Recent media reports about a prostitution problem in Wetzel County, specifically New Martinsville, are greatly exaggerated according to many local officials and a business owner.
"They've kind of made it into a story that doesn't really exist," said Prosecutor Timothy Haught of how the television and daily print media has influenced the story. "I think it's been overblown."
He said he has received two isolated reports regarding prostitution in New Martinsville, but added, "I've had no credible evidence given to me." Haught noted that a report is someone saying they think something might be happening and a complaint is when someone comes forth with evidence or witnesses an actual incident.
Bob Work, owner of the Plaza Inn in New Martinsville, disagrees with recent media reports that say there is a prostitution problem in New Martinsville. The 85-year-old said he and his employees would see if there was any suspicious activity at the inn or its accompanying JT’s Lounge.
In reality, he says the atmosphere seems “cleaner” than it was three to four years ago. (Photo by Amy Witschey)
"I'm not aware of any active investigations or open cases for prostitution at the present time," said Haught.
New Martinsville Police Department Detective Donnie Harris expressed a similar sentiment. "I can honestly say I haven't received any complaints at all. The information that I have received has actually been from females trading sex for drugs, but not truly prostitution."
While it is something the department keeps an eye out for, he would not say New Martinsville has a prostitution problem.
NMPD Chief Tim Cecil said any such activity is likely local young girls doing it on their own. "If they are, they are doing it to buy drugs," he said.
"I don't want any organized criminal activity in the county," affirmed Haught. "I don't like the exploitation of women. I would take it very seriously if that was going on, but I don't have any evidence of that."
According to West Virginia law, engaging in prostitution, on either side of the transaction, is a misdemeanor charge. However, if a person was transporting prostitutes in interstate commerce across state lines, it would be a federal violation of the Mann Act. Also, just last week Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill that criminalizes labor and sex trafficking.
Haught emphasized that he has no reason to believe anything like that is going on, but it would be a concern for him if there was.
The recent media reports have largely quoted Sheriff James Hoskins. In a published report Hoskins said "there appears to be a direct correlation between the time when the reports of prostitution began coming in and when oil and gas drilling activity related to the Marcellus Shale began to increase. He added reports indicate the activity has been occurring in bars and hotels near New Martinsville, which serves as the central hub of the county."
Bob Work, owner of the Plaza Inn on state Route 2 in Steelton, takes exception to that statement. "If I was sheriff of Wetzel County and I thought I had a problem with prostitution, would I go to the hotels or to the news agency?" said Work, adding that Hoskins has never spoken with him about such illegal activity.
"We could see any action going on," said Work noting the visibility from the front desk and multiple surveillance cameras around the inn. "It just so upsets me that someone is taking advantage of a situation. If there was a prostitute here, they'd have to operate out of their car (since the motel is always completely booked by gas workers)."
Work says he and his employees would also have a better gauge of such activity as they operate the only hotel or motel in New Martinsville with a bar. "It's actually cleaner now than it was three to four years ago," he said, stating there are fewer "bar flies" than ever.
In fact, Work said after the recent media reports he asked a couple regulars at JT's Lounge if they knew of any prostitutes in New Martinsville. With a laugh they told him, "We haven't been able to find one of them yet!"
"There's no more prostitution now than there's ever been," declared Work, 85, who has been in business in that location since he opened the Works Drive-In in 1949. It closed in 1988 and the Plaza Inn was opened in 1989.
Cecil agreed about the world's oldest profession, "It was going on before the gas workers were here and it's going to be going on after they leave."
"My priority is drugs and property crime, which is completely unrelated to oil and gas workers," added Haught. "These men and women who are here working, for the most part, are drug tested." He clarified that he does not have any active drug investigations against gas workers. "The main problem I have is the illegal use of prescription pills and the use of heroin and the property crimes that are associated with it," specified Haught.
He cannot remember a charge of prostitution levied in Wetzel County in the 12 years he has served as prosecutor.
The NMPD recalled a possible prostitution situation in December 2010, but it also involved drugs and that is the felony charge, possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, that came from that instance.