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Teenage prostitution ring said halted in N. Andover

Woman held; police cite alert from girl

Melissa Halstrom was arraigned yesterday in Lawrence District Court on charges in connection with an alleged teenage prostitution ring. She pleaded not guilty and was ordered held on $150,000 cash bail. The ring was allegedly operated out of Halstrom's North Andover apartment and local hotels. Melissa Halstrom was arraigned yesterday in Lawrence District Court on charges in connection with an alleged teenage prostitution ring. She pleaded not guilty and was ordered held on $150,000 cash bail. The ring was allegedly operated out of Halstrom's North Andover apartment and local hotels. (JIM PATTEN/THE EAGLE-TRIBUNE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NORTH ANDOVER - Police first heard of the alleged prostitution ring on Elm Street last Sunday, when a teenage runaway walked into police headquarters to report that she had been working as a prostitute there for just over a month.

Yesterday, after five days of surveillance, North Andover police arrested a 32-year-old woman on charges that she recruited four teenage girls to work in a prostitution ring that she operated out of her apartment and in local hotels.

"Because of the age of the girls, we had to work extremely fast," said Detective Lieutenant Paul Gallagher. "We had 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old girls who were going into hotel rooms with men they did not know. Anything could have happened."

Melissa Halstrom was arrested at about 10:30 a.m. yesterday as she and one of the girls who was allegedly working for her left Halstrom's apartment, Gallagher said. Halstrom was ordered held on $150,000 cash bail during her arraignment in Lawrence District Court.

The three other girls who were involved in the ring were from the Merrimack Valley area, Gallagher said. He declined to reveal their hometowns.

The girl who alerted police said she had first met Halstrom when she and one of the other girls bought the prescription antianxiety drug Klonopin from Halstrom at her apartment, according to the police report. According to Gallagher and prosecutors, the girl had run away from Maine about four months ago.

Halstrom and a man she called Tony took pictures of the girls while they were naked, wearing lingerie, or performing sex acts, according to the police report. The photos were posted on the prostitution ring's website, which also listed a phone number and e-mail address and included pricing, specials, and a "frequently asked questions" page, the police report said.

Since Sunday, police had monitored Halstrom's apartment and hotels where she allegedly took the girls to have sex with men, Gallagher said.

Halstrom pleaded not guilty at her arraignment yesterday. She allegedly admitted to the accusations during a 40-minute taped confession recorded by police yesterday, said Jessica Strasnick, an assistant Essex district attorney.

John Valerio, Halstrom's attorney, disputed the legitimacy of the confession. "I haven't seen it or heard it," he said after the arraignment. "She denies the charges as the court has stated them."

Neighbors on Elm Street, a quiet, tree-lined road dotted by a Congregationalist church and three-floor colonials with wrap-around porches, said they were surprised by Halstrom's arrest. Halstrom, who was described in court as a telemarketer, had lived on the street for about two and a half years.

"It's shocking," said a resident who moved into the neighborhood this summer and did not want her name published. "I met her a couple of times and she seemed really nice. I saw a bunch of cars there this morning and I figured something was up, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it was something like this."

Halstrom's probable cause hearing is scheduled for Oct. 5. She faces charges of inducing a minor to prostitution, maintaining a house of prostitution, deriving support from prostitution, posing or exhibiting a child in a sexual act, distribution of obscene material, and distribution of a Class E substance.

Ryan Haggerty can be reached at rhaggerty@globe.com.

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