Longread

Victims reveal the horrors of sex trafficking at more than 100 hotels

Sex trafficking survivors say the hotel chain ignored obvious signs that they were being trafficked to protect its profits. The company is set to face hundreds of lawsuits across the country, write Richard Hall and Alicja Hagopian.
Victims reveal the horrors of sex trafficking at more than 100 hotels

Red Roof Inn, one of the largest budget hotel chains in America, is set to face lawsuits from hundreds of sex trafficking victims who claim the company turned a blind eye and profited from their abuse for years.

An investigation by The Independent has found that at least 42 federal lawsuits are underway against the hotel chain and its franchisees. Hundreds more victims are in the process of filing legal action, according to attorneys working on their cases.

The victims, some of whom were underage at the time, accuse the company of allowing its rooms to be rented on a grand scale to sex traffickers who forced them into commercial sex work and controlled nearly every aspect of their lives.

They claim the signs of their trafficking were so obvious they could not have been missed by the company. The lawsuits are littered with references to malnourished and underage girls and women under the control of “pimps” who conducted their business in front of hotel staff, renting numerous hotel rooms where male customers came and went, night after night.

The lawsuits, and those yet to be filed, span the length and breadth of the country, across 39 states and at least 117 Red Roof Inn hotels. As part of this investigation, The Independent has plotted those locations on a map to show the scale and spread of the alleged incidents.

The lawsuits also revealed that a senior Red Roof Inn employee joked about the presence of “pimps and hos” at one of the hotels under his management.

Steven Babin, an attorney who is representing close to 1,000 sex trafficking victims in cases involving Red Roof Inn, told The Independent that sex trafficking had reached an “epidemic level” across the hotel chain, and estimated the true number of victims to be in the many thousands.

“Red Roof Inn intentionally ignored the problem of human sex trafficking in its hotels and completely failed to put any meaningful policies and procedures in place. Instead, their focus was on one thing: money,” he claimed.

Red Roof Inn is only one hotel chain among many facing similar allegations, but a trial in which the company is defending itself against 11 alleged victims of sex trafficking in Atlanta, Georgia, made history last month as the first of its kind against a national hotel chain. That trial offered a rare and disturbing close-up view of how trafficking operations were run from two Red Roof Inn hotels in the city, and precisely what the company knew.

The hotel chain, which has some 624 properties across the US, has repeatedly denied that it ignored sex trafficking at its hotels. In some of the cases, Red Roof Inn cast doubt on victims’ claims that they had been trafficked at all. During cross-examination in the Atlanta trial, the defense team highlighted instances where they argued that the women were able to escape from their traffickers and subsequently went back to them.

The warning signs

The testimonies of the plaintiffs in the Atlanta case, and in lawsuits across the country, leave little doubt that sex trafficking took place at Red Roof Inn hotels. But the question at the center of all of these lawsuits is whether the hotel chain should be held liable for it — especially when the location in question was owned by a franchisee.

Red Roof Inn has been moving further towards the franchise model in recent years by reducing the number of properties it owns directly. Because no cases had gone to trial, it was unclear how that might impact liability.

But in denying a summary judgment motion in the Atlanta trial, the judge agreed with an earlier court ruling that said “the evidence shows that the Red Roof Defendants and their employees were aware that they were profiting from renting rooms to those pimps and prostitutes,” and that even after the Atlanta location in question was sold to a franchisee, “there is evidence that the Red Roof Defendants continued to participate in this venture, although to a lesser degree.”

Red Roof Inn contends that trafficking is by its very nature an illicit activity, conducted in secret. For that reason, the company has argued that it could not be expected to identify it, and therefore should not be held responsible.

But experts in the Atlanta case testified that although much of the control exerted over sex trafficking victims is psychological, there are clear “red flags.”

Anique Whitmore, an expert witness in the Atlanta trial who has trained police departments across Georgia on how to recognize trafficking, said the crime is often clear enough so that “you can see it with a naked eye.”

“These are women, men, children who are being forced into selling their bodies for sex. That money is handed over to somebody, and you receive zero. Your compensation might be some french fries the next day,” she told the court.

“If girls and women are being trafficked at a hotel, you will see the malnourished body, the way that they are dressed, the demeanor in which they walk, the lack of eye contact … the inability to have their own voice and speak without permission,” she said.

“To be frank, you’d be quite ignorant if you didn’t see it,” she added.

The victims’ lawyers contend that the scale of prostitution was so great across Red Roof Inn properties that by turning a blind eye, the company created the conditions for sex trafficking to take place.

“Anyone who set foot on the Smyrna and Buckhead Red Roof Inn properties witnessed an open-air prostitution market,” the Atlanta lawsuit claimed. It added that those hotels “did not just tolerate prostitution, they knowingly chose to profit from it.”

Alan Borowsky, an attorney who has taken on dozens of cases relating to sex trafficking at Red Roof Inn, told The Independent that the scale and signs of prostitution were so obvious that the law required action to be taken. “Even if you have an instance where sex trafficking may not be outwardly distinguishable from non-coerced sex work, you still have situations where clearly there is some type of commercial sex venture, and it can be discovered through the course of reasonable expectations of observation and investigation that a sex trafficking venture is afoot,” he said.

“And that’s where the liability comes in,” he said.

Tonge, the lawyer in the Atlanta case, put it succinctly: “If you get rid of all prostitution, then you get rid of all sex trafficking. So just do that.”

The claims of widespread prostitution are supported by testimony from former staff and reviews of the hotels posted online by customers.

An analysis of customer reviews of Red Roof Inn hotels by The Independent found that customers mentioned prostitution at 176 properties. This information is publicly available, and evidence presented in the trial showed that Red Roof Inn employed an outside company to monitor reviews.

The reviews, the content of which could not be verified by The Independent, show that customers saw visible signs of prostitution at Red Roof Inn locations across the country for years.

A reckoning

The rise of the internet moved prostitution, and with it sex trafficking, from the streets to hotels — and behind closed doors. An estimated 80 percent of sex trafficking takes place at hotels today.

Anti-trafficking signs with phone numbers for hotlines for people to report suspected trafficking are now routinely hung up in hotel rooms.

Red Roof Inn itself conceded during the trial that hotels are on the “frontline” of combating sex trafficking, but it didn’t introduce training for years after the problem was widespread.

Following the settlement in the Atlanta case, Red Roof Inn said in a statement that it “denies all allegations” and “condemns prostitution and sex trafficking in all forms.” It also claimed to have “taken steps to mitigate criminal activity at Red Roof properties,” without clarifying further.

Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic and an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, attended the Atlanta trial for seven days and concluded that the company “failed to respond in a reasonable or appropriate manner” to the many reports of sex trafficking.

“A lot of people don’t have the power to stop trafficking, but when you’re a multimillion-dollar corporation with control or at least significant influence over the place where people are being trafficked, you can, and should, be held liable if you consciously disregard the safety of others,” she added.

A verdict in the trial would have answered key questions about the legal liability of national hotel chains and sex trafficking. Although the exact terms of the settlement in the Atlanta case are confidential, Hetherington said the very fact it got to trial is a step forward for the 11 victims who testified.

“Most survivors never get their day in court,” Hetherington said. “Several of the survivors described feeling relieved after testifying, being able to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in years, and feeling free for the first time. Civil lawsuits can be a powerful vehicle for healing and can provide a sense of empowerment for people whose autonomy and self-worth were stolen from them.”

Babin, the Ohio lawyer with almost 1,000 cases, also believes the trial demonstrated progress.

“Trials — no matter what — will help you determine the value of a case. Trials— win, lose or draw — show that the cases have facts that are sufficient to get to trial,” he said.

Babin said he foresees a reckoning for the hotel industry for its involvement in sex trafficking.

“The industry has stuck their head in the sand for a very, very long time. They knew that this was gonna come. At conferences, way before any cases were filed, they were alluding to the fact that they might one day actually have to take responsibility for what’s going on in these hotels,” he said.

“One of the big hotel chains will end up going bankrupt as a result of this litigation. And they deserve way worse.”

Richard Hall and Alicja Hagopian

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