L.C. was a beautiful college student with a plan when she went to work in Atlantic City and met the man who would become her pimp.

He started her on prescription drugs. Then moved on to heroin. She was forced to sell herself. If she didn't make enough money, she would be beaten.

"The heroin has her. That animal (her pimp) has her. Pacific Avenue - that retched, putrid sewer - it has her," defense attorney James Leonard Jr. told jurors last week.

The woman was one of seven to recount vicious assaults by Hiten Patel, the Egg Harbor Township man who was ultimately convicted of five rapes or attempted rapes last week.

Testimony at the trial gave insight into the underside of Pacific Avenue.

"All of us have been traveling in this world for weeks," Leonard told the jurors. "It's a horrible, horrible place."

Meeting Patel

"You looking for company?" J.R. asked Patel.

At the Fox Manor, "everyone either sells drugs, does drugs or is a prostitute," she told a courtroom Feb. 6.

So, the driver knew what she meant.

But she didn't have sex for money that summer night in 2012. Instead, she was raped at gunpoint. The man she thought seemed safe cursed and called her names as he held her down by her throat.

Patel would troll the Atlantic City avenue, picking his victims because they worked - or he thought they worked - as prostitutes, Assistant Prosecutor John Flammer said.

These are not the women that normally go to police. And, even if they did, "Who would believe them?" Flammer asked.

Yet, they did come forward.

At least four of the seven who testified admitted they got into Patel's vehicle to exchange sex for money. Some told the stories of how they got there.

Personal stories

J.R. said she had good parents, a good childhood. "I was just rebellious."

She started using drugs at 15. By 17, she ran away from her home in Detroit's suburbs and was living in Atlantic City.

Hooked on heroin, she would sometimes take dates for money.

"You always get the money first," she explained.

You also use your instincts.

Over the years, she had learned when to be cautious; which dates to avoid. But Patel gave her none of these signs, she said.

When she asked for the money, things changed.

A gun came out. The demands and threats began.

It was really a toy. Patel claimed he had it for protection because he had been robbed before.

"It's silly," he said of taping a socket to the end, "just to make it look real."

J.R. wasn't shocked.

"Being a prostitute, things like this happen," she said. "I found that when you start crying and you start screaming, it makes them more mad."

She didn't call police. Even after seeing the man's photo in the newspaper, she almost didn't report it.

"I was on probation. I was a prostitute," she said.

And Patel had become addicted to them, he testified.

As he was driving down Pacific Avenue, the women would wave or smile. Around 2008, he pulled over and had a date. He kept coming back, sometimes three times a week, he said.

Most would ask if he was a cop. He would say no.

But that doesn't mean anything, explained Vice Lt. James Sarkos, who has been involved in stings targeting both prostitutes and johns. Police are not required to identify themselves if asked.

"When you're undercover, you're undercover," he said. "Your whole role is deception."

Sweeping Pacific Avenue

Sometimes officers pose as men visiting the area. Other times, female officers will take on the role of a prostitute, allowing men to solicit them. But instead of getting sex, the men wind up in cuffs.

The john sweeps are less common because they are more intensive due to officer safety issues, Sarkos explained.

A woman posing as a hooker cannot be armed, so armed officers have to be nearby. Some are hidden in cars. Others may be walking the street in plainclothes. If there's a problem, they come to the unarmed officer's aid.

But the women aren't only for sale on the street. Craigslist and other sites advertise their services as well, Sarkos said. Arrests have been made that way, too.

He wouldn't comment on any "tricks of the trade," so as not to harm future investigations. But Patel explained what he said was another test.

He and the prostitutes would touch one another's private areas.

"This is like a secret handshake on Pacific Avenue between prostitutes and johns?" Leonard asked.

"It has to be done," he replied.

Prices would vary. Usually it would run from $100 to $200, depending upon the act.

"It varies from girl to girl," Patel said. "It's not like a fixed price or anything."

Leonard portrayed him as "a guppy in a sea of sharks and piranha."

But the jury found Patel was the predator.

He awaits sentencing following an evaluation at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, Flammer said, all because of "the brave women who came forward and faced their attacker."

And told their stories.

"What would make a prostitute run to police?" Flammer asked the jurors. "They came forward because they believed this man is dangerous."

Contact Lynda Cohen:

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