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Sex Workers Pissed Off, Frightened by Acquittal of a San Antonio Man Who Killed an Escort

By now, you've likely heard about Ezekiel Gilbert, the 28-year-old San Antonio man who was acquitted yesterday of murder in the death of Lenora Ivie Frago. In case you've somehow missed it: Gilbert met 23-year-old Frago on Craigslist on Christmas Eve 2009. She came over to his house and he paid her $150. He assumed that Frago would have sex with him in exchange for that money.

Instead, Frago walked outside after about 20 minutes, got in the car of a man who's variously been described as her friend or her "pimp" and drove away. So Gilbert rushed out after her and fired at the departing car with his AK-47. He hit Frago four times in the neck, paralyzing her. After months of pain, brain damaged, hooked up to a breathing tube and being cared for daily by her brother, she died. Upon hearing the jury's not-guilty verdict, Gilbert had the audacity to thank God.

The reaction to the story has been swift and nationwide, with stories appearing on Gawker, the Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, Slate and New York magazine, to name just a handful. "Remind me to stay out of Texas," multiple commenters have written. Or, as one person wrote succinctly on the Gawker story: "I'm glad I don't live in Texas. Holy shit."

"Only in Texas," says Cynthia Barbare. She's a Dallas criminal defense attorney who focuses on state and federal cases (Barbare was one of the first lawyers to expose the infamous fake drugs scandal that embarrassed the shit out of Dallas PD a decade ago). "We look like a bunch of damn heathens with guns, out there saying we'll shoot you if you piss us off. That's not good. That's not a good way to paint Texans. "

"He's guilty of violating 43.02 of the [state] penal code, which is the law against prostitution," Barbare says, specifically the part about it being a criminal offense to offer to engage someone in a sex act in exchange for money. "I mean, he's committing a crime. I understand she may be running away with his money, but is that something that's worth losing your life over? Is that something that should allow someone to take your life?"

In an initial interview with homicide detectives, Gilbert didn't mention anything about theft. Yet his defense attorneys argued that he was using justified, legal force to try to get his property back. They also said that Gilbert didn't intend to kill Frago.

"That's their defense," Barbare says dryly. "That would've been my defense too, that he didn't mean to do it and he used force to try to get [his money] back." But, she adds, "If you're shooting at the car with an AK-47, for God's sake, how can you expect not to hit somebody? He could've killed two people. He's lucky he didn't."

For Audacia Ray, it's just another reminder of how cheaply held the lives of sex workers are. Ray is the founder of the Red Umbrella Project, a New York-based group that advocates for the rights of sex workers; she's also a former sex worker herself.

"It's just further proof that there is no respect or value placed on sex workers' lives," Ray says. "And that's really hard to see day in and day out." Among the sex workers she knows, she says, the reaction to the case has been anger, but not necessarily surprise.

"It's outrage and powerlessness," she says. "And for us, for me, it's also frustrating because you make little gains, but murders are still happening. So what can you do?"

On the blog Tits and Sass, writer and prostitute Charlotte Shane draws ties between the Gilbert case and that of David Elms, founder of hooker review site The Erotic Review and a guy who, among other things, tried to have a prostitute killed because she wouldn't have sex with him.

Shane calls cases like this "the myth of the righteously aggrieved client," adding, "It's a myth that enables men to blackmail, rob, rape and kill sex workers. It is a shame when you pay for a service you don't receive, but it happens all the time in all varieties of the service industry, and it shouldn't ever foster vengeful attempts at singlehandedly policing every worker in an entire field."

The reaction is similarly dismayed over at the private exotic dancer message board Stripper Web. "I was infuriated when I read it," writes one Dallas-based stripper. "I can't see how she stole anything. She was there for 20 of the 30 mins. Legally that's all she had to give, her time. The only bright side I can see now, is that this case can give legal precedence for escorts, masseuses, strippers working private parties, etc. to carry a weapon and use it in defense, even when that defense is to protect your money."

Somehow, that seems overly optimistic. At the same time, though, Barbare isn't sure another jury would ever come to the same conclusion as the Bexar County one did in Gilbert's case.

"I don't know another jury that would do that," she says. "I don't know what happened there. That's an unusual verdict. I don't think that would happen again."

That's cold comfort for Lenora Frago's family, including her young daughter. Outside the courtroom, Gilbert told the assembled reporters that he "sincerely regret[s] the loss of the life of Ms. Frago," adding that he's been in "a mental prison the past four years of my life. I have nightmares. If I see guns on TV where people are getting killed, I change the channel."

A "mental prison" of one's own making certainly beats being dead.


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