CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. - Right before families hit the road for holiday travel, local officers have a serious warning. They say men, many of them married and with high-paying jobs, are soliciting each other for sex in public places like rest areas and family restaurant parking lots.
And often, they say, unsuspecting families and children are nearby.
Eyewitness News anchor Allison Latos got exclusive access to the undercover investigation.
For more than four months, Cabarrus County deputies have been watching the rest stops off Interstate 85, trying to stop a problem they say is out of control -- men soliciting men for sex in public places.
Undercover officers invited our cameras along to prove just how serious the problem is. They said Wednesday nights are always busy.
“A number of the men we run into are married, middle-aged men and several of them have told us their families are at church and it's a time when they can get out without having to answer a lot of questions about where they're going,” an officer said.
We watched, one by one, as cars pulled in and parked.
Then the signaling started. Officers said drivers flash their brake lights and headlights to attract attention and show interest.
Most of the cars we saw each had one man sitting inside.
But we spotted two men outside their car.
“You usually don't see that, two of them together. That's sort of a first,” the officer said.
You can see the two follow an undercover officer inside the rest area.
The suspects don't realize that law enforcement can hear their conversation with the undercover officer. In order for charges to be filed, they must sexually proposition the officer, who then says a code word.
“All right, go get them. He just said it. Go in there and get them,” ordered the officer who was monitoring the conversation.
That's when the sheriff and his deputies moved in, finding the men in the family bathroom of the rest area.
Rest area custodian Herbert Mitchem said solicitation and sex acts are happening more frequently there, and he's glad to see deputies cracking down.
“I appreciate them coming here and doing what they're doing,” he said. “It's sickening. I’m tired of it. It makes me -- ew. I just don't like it, and sometime kids are here.”
Deputies searched the men’s car and said they found marijuana.
They issued misdemeanor charges of solicitation, indecent exposure and drug possession, and told the men to leave.
Back at the rest stop, it took only minutes before the undercover officer was approached again, by a man who followed him to the parking lot of a nearby family restaurant.
He told officers the two were friends.
“What's his name?” the officer asked.
“It's Wesley,” the man said.
“Wesley. Wesley what?” the officer asked. “What if I tell you he is a cop and his name is not Wesley. And he's my partner. Would that change your story?”
Officers found a bag full of condoms in his car and said they have arrested other men engaged in sex acts in the same parking lot.
“Were you willing to participate in any kind of sexual activity in a restaurant parking lot?” Eyewitness News asked.
“I thought about it, yes,” the man said.
Deputies said, in some cases, the solicitation has escalated to robberies and beatings.
“When you take those crimes and you put them in a secluded area in a transient population that's mobile, you have the recipe for some bad things to happen,” said Cabarrus County Sheriff Brad Riley.
They're cracking down to keep unknowing travelers and their families from getting caught in the middle.
To drivers with the wrong intentions, deputies say their message is clear: keep moving.
The solicitation charge is a misdemeanor, with a maximum of 90 days in jail or just probation.
But if deputies catch men actually engaged in sexual acts in public, which they have. those men face a felony charge of crimes against nature. If convicted, it can mean up to two years in jail.