Cops target gay sex 'cruisers'
Sen. Craig's alleged actions not uncommon in Utah
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The solicitations from men - they were always from men - were discreet and almost always unspoken.

Eye contact followed by a simple hand gesture. Just enough to let the object of their attention know they were interested in sex.

Often, the first words exchanged between the two were from Jeff Bedard telling his suitors that he was a Salt Lake City police officer and they were under arrest.

The men are most often caught "cruising" for sex in public parks and restrooms. Most are between 36 and 56, and a third of them are married and consider themselves straight, according to statistics kept by Salt Lake City.

They include businessmen, professionals and religious leaders.

"A lot of the people we've arrested live lives that are opposite to the activities they are engaging in," Bedard said.

Much in the same way police said they nabbed Idaho Sen. Larry Craig last month quietly asking a cop for sex from a stall in a Minneapolis airport restroom, undercover officers in Salt Lake City and West Valley City alone have caught more than 500 men in five years seeking gay sex in public.

Craig resigned his Senate seat Saturday after acknowledging he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct following the restroom sting.

In Salt Lake City, men busted for seeking public sex typically plead guilty to a misdemeanor lewdness charge that is dismissed a year later if they complete counseling, said city prosecutor Simarjit Gill.

A considerable number of the men in the program, called Healthy Self-Expressions, fit Craig's profile, said therapist Jerry Buie.

"A lot of them are very conservative, very rigid against issues that are gay," Buie said.

Craig has held top Republican positions and has voted against gay rights, including several votes for a federal ban on gay marriage.

"These guys become experts at compartmentalizing their lives," Buie said. " 'What I do at the park does not have any relevance to what I do politically, morally, religiously' " is a common refrain.

Often, the men tell Buie they have nowhere else to go for gay sex. Buie emphasizes that the program does not target homosexuals - he is gay himself - but rather public sex that people should not be exposed to.

"I don't want my daughter around that stuff," Buie said.

The hot spots for "cruising" have remained consistent through the years, say police, prosecutors, park employees and "cruisers" interviewed for this story.

They include various parking lots and restrooms in popular Salt Lake City parks like Fairmont and Sugar House, malls and wooded areas around the former Oxbow jail in South Salt Lake, and Memory Grove Park.

Restrooms in the University of Utah's Orson Spencer Hall were a hotbed of cruising activity until a few years ago, when the university remodeled them to include longer partitions made of material not easily drilled through, university police Chief Scott Folsom said.

In West Valley City, undercover officers conduct sting operations on a stretch of the Jordan River Parkway from 2100 South to 3500 South, said Capt. Anita Schwemmer. In four hours, officers nabbed 15 men last month, Schwemmer said.

"We're hoping to add a few more personnel the next time to handle the volume," Schwemmer said.

The problem isn't limited to the Wasatch Front.

A St. George police officer recently caught two men having sex in a Tonaquint Park restroom, said Capt. Craig Harding. Uniformed officers patrol that park and Snow Park looking for men "idling around with no apparent reason to be there," Harding said.

Police say cruisers in recent years have opted to meet sitting in cars, as parks have switched to single-stall restrooms.

While taking their young children to Jordan Park, Sam and Michelle Ramirez said they often see older men in nice cars back into the parking lot near the International Peace Gardens and wait.

A man in one car will then enter another car, presumably for sex, the couple said. They never saw men in the act, they said - but then again, they never look. Leroy Te'o, 43, said he has had sex in public restrooms and parks in Provo and Salt Lake City ever since he moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University in 1985.

"The whole cruising thing - it's for people who aren't really comfortable with their sexuality and people who are shameless sex addicts," Te'o said.

Te'o said he had sex as many as three times a week in BYU restrooms for years with students and older men. He rarely asked their names, he said.

"It's not about getting to know people," Te'o said. "It's like, you're out for a walk, in a public bathroom or by a park, you get the look, you know what to do."

During a taped interrogation, Sen. Craig accused an undercover airport police officer of entrapment and claimed he was not gesturing for sex but picking up a piece of toilet paper.

"An accidental floor bump wouldn't get you arrested, but if you start reaching under stalls or are peeking in the door cracks, then it's alarming," said Bedard, a former VICE officer who is now a police spokesman.

In 2002, a state lawmaker from Wellsville was caught offering an undercover Salt Lake City police officer money for oral sex on a downtown street. He resigned three days later.

Buie, who leads group and individual counseling sessions for Healthy Self-Expressions, said the program has been effective. Just 10 men were caught reoffending since the program began in 2002, he said.

For the most part, he said, married men stay in their relationships and change their behavior.

''A lot of the guys say, 'This is the life I've designed for myself and that's what I'm going to choose.' ''

rrizzo@sltrib.com

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* NATE CARLISLE contributed to this report.