Employees of four Atlanta-area hotels knew sex trafficking was taking place, but instead of reporting the illegal activity they profited from it, according to federal lawsuits filed late Monday.
As many as 20 men a day visited hotel rooms for short periods of time — an indicator of sex trafficking — and some women were forced to stay at the hotels for weeks, four trafficking survivors contend. Meanwhile, employees were paid to keep quiet and act as lookouts in case police arrived or other hotel guests were suspicious, the four lawsuits state.
The lawsuits are the first of their kind in Georgia to target hotels, rather than the individuals trafficking women, according to two Gwinnett County attorneys, Jonathan Tonge and Pat McDonough. The pair represent four unidentified trafficking victims.
“These lawsuits demonstrate what we all know: hotels know about sex trafficking; hotels participate in sex trafficking; and hotels make money from sex trafficking,” Tonge said in a written statement.
“The fact that for years it’s been illegal to do so has not changed the hotels’ behavior. When the choice comes down to leaving a room empty or renting that room to sex traffickers, the hotels in these lawsuits consistently chose to rent the room to sex traffickers.”
The four hotels named include a Red Roof Inn near SunTrust Park and a La Quinta Inn near North Point Mall. Hometown Studios, previously operating as a Suburban Extended Stay, on Peachtree Industrial Court in Chamblee and Extended Stay America on Hammond Drive near Sandy Springs are also named.
“Red Roof condemns, and has zero tolerance for, human trafficking and child exploitation,” the company said in an emailed statement Tuesday afternoon. “Red Roof expects its franchisees to follow the policy and as part of our franchise agreement, comply with the law.”
The other three businesses did not respond to emailed requests for comment from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Despite police investigations into commercial sex operations at the Red Roof Inn dating back until 2010, hotel management did nothing to stop it, according to the four plaintiffs. The lawsuits allege that signs posted on the hotel’s front desk and in the front office condone the use of rooms for trafficking, as long as the daily rental rate is paid.
“No refunds after 15 minutes,” the signs state.
“There is no legitimate reason for the Smyrna Red Roof Inn to have such a policy,” the four lawsuits state. “The policy exists so that commercial sex acts cannot be accomplished quickly at the Smyrna Red Roof Inn without also paying for a room…”
Online reviews of the Red Roof Inn, and the other hotels named in the lawsuits, also mention illegal activity witnessed by other hotel guests, according to the lawsuits. Typically, someone claiming to be a manager of the hotel replied to the reviews with an apology. Managers also knew about law enforcement investigations into criminal activity at the hotels, the lawsuits allege.
While she was being trafficked, one plaintiff tried to get help from an employee of the Suburban Extended Stay, the lawsuit states. That employee then told the man running the trafficking operation, who beat the woman seeking help.
“You think somebody is going to help you? None of these people are going to help you,” the man allegedly told her.
An employee at the Extended Stay America kept lingerie behind the front desk and tried to sell it to one of the victims filing suit, the lawsuit alleges.
Susan Norris, founder of a nonprofit called Rescuing Hope, says the details in the lawsuit are not surprising. Her group works to bring awareness to the problem through education while also supporting survivors.
“There are people out there that will do anything to make money,” Norris said. “They are looking out for themselves and no one else.”
Sex trafficking happens at all types of hotels, including high-end resorts and boutique hotels, Norris said. But many are taking proactive steps to keep out criminal activity, including educating themselves about trafficking indicators.
“Some of them are taking a huge stand against this,” Norris said. “They are changing their staff. They are limiting pornography that can be seen in the rooms.”
The plaintiffs are seeking trials by jury and unspecified punitive damages.
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