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Florida legislation targets human trafficking in the hotel industry

Orlando, FL (Bill Dickinson)

The men came, one after another, to a hotel room in the heart of Orlando’s tourism district. For $200 an hour, a 16-year-old girl was forced to have sex with the strangers while her pimp kept watch from a car in the hotel parking lot.

After a week, the girl confided in one of those strangers that she was being held against her will, and he helped her escape.

Staff at the Grand Hotel Orlando Drive told detectives that they repeatedly saw two people escorting the men to a room. Other guests complained of suspicious activity. Still, the two people — who were later arrested — were allowed to book rooms a few days at a time for two weeks.

Now, proposals headed to the Florida Legislature would allow victims to sue hotel owners and staff as facilitators for human trafficking if they either knowingly or through willful blindness allow traffickers to rent rooms.

Another bill would require hotels and motels to have training programs for employees on identifying and reporting human trafficking.

Jan Rietveld, general manager of Grand Hotel Orlando, said he welcomes training. The hotel does not have a policy for reporting human trafficking, Rietveld said. But he said staff members know they are not to rent a room to someone they suspect of trafficking.

“I don’t want them here. It’s that simple. I don’t care what they pay,” Rietveld said.

The bills, if passed, would impact the Orlando area, the tourist capital of the country, with its more than 400 hotels and hundreds more in the surrounding area.

Walt Disney World, home to 34 resorts and hotels, and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, would not agree to an interview and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association did not respond to requests for an interview.

A similar Pennsylvania law passed in 2014. A human trafficking survivor and her family in 2017 filed the first lawsuit against a Philadelphia motel where she said she was forced to have sex with hundreds of men over months at a time.

Other hotel groups have taken proactive approaches in recent years. Wyndham Hotel Group and Hyatt Hotels partnered with The Polaris Project, a national anti-human trafficking nonprofit organization, to provide training. Hilton and Starwood Hotels & Resorts also have training.

Orlando has the third-highest number of calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to The Polaris Project.

Hotels and motels across Florida emerged in 2015 as the most common places where trafficking occurs, according to The Polaris Project, which operates the hotline.

About 1 in 6 cases reported to the hotline in 2017 occurred in a hotel or motel. Every one of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s trafficking cases used a hotel, said Sgt. Ed Olesen of the Criminal Investigations Division.

In Olesen’s office, six names of accused pimps who have been indicted are written in a column on a white board. On the adjacent wall, about 40 names of suspected pimps are scrawled across a filled white board in black, green and blue marker. Red circles are around some names.

“All signs for (human trafficking) present,” was written next to one name.

“Pimped by parents since 2 (years of age),” read another note.

In some cases, detectives discovered hotel staff received kickbacks or sexual favors in exchange for their silence, Olesen said.

“A lot of them have said they were approached and told, ‘Don’t ask questions and don’t service the room at all,’” Olesen said. “They know what’s going on or there’s an assumption.”

Detectives could charge hotel staff with conspiracy or human trafficking. But it’s a stretch and the burden of proof is hard to meet, Olesen said. And detectives want their cooperation to put away the traffickers, Olesen said.

The proposed legislation would hold staff accountable while helping survivors with resources, such as counseling, education and housing, to get back on their feet.

In the case of the girl forced into prostitution at the Grand Hotel Orlando in October 2016, Osceola County detectives worked with other area law enforcement to charge Kelvin Williams. They found several other victims who, they said, he moved around hotels in Kissimmee, Orlando and Altamonte Springs. He had another victim in Jacksonville, according to court documents.

Other states have long looked to Florida for its strong criminal laws, Tallahassee lawyer Nicole Whitaker said. But a state law targeting the profits of the multibillion industry isn’t on the books.

Whitaker advocated similar bills introduced in the Florida House and Senate last year that died.

“I just really honestly believe as strong as our criminal laws are, we’re never going to win unless we go after the money,” Whitaker said.

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© 2017 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.