He made her have sex with eight men a day: The horror stories hotels are getting sued over

Sex trafficking victims have named 115 different Red Roof Inn locations across 39 states as locations where they were allegedly trafficked.  (Melissa Cross / The Independent )
Sex trafficking victims have named 115 different Red Roof Inn locations across 39 states as locations where they were allegedly trafficked. (Melissa Cross / The Independent )

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.

Sex trafficking

is the crime of using force, fraud or coercion to induce another individual to sell sex.

“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.

‘I still have scars’

The Atlanta courtroom fell silent as Tiffeny entered. She was visibly pregnant and nervous as she took her seat in the witness box. Over the course of the next hour, she described in detail how she was brutally trafficked at a Red Roof Inn hotel when she was 17 by two men named Bless and Bags, between December 2010 and May 2011.

“We had to take customers morning, lunch, dinner, midnight, after club hours,” she told the court, at times breaking into tears. “It was just around the clock. We had to make a quota of a minimum $1,000 a day if we wanted to eat.”

Tiffeny and the rest of the plaintiffs filed their lawsuits under a 2008 law that allows victims of sex trafficking to seek civil damages against any entity or individual that knowingly profited from the trafficking activities. Her testimony was historic: She is the first victim of sex trafficking to ever testify at a trial seeking damages from a national hotel chain accused of profiting from the crime.

They were told about it, their employees knew about it, the front desk people knew about it, housekeeping, everybody knew about it

Jonathan Tonge, attorney for the 11 plaintiffs in the Atlanta case

Eight days into the trial, Red Roof Inn agreed to an undisclosed settlement with the victims. But even though the trial was cut short, the testimony shone a light on what sex trafficking conducted from hotels really looks like.

Tiffeny described how the “pimps’’ would travel in groups and gather in the parking lot of the hotel to coordinate customers while the women worked inside the rooms. Her trafficker would decide when she slept and when she ate, although she said she didn’t remember much eating. If she refused to see a customer or disobeyed him she would be choked or beaten.

Throughout this time, she said no Red Roof Inn employees ever asked if she needed help.

“Should they have?” the attorney for the plaintiffs asked during the trial.

“I think it’s just pretty suspicious to see teenage girls dressed in club wear at 9:00, 10:00 in the morning paying for a hotel room during the week,” she replied.

The harrowing court testimony continued with Melissa, who was trafficked in 2015 and 2016 after dropping out of college. She described being forced to have sex with eight men a day, for days at a time at the Red Roof Inn. She spoke about witnessing a pregnant woman being beaten to a bloody pulp by her trafficker in the bathroom and how housekeeping staff came each morning to remove garbage cans filled with condoms and bloody towels.

“It’s hard to explain because I had to be so numb to the experience,” she said. “Having random people inside of me every single day, and the pain that my body had to go through of having sex every — it never stopped. It did not stop.”

Alexa was 17 years old and in a relationship with her trafficker before he threatened her family with violence if she did not obey him. She has scars on her forehead and her midsection from violence meted out against her by him. She testified that she was forced to get a tattoo of an eye on her leg — a brand her trafficker used to claim ownership of her.

The Red Roof Inn was chosen by the trafficker because of its “lax attitude towards what was going on," she said. If things were slow, she could go out into the parking lot to find “dates” and bring them back to her room.

The Smyrna Red Roof Inn, where some of the plaintiffs in the Atlanta trial say they were trafficked. (Google)
The Smyrna Red Roof Inn, where some of the plaintiffs in the Atlanta trial say they were trafficked. (Google)

Each of the victims who testified that day told a similar story. The trafficking was so blatant, they argued, that Red Roof Inn employees could not have missed it.

Dozens of lawsuits filed against Red Roof Inn across the US and reviewed by The Independent tell a similar story. In each of the cases, women were allegedly lured or pressured into a situation where traffickers controlled every aspect of their lives, where they were abused and trafficked for months at a time.

In one lawsuit centered on a Red Roof Inn in Kentucky, a 16-year-old girl said she was forced to have sex with at least 10-12 paying customers a day at the hotel, while “enduring brutal physical abuse, rape, exploitation, psychological torment, kidnapping, and imprisonment.”

If these 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

Anique Whitmore, expert witness at the Atlanta trial

Another victim was trafficked for three years at Red Roof Inn hotels in Washington, DC, and Maryland, where she claimed staff witnessed her physically and verbally abused by her captors in public areas of the hotel.

Yet another woman, who was trafficked for three years at a Red Roof Inn in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, said in her lawsuit that she encountered many of the same hotel staff repeatedly. Those employees witnessed her trafficker being frequently violent with her and “loud sounds of abuse could often be heard from the room,” the lawsuit alleges.

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.”

my pimps and hos love them some snacks to go with their smokes

Jay Moyer, then-regional vice president of operations for Red Roof Inn

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.

Aaron, a former night manager at several Red Roof Inn hotels, told The Independent prostitution was “heavy” at the locations where he worked.

“While I was with Red Roof, all three of the properties had problems with prostitution,” he said in a phone interview.

Aaron said he didn’t knowingly witness any sex trafficking, but the scenes he described fit the description of a sex trafficking operation.

“They would bring girls in,” he said, referring to the men who were managing the operation. “They’d be there two weeks, sometimes. And then they’d send those girls away and bring in some more.”

Aaron added that the men who appeared to be running the operation would sometimes pay for the rooms, rather than the girls themselves.

Like other employees who were cited in the lawsuits, he said he received no training on how to identify sex trafficking from Red Roof Inn and that the company prioritized profits over everything else.

“It’s heads in beds,” he said. “They want every door sold. They don’t care how you do it. Your manager has that pressure of having to do that consistently, so if you can get prostitutes and drug dealers to come in there and keep them in order, you’re selling out.”

‘My pimps and hos’

It wasn’t just the hotel staff that knew about the sex trafficking, but all the way up the Red Roof Inn corporate management chain, according to the lawsuits. The Atlanta lawsuits contained depositions and internal communications between hotel staff and corporate Red Roof Inn employees that attorneys for the plaintiffs argue show a clear awareness that sex trafficking was taking place.

In one email, Jay Moyer, the then-regional vice president of operations responsible for both Atlanta hotels, joked about a vending machine being introduced to one of the properties, writing that “my pimps and hos love them some snacks to go with their smokes.”

Moyer claimed in a deposition that he was quoting customer reviews, but lawyers for the plaintiffs said that even if that were true, the email confirms that he “was aware that the [...] property regularly rented rooms to suspected prostitutes and pimps,” which would also indicate knowledge of sex trafficking.

Numerous former Red Roof Inn employees testified in depositions that they passed their concerns about prostitution and sex trafficking to Moyer and other managers.

The law says you don’t have to be Superman, you don’t have to go rescue trafficking victims to follow the law, you don’t have to send traffickers to jail. You just need to exercise reasonable diligence to not make money from human trafficking

Steven Babin, an attorney with hundreds of clients who claim to have been victims of sex trafficking at Red Roof Inn

Vanessa Cole, a general manager at one of the hotels between 2011 and 2012, said in her deposition that prostitution was a “consistent problem” that she reported “up the chain,” including to Moyer. She said Moyer responded by saying: “yes, we understand we have to, you know, clean up the place, but we also need to sell rooms.”

Another former employee, Michael Thomas, testified that Moyer told him to book suspected sex workers in the back of the hotel, where they would be less visible to other guests.

On at least one occasion, reports of sex trafficking made their way to the president of the company, Andy Alexander. In December 2015, a former board member of an international anti-trafficking organization, Michele Sarkisian, called Alexander to tell him a known sex trafficker was trafficking women at one of the Atlanta hotels, according to the Atlanta lawsuit. Red Roof Inn did not disclose what action they took in response.

Employees at both Atlanta hotels testified that they did not receive any training on safety and security, prostitution or sex trafficking during the time in question. The company introduced sex trafficking training in August 2014, but it was only for general managers.

A lot of people don’t have the power to stop trafficking, but when you’re a multi-million 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

Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic

Jonathan Tonge, an attorney for the 11 victims in the Atlanta case, told The Independent that the entire company knew women were being trafficked.

“What we accuse them of doing is just blatantly allowing not just prostitution, but sex trafficking. They were told about it, their employees knew about it, the front desk people knew about it, housekeeping, everybody knew about it,” he said.

“And because of that our clients got hurt. Our clients were trafficked there because Red Roof allowed sex trafficking,” he alleged.

According to Babin, Red Roof Inn had “significant knowledge” of sex trafficking at its properties, “and what they did with that knowledge is the key question here.”

“The law says you don’t have to be Superman, you don’t have to go rescue trafficking victims to follow the law, you don’t have to send traffickers to jail. You just need to exercise reasonable diligence to not make money from human trafficking,” he said.

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 sign displaying the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline on the back of a door at a New York City hotel. (Richard Hall  / The Independent)
A sign displaying the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline on the back of a door at a New York City hotel. (Richard Hall / The Independent)

“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.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing human trafficking and is in need of support, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888, by texting 233733, or online via webchat at humantraffickinghotline.org. The hotline operates 24/7 and help is available in 200 languages. All calls are confidential.

If you have any information relating to this story or other cases of trafficking that you would like to share, please contact richard.hall@independent.co.uk