2News Exposes Men 'Cruising' For Sex In Public Parks


Last Update: 11/14/2007 10:56 am
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A man in this car seemed to proposition 2News reporter Mike Headrick, telling him that he "has a nice chest."
A man in this car seemed to proposition 2News reporter Mike Headrick, telling him that he "has a nice chest."
SALT LAKE CITY - A quiet neighborhood park should be a safe haven for your kids at play.  But some of Utah's parks have a much darker secret:  Men meeting men for sex.

For months, Mike Headrick went undercover to expose the problem of what authorities call ‘cruising.’  And he found it’s not just isolated to one area. It’s happening all over the valley at all times of day.  In fact, police say some of the most popular cruising spots, are where many people spend time with their families.

Take a stroll through just about any park in the valley, and on the surface you typically see geese swimming, people jogging and kids on the playground.  But in the midst of the obvious, there is something quite obscure and police say it’s running rampant through nearly every park in Salt Lake City.

Married with kids, a 48-year-old man is accused of trolling a public bathroom looking for a sexual encounter.

"I’m a first offender,” said the man. “I was just kind of curious.”

It’s called ‘cruising.’ men looking for other men typically, to engage in public sex.

“You could have a child, and it’s happened before. A child walk into a bathroom and stumble upon something they shouldn’t be seeing,” said an officer.

“Normally, men don’t hang out in the bathroom,” says Brad Smith, “They’re usually in and out. But these men seemed to be in there for a while.”
 
Smith and his family are no strangers to Sugarhouse Park, and not by choice.  They’ve witnessed ‘cruising’ first hand.

Just days ago, Smith walked into the park bathroom, and saw four men just standing around looking at each other.  In his words, "not using the facility for its intended purpose."

His fear is that of any parent.

“It takes very little for something to happen. Where they could be involved with something they shouldn’t be. And it would steal their innocence,” he said.
 
In attempt to find out just how common this is, we hit four different spots in the Salt Lake Valley.  At Jordan Park, in the middle of the morning, we caught three different guys in less than an hour.

In each situation I walked into the bathroom and seconds later, without hesitation, one after another would follow and casually slip into the adjacent stall.  The men would then peek through the cracks in the doors and apparently masturbate with the door partially open.

On Salt Lake's east side, at Fairmont Park, it was not the bathrooms, but the parking lots where propositions were made. And many times, it's where police say sex acts are performed.

Lined up in the parking lot in the middle of the day, the drivers of cars are giving what police say are the signs of a cruiser: Window down, arm hanging out, anxiously looking at every man driving through.

In a matter of minutes, car after car rolled in and out of the parking lot, sometimes making several rounds.

During our investigation we pulled into the lot, and moments later I got the nod and a smile from one guy.  The translation: Follow me.

We drove to an area on the other side of the park where, with a woman and child just feet away, he made the decision to take the conversation back where we began.  There, he invited me into his car and within moments he propositioned me, began touching himself and eventually reached over and tried touching me.

“It’s a problem we take very seriously, and we’re trying to address,” says Detective Jeff Bedard of the Salt Lake City P.D.

Salt Lake City Police says it has arrested about 70 men 'cruising' parks so far this year, which equals out to about one arrest in an average work week.  But we found those numbers misleading as to the magnitude of this problem. The reality is, at one time during our investigation, we witnessed a lewd act every 20 minutes.

And here’s the irony; experts say the reason a countless number of men perform these sex acts in public is to keep their crime a complete secret.

Stan Penfold is Executive Director of the Utah Aids Foundation and says legal issues are only part of the cruising problem.

“In our study, we saw about 75% were married,” Penfold said.

For the families of those who are married, there’s no telling what the 'cruisers' are taking home to their wives.

“They’re not thinking about protection,” says Penfold. “They’re setting themselves up for exposure to an STD, HIV, Hepatitis… any of those sexually transmitted diseases.”

And because most are married, police say before and after work are the busiest times for cruising parks.

But one guy, in his SUV, invited me to different public place.  He asked me to follow him several miles away into the basement parking lot at Trolley Square.

We followed, we parked and once he saw the camera…

“Totally misunderstood, totally misunderstood me,” he said.

This married man and father simply said he was only looking for a workout buddy.

Over and over and over again, for weeks, we witnessed the same scenarios play out and not surprisingly, there are few who will confess their alleged crime.

Even when these guys get caught in the act, experts say without psychiatric treatment they will never admit they have a problem.  And most likely, their deviance will continue, eventually leading them to cruise another public park and ultimately threaten the innocence of those who use it.

For those who have been arrested, the city does have a diversion program in place to help offenders abstain from ever committing the crime again.  It seems to work; after completing the program, less than 5% of men re-offend.
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