A Western Washington woman who says she was forced into prostitution at age 12 and sex-trafficked for years before escaping at age 18 has sued San Francisco-based Craigslist and hotel chains Motel 6, Wyndham and Howard Johnson, alleging they knew their businesses were being used to promote, protect and profit from child rape and sexual exploitation.
In an 81-page complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, the woman — identified by the initials M.L. — alleges that Craigslist and much of the hospitality industry have known for years that their services have been used by sex traffickers of children, but have not acted quickly or with conviction to address the problem. While in recent years these industries have moved to educate workers and cooperate with authorities to combat sex trafficking, the lawsuit alleges the effort amounts to lip service and is too little, too late.
The Washington case is one of a growing number of lawsuits targeting hotels and others in the hospitality industry, where sexual exploitation and trafficking have traditionally occurred relatively unchallenged. Similar lawsuits have been filed elsewhere, including in Atlanta and California, and M.L.’s attorney expects additional litigation in the future.
M.L. is seeking damages for negligence, outrage, criminal profiteering, sexual exploitation of children, unjust enrichment and civil conspiracy.
The lawsuit identifies four hotels in the SeaTac area and Kent where M.L. said she was kept by a pimp for weeks at a time and where staff knew or should have known she was a child sex slave. The lawsuit describes times where she says she was told by staff to “keep it down” after being raped, and instances where her room’s trash was filled with used condoms and empty bottles of sexual lubricant. Most of the events referenced in the lawsuit occurred around the late 2000s, when M.L. was between the ages of 12 and 17.
Her attorney said she is now in her mid-20s, but declined to be specific about her age or where in Western Washington she resides today.
The hotels were identified in court papers as three Motel 6 properties in the SeaTac area — at 20651 Military Road S., 16500 Pacific Highway S. and 18900 47th Ave. S., and a Howard Johnson Inn at 1233 Central Ave. N. in Kent.
“These are places we thought should have known that bad things were happening to a child on their premises, and did nothing about it,” said the woman’s Tacoma lawyer, Erik Bauer.
Anthony Todaro, a Seattle lawyer who represents both G6 Hospitality, which franchises Motel 6 properties, and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which owns the Howard Johnson brand, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Telephone messages and emails seeking comment from attorneys representing the groups that own the individual hotels did not elicit a response Wednesday.
Bauer, the woman’s attorney, has made a career of litigating on behalf of child sex-abuse victims and filed the lawsuit that resulted in the closure of the infamous classified advertising site backpage.com. Bauer believes Craigslist is at least as responsible for the proliferation of child sex trafficking as was backpage.com. Over the years, Craigslist has hosted both “erotic” and “adult” advertisements, where pimps posted suggestive photographs of what were actually underage sex-trafficking victims and would arrange for meetings at a hotel or another site. Craigslist eventually removed those sections after public outrage.
The woman’s lawsuit claims that for every day a Craigslist ad remained online, it would attract between two and 20 men who would sexually assault her. “A continuing parade of buyers would arrive at the motel locations and enter into a room they either did not rent or did not rent for the purposes of an overnight stay. One by one, dozens to hundreds (of) … unrelated buyers used defendant motels and services to commercially sexually exploit, rape, sexually abuse and physically assault the plaintiff,” the lawsuit says.
Craigslist lawyer Perry Viscounty of Costa Mesa, California, declined to discuss the lawsuit. He noted that Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and the company’s CEO, Jim Buckmaster, both had been removed as defendants from the litigation after it was initially filed in Pierce County Superior Court earlier this year.
The lawsuit cites research showing that the hospitality industry “plays a crucial role in the sex trade. The trope of the ‘no-tell motel’ is certainly not a new one.”
“Hotels have long profited from their reputations as havens of privacy and discretion for the offending,” the lawsuit claims. According to data compiled by the anti-trafficking group The Polaris Project cited in the lawsuit, three-fourths of sex-trafficking survivors said they used hotels at some point during their exploitation. “Unfortunately, 94% also disclosed that they never received any assistance, concern or identification from hotel staff,” the study says.
M.L. claims that during the years she was exploited, she was never helped by hotel staff. The lawsuit alleges it should have been obvious based on materials that both Motel 6 and Wyndham have distributed to employees that their properties were being used for child sex trafficking. At the Howard Johnson in Kent, M.L said she was “repeatedly assaulted and commercially sex trafficked” while she lived in the hotel almost continuously for a year.
The lawsuit alleges that sometimes men would line up outside the door of her room, or wait for their turn in the parking lot.
At various Motel 6 locations, M.L. said she was trafficked, kidnapped and “other times tortured” by both her pimps and buyers. “She screamed for help, but no one would help her,” the lawsuit alleges. Instead, she was arrested and accused of prostitution “for harms done against her at defendant [Motel 6] branded locations.”
“The number of adult male buyers entering the Motel 6 branded property and rooms to visit an unrelated 12-year-old girl for a brief period of time was obvious and apparent” and should have elicited help from the hotel staff, who instead “ignored” or “teased” her, the lawsuit says. It also alleges the motels financially benefited from the assaults by renting the room to her abusers and traffickers.
At the Motel 6 on Military Road, M.L. claims she was raped 10 times a day while she was between 12 and 15 years old. She says a manager of the motel attempted to solicit sex from her and other young sex-trafficking victims staying there. The lawsuit alleges that when the company found out, it transferred the manager rather than firing him.