A retired Lockport police captain pleaded guilty Thursday to transporting women over state lines on two occasions to work as prostitutes at gatherings of a fraternal club.
John Trowbridge, 60, also admitted to a federal judge that he paid the women for sexual favors at a Wheatfield massage parlor.
His felony guilty plea could result in as much as 18 months in prison for him as well as serious legal trouble for a former state judge and a former state law clerk who are under investigation in the same case.
"He is proactively cooperating in the federal investigation," said Trowbridge's attorney, David C. Douglas. "As a former police officer, he sees cooperating as the proper thing to do in this case."
In court papers filed by the U.S. attorney's office, Trowbridge admitted that he and other men took the prostitutes to an event in Kentucky in October 2005 and another event in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.
The woman on the Kentucky trip was in an especially vulnerable situation because she was an illegal alien, U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn said.
"[We] will not tolerate the victimization of any member of the community, especially by those who, because of their standing in the community, can easily intimidate those who are least able to protect themselves," Flynn said.
Court papers allege that a "former New York State Supreme Court judge" and "an attorney" accompanied Trowbridge and a prostitute on the Kentucky trip. According to sources close to the case, the former judge was Ronald H. Tills, and the lawyer was Michael R. Stebick, Tills' former law clerk.
The retired judge also accompanied Trowbridge and a different prostitute on the Pennsylvania trip, and Tills also hired a woman for sex at the Wheatfield massage parlor, prosecutor Timothy C. Lynch said in court documents.
Both the Kentucky and Pennsylvania events were sponsored by the Royal Order of Jesters, a nationwide fraternal group that requires its members to be both Masons and Shriners, according to Douglas and other sources close to the case.
Trowbridge frowned and said, "Wrong place, wrong time," as he left the courtroom, but he made no further comment.
His attorney said Trowbridge is sorry for his actions, especially because he is proud of his "unblemished" nearly 30-year career as a police officer. Trowbridge retired in late 2002.
"Obviously, the embarrassment is intense," Douglas said.
Why would a retired career lawman risk going to jail to cavort with prostitutes?
"I can't give you an explanation that is rational or logical, any more than our [former] governor could give you an explanation," Douglas said, referring to Eliot L. Spitzer, who resigned amid a sex scandal last week. "This is a case of individuals making bad decisions."
Trowbridge, who is married, has no previous criminal record.
U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny scheduled sentencing for July 30. Under sentencing guidelines, Skretny said, the former police captain could face up to 18 months in prison for violating the Mann Act, a federal law that bars transporting an individual over state lines for prostitution.
The judge noted that Trowbridge, a Lockport resident, might not get any jail time, depending on his continued cooperation with federal agents and other factors.
So far, no charges have been filed against Tills or Stebick. Both men recently resigned from their jobs in the state courts -- Tills as a hearing officer and Stebick as a law clerk examining applications for gun permits -- because of the pressures of the investigation.
The only details investigators provided about the two women who went on the trips is that both formerly worked at Golden Accupressure on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield. Golden Accupressure is one of four local massage parlors that were shut down in December after a federal probe into prostitution and human trafficking.
The investigation into the trips that Trowbridge and his companions took is a spinoff of the massage parlor investigation, police told The Buffalo News.
Details about locations of the two Jesters events have not been disclosed by authorities. Authorities said Trowbridge, Tills and Stebick are all members of the Buffalo chapter of the Jesters.
A national spokesman for the Jesters, Alex Rogers, said the club is dedicated to spreading "mirth and merriment" but does not condone hiring prostitutes for club events.
According to Douglas, the Jesters events Trowbridge attended in Kentucky and Pennsylvania "included mostly legitimate activities, including golf."
Tills and Stebick have hired top Buffalo defense attorneys in anticipation that they, too, could soon face felony charges in the case.
Stebick is represented by Joel L. Daniels and Andrew C. LoTempio. Daniels declined to comment, except to say he was aware of Trowbridge's plea. Tills' attorney, Terrence M. Connors, could not be reached.
A continuing investigation into alleged prostitution at Jesters events is being conducted by a human-trafficking task force, including members of the FBI, U.S. Border Patrol, Erie County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.