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— Call girls have been big business in San Diego for years, experienced observers say. They bring in millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars annually for high-powered pandering rings who use advertisements in newspapers, Yellow Pages, and on the Internet to attract the city's male tourists and convention delegates. Every night thousands of calls are said to pour into phone centers from which assignments are routed via alphanumeric beepers to the call girls who ply their trade in the world of limousines and hundred-dollar cigars.

"San Diego is the out-call capital of the world, bigger than Vegas," claims one law-enforcement authority, who requested anonymity. "Every well-informed vice cop in America can tell you that. Every night, thousands of call girls are dispatched from here to all over the country. All the girls aren't living here, of course, but their pimps are. It's a sweet place to do business from. We all know that."

Business has so burgeoned here that it has attracted operators from across the United States, some of whom are said to have established several headquarters of national prostitution networks run out of some of the city's swankiest La Jolla condominiums.

San Diego police and prosecutors, who run regular sting operations against street hookers and the johns who patronize them, have been reluctant to take on the call girls, who represent the fastest-growing segment of the industry. The last high-class hooker bust was ten years ago, when the notorious madam Karen Wilkening -- whose girls catered to, among others, savings-and-loan kingpin Donald Dixon and politicians who attended orgies at his home on Del Mar's Gold Coast -- was brought to justice after fleeing to the Philippines.

Wilkening eventually went to prison, but not before triggering a local scandal that revealed highly placed police corruption and mismanagement and required some of the city's business leaders to testify that they partook of the pleasures of her girls. After Wilkening was paroled, she tried to retrieve her infamous Rolodex, on which were said to be recorded the identities of hundreds of influential San Diegans, including judges. Superior Court Judge Frederick L. Link turned her down, telling the district attorney, "As far as I'm concerned, you should take it outside, burn it, and bury it."

Some critics also claim the reluctance to go after call girls is due to the city's fear of tampering with its effort to build a national image as a playground for high-rolling tourists and convention-goers. "Why the hell do you think they want to bring the Super Bowl here every other year or so?" observes one city hall insider. With little in the way of nightlife and a dull branch-town mentality, the story goes, the city needs the spice and temptation that flashy young hookers bring to the local economy. Some vice cops also say the imminent arrival of the Super Bowl itself, which last year set records for the numbers of expensive prostitutes who converged on New Orleans, is fueling the demand for out-call services.

For their part, police sources argue that soft judges and the city's generally libertine atmosphere make it difficult to find juries willing to convict pimps and their customers. "Most folks here see it as a victimless crime," says one vice cop. "Who wants to send somebody to the slammer for that? These are also complicated cases with lots of paperwork. They're pretty hard to understand."

But if San Diego doesn't want to police its own, then the cops of a small Kansas suburb have been willing to take a stab at it, with potentially embarrassing consequences for the San Diego judicial establishment. About a year ago, cops in Lenexa, Kansas, down the road from Kansas City, noticed a proliferation of advertisements for out-call escorts in local newspapers and decided to investigate. What they discovered led them to La Jolla and what they claim was one of the country's most extensive prostitution rings, flourishing from Hawaii to Florida.

"If you picked up the phone in any one of several major cities in the nation and you called the telephone number for an escort service, it was picked up in San Diego," says Sgt. Pat Hinkle of the Lenexa Police Department. "They would take the request for the person, and then the girls would be contacted by San Diego and dispatched, if you will, to the john. San Diego appears clearly to be the hub."

Depending on the city, the alleged operator used a different name. In Kansas City, it was Alluring Models and An Absolute Angel. In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, it was An Absolute Dream. In Dallas and Austin, it was An Absolute Fantasy, An Absolute Knockout, and Barbara's Escorts. In San Diego, it was All American Escort and All American Hospitality. All of the businesses were registered at two La Jolla addresses.

The man behind the operation, allege Lenexa police, was Leonard Pitock, 34, a New Jersey native and one-time Rutgers law school student who in the late 1980s had relocated to San Diego with his father Norman. Records show Norman for a time ran a stuffed-toy wholesale business called Tilly Collectibles on Miramar Road, which Leonard sometimes used as a mailing address. San Diego municipal court records show that an insurance company sued Leonard in 1996, seeking payment of $17,000 owed on law school loans. Until last May, when he told his landlady he had suddenly been transferred out of town, Leonard Pitock lived in a two-bedroom condominium on La Jolla Boulevard.

"He left kind of in a hurry," says the landlady. "He was there for about three years. No complaints that I'm aware of. He left a letter, dated May 5 of 1997, saying, 'My company has undergone major changes and I was transferred to Atlanta.' He drove a green Camaro, and he was slight, not very tall. He dressed nicely, and he was kind of bouncy, and he just seemed like a perfect tenant. When he signed the lease, he was with Tilly Collectibles. He said he was director of sales and marketing there."

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