69; Michael J. Aberle, 74; Randy N. Fox, 54; Robert E. Von Bergen, 52; Robert H. Mathison, 75; Roger M. Miller, 77; Ronald F. Larson, Jr., 64; Ryan T. McMahon, 46; Scott Sutker, 56; Steven M. Haas, 67; Hector Alvarez, 57; Tom Fields, 54; Tyson S. Fettes, 33; and 52-year-old Raul Pena.
“All of these individuals are charged with patronizing a prostitute, which a Class 4 felony, carrying a penalty of one to three years in the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Winnebago County State’s Attorney Marylin Hite Ross said. “They are also charged with solicitation of a sexual act, which is a Class A misdemeanor. Warrants have been issued for all of these individuals.”
Hite Ross said some of the defendants crossed state lines to visit the illegal shops.
The charges are the result of local law-enforcement’s effort to end the demand for prostitution in Rockford by targeting johns – those looking to buy sex.
“We understand that these women do not desire to get into this profession,” Hite Ross added. “If we can shut down the demand and the places that provide a conduit for prostitution and trafficking to take place, then these women can receive the assistance that they need so that they can move on and have a more productive life.”
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said the investigation and closure of the establishments was a long time coming but not the end of the push to ensure that those who pay for sexual acts are held accountable for their crimes.
“The charges announced today have a significant impact on our community,” McNamara said. “For years, there have been rumors about the type of illicit activities happening in these businesses, but they have been historically difficult to investigate. With the help of those willing to come forward and provide critical information, we were able to shut these businesses down and take a big step in ending this type of activity in our community.”
Jennifer Cacciapaglia, Manager of the Mayor’s Office of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention, said the arrests put a dent in the local commercial sex industry.
“‘Johns come from all demographics and socioeconomic statuses,” Cacciapaglia said. “We will continue to develop End Demand strategies aimed at disrupting the activities of purchasers and traffickers. We are sending a clear and strong message that Rockford will no longer be a haven for this type of criminal activity. If you come here to purchase sex, we will make it our priority to arrest you, charge you and publicize it.”