Eighteen-year-old Sherrie Lee Smith had made some bad life decisions and was in a bind. The guy she’d come to Oregon with had been convicted of robbery and sentenced to prison. Back in California, her husband had custody of their three kids and he’d filed for divorce.
She found work in Portland as a call girl, but bad luck dogged her. She got caught in a vice raid. She was charged with prostitution and released on bail.
The Portland vice squad had been investigating what the press described as “a large call girl ring” operating in the city. Girls as young as 15 had been arrested in the raids. Oscar Howlett, the deputy district attorney, needed evidence to arrest the ringleaders, but he was finding it hard to get any.
Sherrie called Howlett on the last day of December 1958. She told him she had important information that could help him and she wanted to trade it in exchange for dropping the prostitution charge. They arranged to meet the following day.
Sherrie failed to show for the meeting. A couple weeks later her mugshots were copied and given to the press. Evidently a newspaper printed her front photo (that’s why the side view is crossed out) after she went missing — a dangerous outing of an important potential witness. Attorney Howlett announced to the press that he was concerned because he’d heard through the grapevine that the thugs who operated the call-girl ring had beaten her up to scare her into silence.
Several months later, during a vice crackdown in which 200 women were arrested, the police located several little black address books that were “penned in feminine script.” The books contained names of hundreds of clients and many of them were prominent men in Portland. The amounts paid for call girl services —between $10 and $3,000 — were noted in the books. Information about each client’s income had been carefully recorded, along with comments such as “has paid as high as $3,00 for a two-girl party” and “always get money first.”
An unnamed young woman gave testimony to a secret Multnomah County grand jury in May 1959. In her testimony she stated that another woman made the arrangements with the customers and they split the proceeds. She said that even at fees ranging from between $20 to $300, she was earning no more than if she worked at a legitimate job and intended to quit hooking. According to a press report, she claimed she “had been a call girl here in the six weeks since she’d come from California.”
Possibly this witness was Sherrie Lee Smith, but the facts don’t quite fit, because Smith had been in Portland since October 1958 and she was arrested in December 1958.
As a result of the grand jury hearing, two Portland women in their 30s and a 26-year-old woman from Vancouver, Washington, were indicted on three charges: soliciting for a prostitute, bringing together two persons for immoral purposes and being an immoral woman. Attorney Howlettt said he didn’t think he’d need to subpoena any of the clients, who “would suffer from the publicity,” to get a conviction. This proved to be accurate; there was no trial because the three women pleaded guilty.
Prostitution is often controlled by organized crime. But in Portland in 1959, only the three women ended up serving time. Howlett admitted during the hearings that the call girl business “is operating full blast” in Portland.
Sherrie, despite her youth, looks like a woman who was able to handle herself. I hope she survived her time in Portland.