OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - For a man who surprises prostitutes and their customers with a video camera to announce, “You’re busted, buddy,” Brian Bates is remarkably unscathed.
No visible scars, no missing limbs.
After 15 years of exposing, documenting and railing against street prostitution in Oklahoma City, Bates is known as the “video vigilante.” It’s a moniker the local TV stations hung on him years ago after they noticed recurring police reports about a man making prostitution complaints with videotaped evidence.
He initially hated the nickname, but he now uses it in the videos he uploads to YouTube, where they find an audience of millions.
He prefers to call himself a “commercial activist.”
Commercial, because he makes money selling the licensing rights of his videos to TV production companies. Activist, because he’s a loud and relentless voice in the ear of police, elected officials and society at-large about what he sees as the mostly ignored ugliness of street-level prostitution.
There have been plenty of instances of people with camcorders documenting pimps and prostitutes, but one is hard-pressed to find anyone like Bates who has done it for so long.
Bates explains it this way: Some people want to save the whales; he wants to dissuade street prostitutes and their “johns” from the public spectacle of sex-for-pay; if it’s behind closed doors or arranged online or by phone, he doesn’t care.
His methods are simple. He lurks around an area of south Oklahoma City known for prostitution, waits for a prostitute to hop into the vehicle of a customer and follows the pair discreetly to their assignation. He waits for the right moment to pounce, flinging open the driver’s side door to announce, “You’re busted, buddy.”
He says it’s a “rush.”
Typically, the john will slam his car door and speed away, but sometimes the man exits his vehicle and subjects himself to a withering lecture from Bates, who keeps his camera rolling. Sometimes, the man will beg for mercy.
Bates has never been shot, knifed or punched, though he said he has pulled out his Taser on two occasions when johns - who were undressed -- appeared ready to do violence on the stranger wielding the camcorder.
“I think he’s about half nuts some of the time,” says Jack Grimes, a Church of Christ pastor who has watched Bates for years. “He puts himself in harm’s way.”
Grimes, 57, grew up in the neighborhood Bates patrols. His father operated a gas station on what was then Highway 77, the main north-south highway through Oklahoma City. After IH-35 opened nearby in 1959, the old Highway 77, now called South Robinson Street, became one of the city’s prime prostitute-pickup spots.
The johns face not only tickets and community service but also the possibility of winding up on YouTube’s JohnTV channel, Bates’ website, JohnTV.com, or his Facebook page or Twitter feed.
“Once Brian puts it on his website, it never goes away,” Grimes says.
Before Facebook, Bates would sometimes deliver a videotape to the home of a john, telling the man’s wife she needed to have a talk with her husband. Now, through Facebook, he’ll send a video link to each person on the john’s friend list.
“You couldn’t believe the number of johns who have Facebook pages,” Bates says. “Everyone they don’t want me to contact is their friend on their Facebook page.”
He says members of the police vice squad have told him that johns who are arrested sometimes ask whether John TV will find out about them.
“The biggest deal is being publicly outed,” Bates said. “They can handle the arrest.”
Sgt. Jennifer Wardlow of the Oklahoma City Police Department’s public information office declined to arrange an interview about Bates with a member of the vice squad. She said Police Chief Bill Citty does not like officers to give opinions to the media.
BIRTH OF THE ‘VIDEO VIGILANTE’
Bates, 41, found his calling while working in the marketing department of a local hospital. He got involved in his downtown-area neighborhood association, which was getting fed up with a prostitution problem. It was getting so bad that Bates says his then-girlfriend (he’s now married to another woman) couldn’t walk to the corner store without being slowly followed by men in cars seeking a prostitute.
The police told the neighborhood association to write down license plate numbers of suspicious cars, but Bates thought stronger action was needed. He caught a high school principal and a prostitute in a school van near his home and made a formal complaint, he said.
A jury found the man not guilty after the defense attorney called Bates a misguided “wannabe cop.”
Later, the prosecutor told him he probably needed video proof next time.
It was the eureka moment for the video vigilante.
“I decided from that day on I would make sure I taped everything,” Bates remembers. “I would never bother to call the police unless I had it on tape.”
Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune