"I'm no white Christian saint," says Fred Sullivan, and he ain't lying. The 53-year-old treats courtship like commerce: "How much?" is his way of connecting with an attractive woman. It's a habit that gets him into trouble.
Last April, Sullivan put that question to a woman who thought she was interviewing for a job as his personal assistant. Sullivan admits that he told her he was a wealthy businessman, that she could increase her income by sleeping with his clients, and that her first assignment would be to sleep with him.
Yet his claim to wealth seemed fairly unlikely, considering that he was hosting her in his messy West Side apartment. The woman passed on his offer. Sullivan says he's accustomed to rejection and took it in stride.
"I said 'Think about it, and come back in a day,'" he says. "She never came back."
Cuyahoga County Sheriff's detectives did come knocking, however, and because of the woman's report, they arrested Sullivan for promoting prostitution. In his apartment, they also found an old cable box, so they charged him with cable theft.
At the time, Sullivan was on parole for a 1998 case in which he told women applying for a secretarial job at his electrician's shop that he'd hike their wages if they slept with him and his clients.
This, too, brought charges of promoting prostitution, an offense that pops up with regularity on Sullivan's lengthy rap sheet.
So when Sullivan was convicted in the latest case in February, he was facing the possibility of six years in prison -- two for the prostitution charges, two for cable theft, and two more for violating his parole.
To Sullivan, the cable charge in particular seemed like overkill -- as if he were targeted for a long sentence not purely for his crimes, but because they suggested he was a sexual deviant. He knows his tastes are unconventional, but Sullivan claims he's not so much a pervert as he is a man with no clue how to talk to women.
"I'm trying to get some companionship," he says. "If I upset somebody, I didn't mean it."
Friend Dave Cobb sees nothing of the predator in Sullivan. He's "a heck of a guy," who just watches "too much damn TV," says Cobb. "He sees this stuff and he says, 'That's a good idea,' and then he goes out and does something stupid."
Sullivan claims he's being criminally charged for social ineptitude. But his record suggests that he's far more than a bumbling lady's man.
By ex-con standards, Sullivan's tale is a familiar one. Social workers snatched him from his parents when he was still an infant, only to give his father custody again when he was five.
His father would get drunk and beat him, so Sullivan ran away, only to land in child welfare agencies.
In the late 1960s, he joined the Marines and learned to be an electrical engineer, but it was already too late for Sullivan to learn the intricacies of human interaction. "I was raised in foster homes as a child, and so you don't develop emotional attachment. You learn to deal only on a logical basis."
He admits to being a lonely young man, and getting work as a bartender didn't help. Every night, he listened to men bounce pickup lines off women. They lied about everything, but the lies that impressed women the most, Sullivan observed, had to do with money.
So he hit on an idea that presented the best of both worlds: a massage parlor. Sullivan admits that he made little effort to conceal its status as a brothel, and that he hired any woman willing to sleep with him.
"Fifteen minutes of companionship is better than no companionship," he reasoned. "I'm lonely. This is how I think."
It became a routine. For the last 25 years, he has either paid for sex or promised money he never delivered. His rap sheet speaks of a lifetime of mixing sex and deception.
The massage parlor led to a 1977 bust for promoting prostitution, disorderly conduct, and carrying a concealed weapon. Sullivan was arrested in 1981 for sexual battery and again in 1982 for passing bad checks and receiving stolen property. In 1983, he pleaded guilty to gross sexual imposition.
In 1988, Sullivan was charged with compelling a 14-year-old girl to take money for sex.
The 1999 case for which Sullivan received a 17-month prison sentence combined three separate incidents. One involved Sullivan's offer to pay more money to women applying for a secretary's job if they slept with him and his clients. In another instance, he forced himself on a job applicant and "touched her vaginal area," according to the prosecutor. Sullivan also pleaded guilty to attempted abduction after he tried to trap a 23-year-old woman in a Parma restroom.
Yet for all the gaudiness of his rap sheet, Sullivan admits that there were many more instances in which he got away. He speaks as if he wants to publish a manual on primitive sexual ruses. "The first thing you do is, you give a perception," he says. "I like to be big and powerful, full of money. Girls are impressed by that. I say, 'How would you like a job?' If they don't go for it, that's fine. There's other fish in the sea."
For those who show interest, Sullivan presents a hypothetical scenario in which a business client is on the verge of signing a $60,000 contract with his company. The woman gets 10 percent of the deal. "But to get that contract, you would have to go to bed with them," he informs her. If the woman seems receptive, Sullivan follows with the kicker: "'You are never required to have sex with a customer, but I don't hire anyone unless I have sex with them.'
"Then I await her answer. If she says yes, I proceed."
Sullivan now says he's learned the error of his ways. "We get to be creatures of instinct. For years, I've been bullshitting broads, and it became habit."
Today, he advertises the new-and-improved Fred Sullivan, which he owes to sex-offenders' counseling he received every Monday over the last year as a condition of his parole.
"Through these classes, I've begun to realize how and why it happens," Sullivan says. He behaved "like a con man" and treated woman like "commodities."
"I've learned about moral value," he says. "I know now that the moment I offered to buy their physical services with money, I made them a slave."
He treats his new perspective as a revelation. He only wishes he'd had the benefit of these lessons earlier in life. And this is his complaint about the criminal justice system. "I'm an electrician. If I told you you're putting wires in wrong, shouldn't I tell you how to put them in right?"
He says the counseling has fixed the wires in his head. But the tragedy, he believes, is that the court seemed prepared to sentence him according to the man he was, rather than the man he had become.
David Berenson knows men like Fred Sullivan, and he's suspicious. As director of sex offender services for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, he helped design the very curriculum that Sullivan claims as his cure.
"This is a very unusual response to treatment, to say 'I'm cured,'" Berenson says. "I've been doing this for roughly 25 years, and I've never known someone to say, 'Aha! Now I understand myself.' If this is for real, it's enormously rare."
Far more common, says Berenson, are cases in which the offender pretends to be enlightened. "If there's one problem with sex-offender treatment, it's that in treatment they can learn to mimic the things they're taught. You have psychopaths who can mimic empathy, and it makes it that much more difficult to determine the effect of treatment."
Even Cobb doubts that Sullivan's revelation is for real. "He's usually OK when he gets out, but I bet in a year or two he'll pull the same thing." Cobb is hoping for a more organic treatment: the aging process. "Maybe he'll slow down . . ."
On the day he is to be sentenced, Fred Sullivan looks more pimp than businessman. His thinning hair is slicked back, and he is dressed in a navy blue suit with a baby blue tie. He is leaning on a cane, grimacing as he walks.
Before Judge Nancy Fuerst sentences Sullivan, she gives him a chance to speak. "I'm embarrassed to be up here," he begins. "It's because of my actions. The biggest problem I've had all my life is, I treat people like a commodity with no emotions, as if they're objects. And that's wrong."
Joe Buckley, Sullivan's court-appointed attorney, tells Fuerst, "I've seen progress in his personality, just in the short time that I've worked with him. He's not really a huge risk to come back to you. He's slowing down."
Fuerst disagrees. She reads Sullivan's rap sheet into the record, concluding that he poses a "high risk of recidivism."
Yet the sentence she hands down is 90 days in the county jail, 180 hours of community service, and five years' probation. Fuerst tells him that she doesn't want to see him again. Sullivan, who feared a six-year prison sentence, flashes her a grateful smile. "You won't," he says.