Victim's suit against hotel chains focuses attention on sex trafficking

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A lawsuit by a woman who says she was held captive and forced into prostitution at two southeast Michigan hotels more than a decade ago is focusing renewed attention on sex trafficking and perpetrators' use of overnight lodging as bases for their illicit activity. 

Holiday Inn Express in downtown Detroit.

The lawsuit, filed this month in U.S. District Court, alleges that InterContinental Hotels and Marriott International failed to stop sex trafficking at their properties. It's among similar cases involving sex trafficking survivors across the country that attorneys are seeking to move before a single federal judge.

“It seems clear to us that these hotels knowingly put their own profits over the protection of the children, teenagers and young women who were being sold for sex at their hotels,” said Paul Pennock, trafficking and abuse practice group leader at Weitz & Luxenberg, the firm that filed a multi-district litigation petition Dec. 9. 

“We believe that they neglected their duty to take action to stop these heinous crimes for decades, and it is time for them to be held responsible for what they perpetuated through total inaction.”

Some trafficking experts say the spate of cases underscores the need for stronger action in the hotel industry to combat the act some officials call modern-day slavery.

More:Warren nets 46 arrests related to human trafficking, prostitution

"It's not just a one-hotel problem," said Bridgette Carr, the founder and director for the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan. “Traffickers know how to use hotels right now to not get caught and to make money. That means something is happening there to welcome them into their lobbies.”

The Michigan case involves a woman who, between 2003-08, was allegedly “trafficked for days at a time” in a Holiday Inn Express in Detroit as well as a Fairfield Inn Ann Arbor, according to the lawsuit.

Identified in court documents only as “H.G.,” the Metro Detroit native had been removed from her childhood home after her father allegedly sexually abused her. 

As a teen, she “was living in an orphanage when her apparent vulnerability was first targeted by her traffickers, who then used brute strength to regularly abduct her from her school or work and drive her to the Defendants’ hotels where she was forced to endure brutal physical assaults, psychological torment, verbal abuse and imprisonment,” the complaint stated.

According to the Michigan Attorney General's office, human trafficking victims are in bondage through force, fraud or coercion for sex or labor exploitation.

H.G. stayed in rooms prepaid by a trafficker, who was “violent, verbally abusive, and repeatedly raped” her and demanded she satisfy a daily quota of buyers, according to the court document.

At the Detroit hotel, she reportedly once requested help from the front desk as blood ran down a leg but “received no assistance and her trafficker pushed her back upstairs,” the lawsuit said. Another time, when penetrated with a broken glass bottle, “the volume of H.G.’s scream was such that the other guests of the hotel would have heard her scream and that the staff was or should have been aware.”

The filing asserts trafficking arrests involving other Holiday Inn locations, which are under the InterContinental Hotels Group, also have been reported in several other states in recent years.

Jacob Hawkins, an IHG spokesperson, told The Detroit News: “While we cannot speak to ongoing litigation, we condemn human trafficking in all forms and are committed to working with hotel owners to fight human trafficking across our industry and in local communities.

As part of this, we provide mandatory human trafficking prevention training for all IHG-branded hotels in the Americas, and have been rolling out the program to all IHG-branded hotels globally.”

H.G’s alleged trafficker chose both the Detroit hotel and the Fairfield Inn in Ann Arbor, which Marriott International oversees, "specifically ... because they had a reputation for commercial sex and illegal activity,” according to the lawsuit.

Not only did IHG and Marriott “financially benefit from their ongoing reputation for privacy, discretion and the facilitation of commercial sex,” the filing said, the companies “failed to take any steps to alert the authorities, properly intervene in the situation, or take reasonable security steps to improve awareness of sex trafficking and/or prevent sexual exploitation at their hotels.”

Meanwhile, H.G. escaped trafficking after relocating to the West Coast in 2011. However, her life has been “forever altered by the people who exploited her,” said Tiffany Ellis, the Detroit-based lawyer representing the woman.

Still, she added: "There’s been a sea change for survivors talking about their experiences and willing to come forward and hold those accountable who could have done something. The Me Too movement changed a lot."

Marriott International representatives would not comment on the case but said the company is working to combat human trafficking in hotels and has “developed training in partnership with leading human rights organizations to teach its hotel workers to recognize the signs of human trafficking and how to respond. The company made the training mandatory for all its hotel workers in 2017; to date more than 700,000 employees have completed the training.”

The multi-district litigation petition filed this month  claims the hotel chains and others violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and provided a marketplace for a crime against federal law.

According to the Polaris Project, hotels and motels were among the most commonly reported venues for sex trafficking at its National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“Traffickers … continue to exploit their victims unchecked because staff, managers and executives do not know what to look for,” the group’s website read.

Last year, 383 human trafficking cases were reported in Michigan through the hotline, a jump from 313 tallied in 2017, according to the website. The data did not list the type of trafficking involved or locations.

Carr estimates most of the sex trafficking cases her Ann Arbor-based clinic handles at any given time involve hotels.

“More buyers are going to show up at hotels” rather than other places that offer less privacy, she said.

In February, Madison Heights police arrested a man at a Days Inn hotel who was accused of trafficking a Chinese citizen. Months later, an undercover operation at Warren motels led to three human trafficking victims, police commissioner William Dwyer said Friday.

Comprehensive training, as well as stronger partnerships with investigators, can help hoteliers combat trafficking, said Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes more than 130 members representing law enforcement agencies and others.

“It takes some finesse and training to understand what (trafficking) looks like," she said. "You just don’t call the police department the first time you think you see it."

Some hotel officials are taking notice.

In June, the American Hotel & Lodging Association announced a national campaign “to unite the industry around a single, comprehensive approach to fight trafficking.”

As part of the effort, the group and its member companies have trained more than a million employees around the world, and more is expected to coincide with National Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January, president and CEO Chip Rogers said in a statement Friday.

"We’ve already seen success. Just this month, a hotel manager in Springdale, Arkansas, noticed a woman in distress and followed his training, leading to the capture of her trafficker and ultimately saving her life."

Getting the public to recognize human trafficking is more commonplace than expected can change the narrative, Carr said. "The sooner we can grapple with that reality, the sooner we'll find solutions."