A sex-trafficking survivor, who had been forced into prostitution at a Dothan hotel, has filed a lawsuit in Houston County Circuit Court against several Defendants she claims profited from her abduction. The Defendants include the convicted perpetrator, Santiago Alonso; classified advertising website Backpage.com, and its byzantine ownership group; and Choice Hotels, parent company of the Quality Inn where the victim was held against her will. The Dothan hotel’s franchise owner, Veda, LLC, is also among the Defendants in the complaint.

The Defendants, according to the complaint, “conspired, enabled and/or otherwise worked together in a sex trafficking venture in which [the survivor] was victimized when she was just 17 years old.” The now-20-year-old survivor, identified by the initials, “K.R.,” wants to “shed light on the horrors of sex trafficking in the U.S. and how it is happening in cities all across our nation,” according to her lawyer, Greg Zarzaur of the Birmingham firm Zarzaur, Mujumdar & DeBrosse. Greg stated:

Vulnerable people are taken advantage of, and entities either knew or should have known. But rather than acting on it, they financially benefited from it. Our civil justice system exists to hold those entities accountable for the wrong done.

In 2014, Alonso was found guilty of first-degree human trafficking and felony distribution of drugs to a minor in a Houston County court. The victim, a runaway from Meridian, Mississippi, was kidnapped in Hattiesburg and taken to Memphis before Dothan, where, it was revealed during the trial, she was forced to take drugs and become a prostitute. The teenager ultimately escaped from the hotel and walked eight miles before finding someone who alerted police. Evidence gathered against Alonso included images on his cellphone of ads placed on Backpage.com to prostitute the victim.

Backpage.com, a leading global digital marketplace for commercial sex, has been sued numerous times for alleged child sex trafficking violations, but the entity long claimed it was only a host of others’ content and was thus immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). However, the Supreme Court in Washington state has ruled that a 2012 suit against Backpage.com by three Washington teenaged girls who were allegedly trafficked on the site could proceed, in what turned out to be a preliminary blow against the site.

In early January, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Committee on Investigations released findings from its nearly two-year investigation into Backpage.com. It found that the site “knows it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking” and “knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads…to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.”

It also cited James Larkin, Michael Lacey, and Carl Ferrer as “beneficial owners” of Backpage.com, whose U.S. operations had been sold to a Dutch company, Atlantishe Bedrijven, C.V., located in Curacao. Late last year, the three men were charged by the California attorney general’s office attorney with conspiracy to commit pimping and 26 counts of money laundering. Ferrer also is charged with 12 counts of pimping, seven involving children. On Tuesday, Ferrer asked a judge in Sacramento, Calif. to toss the pimping charges.

The three men and the Dutch company are also Defendants in the Alabama survivor’s lawsuit. Days after the report was released, Backpage.com removed the adult section from its site in the United States, calling the action a “direct result of unconstitutional government censorship.”

It’s alleged in the suit that Backpage.com generated annual revenue of approximately $150 million, or about $3.1 million per week from sex ads. The survivor is suing Choice Hotels, in part, because of the overall role of the hotel industry in the sex trafficking industry, as well as its actions in other cases of sex trafficking. The compliant says:

The vast majority of sex trafficking occurs in hotels and motels and as a result, hotels and motels should be the first line of defense against illegal prostitution and sex trafficking of children. Instead, hotels and motels account for over ninety percent (90%) of commercial exploitation of children. [Choice Hotels] has known for years that pimps and traffickers use their hotels to carry out their crimes. Despite having knowledge of the extensive prostitution and sex trafficking that occurs at its hotels, Defendant Choice Hotels has repeatedly failed to make reasonable efforts to stop these crimes.

The complaint also cites a tragic incident that occurred eight years ago in which a child was raped and killed at a Comfort Inn, another Choice Hotels brand, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The complaint says:

The incident caused such outrage that child advocates petitioned defendant Choice Hotels to take steps to prevent sex trafficking in its hotel franchise chains.

The owner of the Dothan Quality Inn is a Defendant, according to the complaint, because it should have acted on “red flags” that should have alerted hotel employees to Alonso’s illegal activity. It’s alleged:

The red flags include payment by cash-only, older men or women with a younger woman/child or with a female who appears unrelated, the reservation of two rooms close to each other, a lack of luggage, refusal of cleaning services, regular requests for towels, and numerous men coming and going from the rooms or congregating at the door. A lot of these red flags were open and obvious in the sex trafficking [K.R.] at the Quality Inn in Dothan, Alabama. Any reasonable hotel or operator would have recognized these as signs of sex trafficking.

The public should be outraged over the activities described above. Our elected officials have a responsibility to get involved and help stop this sort of thing. The courts will do their part and cases like this one are a step in the right direction.

Source: The Birmingham News

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