by Special Topic:
Should Hotel Chains Be Held Liable for Human Trafficking?
For decades, franchised hotels have been a common scene of sex-trafficking crimes in the U.S. A new legal strategy is targeting the corporations that collect royalties from them.
(Illustration by Grace J. Kim)
By Bernice Yeung
This story was originally published in The New Yorker on July 26, 2023.
Shortly after Elizabeth turned seventeen, in the summer of 2018, she began selling sex from a room on the second floor of a Days Inn off the interstate in Marietta, Georgia. Her pimp, a twenty-six-year-old member of the Gangster Disciples, who went by the street name Fresh, had likely chosen this Days Inn for a few reasons. Its location—off of a twelve-lane freeway, past a line of strip malls, in a warren of office parks—had the benefit of being both hidden and easy to get to. The building itself was a drive-up motel, constructed in the eighties, without modern safety features such as interior hallways and elevators secured by key cards. A hotel manager allegedly gave Fresh room discounts in exchange for Ecstasy and pot.
Elizabeth, who asked that I use only her middle name, is petite, with dark hair, big eyes, and a barbed sense of humor. When she was growing up, outside of Atlanta, her mother struggled with mental-health issues and worked multiple jobs to stave off homelessness. Elizabeth has never met her father. “I was the product of a one-night stand,” she said. “Well, my mom said it was three nights, to be specific.” By the age of eleven, she was helping her younger sister get ready for school and preparing her dinner. One of her mother’s ex-boyfriends molested Elizabeth when she was twelve. That same year, she said, she was raped for the first time in an abandoned house where she’d gone to smoke weed with a friend. The next year, she was sent to an inpatient behavioral-health facility because she was cutting herself; while there, she was diagnosed as having A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder.
About a year later, an older friend introduced Elizabeth to her first trafficker. She was already having sex for attention, she said, and the trafficker told her, “You’re doing it anyway. You might as well get paid.” She became the youngest member of a group of teen-agers coerced into prostitution. “He’s teaching us how to do it,” Elizabeth said of the trafficker. “He’s glorifying it. He’s making it seem like it’s the best life.” He also took Elizabeth’s money, often yelled at her, and once pointed a loaded gun at her chest. “He always had a gun in his hands,” she said. “A slight slip of the finger and I could have been gone.”
Elizabeth’s next trafficker was worse. He allowed her only a few hours of sleep a night, and habitually raped her. To keep pace and to help herself dissociate, she started using meth. “He broke my spirit,” Elizabeth said. “He was so unbearable. But then I couldn’t let him go. I think it was because he actually offered me that stability I was looking for. Like, he knew.” After they were both arrested, she found a chance to escape and soon met Fresh’s new protégé, a twenty-two-year-old member of the Rollin’ 90s Crips known as Gunna.
By the time Elizabeth got to the Days Inn in Marietta, she had become accustomed to the idea that grown men made money off of her body. In this particular operation, a woman who went by the name Diamond, whom Fresh had prostituted in the past, assumed the role of “bottom bitch,” which involved posting escort ads online and arranging the “dates.” Elizabeth gave Fresh a forty-per-cent cut of the hundred dollars she earned for each “play” and kept the rest, though Gunna, whom she viewed as her boyfriend, held on to it for her.
About a month into their stay, Gunna found a teen-ager crying in the stairwell leading to the hotel’s second floor. Her name was Savannah; she had chubby cheeks and dirty-blond hair dyed with blue streaks. Gunna asked her if she was O.K. Savannah said that a guy had brought her to the hotel, and then left abruptly. She was trying to figure out what to do next. Gunna asked her if she wanted to make some money and offered her a job in the escort business. She followed him back to Room 211.
From the start, Elizabeth didn’t want Savannah in the room. She admits to feeling territorial, but she also sensed that something about the new girl would bring trouble. For starters, Savannah spoke in a soft, delicate voice. She also didn’t have a driver’s license, and she told Elizabeth that she was in a “messed-up situation.” Within a few hours, Savannah undressed and got into the shower. It was clear to Elizabeth that she was just a child.
When Elizabeth and Savannah were advertised together, the new girl’s young age was so apparent that most of the men responding to the ads left as soon as they saw her naked. In the course of the next three days, only three of them paid the eighty dollars to have sex with her, a fraction of what the pimps expected her to earn. Fresh and Gunna “were being extra rude to her because she wasn’t making money,” Elizabeth said. “I felt for her. I had been the new girl that they just threw into the ocean. I know it’s hard. And I definitely saw in her eyes that she did not want to do this.”
Before daybreak on the morning of August 20th, Savannah got into an argument with Diamond. Elizabeth was sitting on one of the room’s double beds, listening to music with her earbuds in; she was high on a mix of Ecstasy and pot, and she didn’t want to get involved. Then she saw Diamond tilt her head at something Savannah had said. Gunna raised an eyebrow and twisted his face in disbelief. Elizabeth pulled out a headphone. She recalled Gunna saying, “She need to get her stuff. She gone.”
Savannah grabbed a drawstring backpack and left the hotel. She dialled 911 and headed to a Dave & Buster’s next door, where, within minutes, a police officer met her in the parking lot. She said that she had been sexually assaulted at the Days Inn. When the officer ran her name through the system, Savannah came up as a runaway. She was fifteen.
Savannah later said that she hadn’t tried to escape sooner because Gunna had pointed a gun at her and said, “If you leave, I will come looking for you. I will go to jail, but it won’t be for anything less than murder.” Now, as the sun rose behind the Days Inn and a rush of morning commuters roared along the interstate, the local police and a swat team surrounded the hotel. Elizabeth watched Gunna and Diamond flush their drugs as she deleted pictures from her phone. Then came a voice over a police bullhorn: “Occupants of 211, come out one by one with your hands above your head.”
Elizabeth was held in Atlanta-area jails for four months. There was evidence that she’d participated in the trafficking operation by posting sex ads online, but the district attorney ultimately declined to bring a case against her. “We made the decision to take into consideration how she had been victimized not only by these defendants but people previously,” Charles Boring, a former Cobb County prosecutor who handled the case, said. Instead, Elizabeth landed in a group home for sexually abused girls. A staffer there told her about a pair of attorneys who were filing lawsuits against hotels on behalf of sex-trafficking victims. Elizabeth initially wanted to meet with them because she was drawn to the possibility of a payout. But, as she came to absorb the extent of her exploitation, and the role that one hotel had played in sustaining it, the prospect of a lawsuit took on a new dimension. She told me, “I wanted somebody to see me and I wanted somebody to hear me because this shit happens all the time.”
Across the country, hotels have become a familiar scene of sex-trafficking crimes. According to the 2018 Polaris Survivor Survey, more than sixty per cent of sex-trafficking victims said that they were forced to sell sex from hotels. Of approximately three thousand criminal sex-trafficking cases that have been prosecuted by the federal government, forty-six per cent included allegations that commercial sex had taken place at a hotel, according to data provided by the Human Trafficking Institute. “We focus not enough on how human trafficking intersects with the legitimate economy,” Louise Shelley, the director of George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center, told me. “This is one of the key points in the supply chain where it does.”
What we now call human trafficking is as old as historical memory, but the first U.S. law to comprehensively target the crime wasn’t marshalled into existence until 2000. At the time, it was estimated that fifty thousand people were being trafficked into the U.S., in addition to an unknown number of domestic victims, and a bipartisan group of legislators sought to establish the country as a leader in combatting the problem. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which passed with a near-unanimous vote, made it clear that the use of “force, fraud or coercion,” whether physical or psychological, to pressure someone into labor or commercial sex was a crime. Since then, anti-trafficking advocates have pushed for the law to be reauthorized every few years. In 2003, legislators added a provision to allow victims to sue their traffickers in civil court. Five years later, legislators expanded the law to allow victims to sue anyone who benefitted from a trafficking enterprise and knew—or could have known—that exploitation was happening. That meant victims could begin to pursue cases against companies that failed to insure that their businesses weren’t complicit in exploitation. “How do you get at the systemic?” Luis C. deBaca, a former director of the State Department’s anti-trafficking office who, as a congressional staffer, led the drafting of the 2008 expansion, said. The federal law needed to reach beyond the “person holding the stick to the person who profits from the stick being held.”
The first civil trafficking case against a hotel, which was filed in 2004, was based on forced-labor claims. It wasn’t until 2015 that a sex-trafficking case was lodged against a hotel, when a victim sued the owners of the Shangri-La Motel, in Seekonk, Massachusetts, for aiding and abetting the man who was exploiting her. During trial, the victim testified that one of the owners had given the trafficker a high five in the parking lot and discussed business with him. (Both men denied this.) The case settled for an undisclosed sum on the second day of the trial.
Lawyers representing victims soon began bringing cases against the corporate franchisers who collect royalty payments from hotels where trafficking has occurred. Wyndham Hotels, for instance, whose properties include Days Inn, Super 8, and Howard Johnson, collects four per cent from every room that’s booked, plus additional fees that can add up to twelve per cent of a property’s total revenue. “It’s a top-down problem, right?” Steven Babin, an Ohio attorney who has filed a third of the human-trafficking lawsuits against hotel corporations in the U.S., said. “Thinking about it as who is in the position to most affect what’s happening and who’s benefitting the most from it—all signs point to these corporations.”
Babin worked on some of the earliest sex-trafficking lawsuits to name hotel chains. In March, 2019, his firm, along with two others, brought a case on behalf of a woman known in court filings as H.H., who was living in a domestic-violence shelter when she was seduced by a man who would later traffic her. For six months, according to the complaint, which was filed against G6 Hospitality, L.L.C., and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Inc., H.H. was rotated in and out of a Motel 6, where cleaning staff found her tied to a bed, and a Super 8, where a housekeeper found her “chained up” in the bathroom. During that time, she said, she was forced to have sex with ten to fifteen men a day.
That same month, Babin and the other lawyers brought a lawsuit on behalf of a woman known in court documents as M.A., who said that, when she was still a minor, she was forced to have sex with about ten people a day for nearly a year. M.A.’s trafficker, Lerenzo White, would beat her and withhold food when she refused to comply. He cycled her through a circuit of hotels in the Columbus area, including a Comfort Inn, a Crowne Plaza, and various Days Inn locations. In addition to filing a lawsuit against the individual hotels, M.A. sued the franchisers: Wyndham Hotels, InterContinental Hotels, and Choice Hotels. (InterContinental and Choice have since been dropped from the case.)
In both cases, Babin and the other attorneys argued that the hotel industry had demonstrated an “ongoing failure to act” on sex trafficking because of “limitless corporate greed.” The suits said that the hotels and their franchisers had failed to heed common warning signs, as identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including guests who showed signs of malnourishment, poor hygiene, sleep deprivation, or untreated illness; people who stayed for extended periods of time with few personal possessions; and an excessive number of condoms found in a hotel room. H.H.’s case was settled in 2020; M.A.’s lawsuit against Wyndham is ongoing. (The defendants in both cases declined to comment on the lawsuits but said that they condemn human trafficking, participate in initiatives to support survivors, and take numerous measures to identify and report the problem.)
Since those first cases were filed, according to data provided by the Human Trafficking Legal Center, more than a hundred and ten civil sex-trafficking lawsuits against hotel franchisers have been brought in federal courts across the country. (Additional cases have been filed in local courts in states with their own anti-trafficking laws.) Most major franchisers have been named, although nearly half of these cases have been filed against Red Roof Inns and Wyndham; nearly a third are against Choice, which owns Quality Inn and Econo Lodge. These lawsuits have become so prevalent that some publicly traded companies are now acknowledging the threat of such litigation in their filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Babin first heard that hotel franchisers could be sued for human trafficking at a legal conference in 2018. “It’s a case where you can really represent people that have never had a fair shake,” he said. “A lot of them are in the foster-care system that failed them. And then they’re in the court system and arrested and treated as criminals instead of victims of trafficking.” His firm has filed more than forty cases against hotel franchisers, most of them involving Red Roof Inns, which is headquartered in a suburb of Columbus. (Red Roof Inns declined to comment.) Babin told me that, thanks to word of mouth and referrals from nonprofits and other law firms, he has connected with more than a thousand potential plaintiffs. “When I first started doing these cases, I didn’t think we would end up with that many,” he said. “But the statistics show that’s just a drop in the bucket for how many people are thought to be trafficked every year.”
None of the trafficking lawsuits against hotel franchisers have gone to trial yet. About half the cases are ongoing. At least a dozen have ended in a settlement. Judges have dismissed lawsuits in about a dozen other cases, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to show that the franchiser had in some way benefitted by being part of a venture that it knew or should have known was engaged in trafficking. Whether victims’ lawyers can, in fact, prove that a franchiser “should have known” about trafficking at a franchised hotel remains an open question. Is general knowledge of a problem enough, or does the franchiser need to be aware of specific wrongdoing? “Nobody’s seen litigation like this,” Annie McAdams, a Houston attorney who filed some of the earliest trafficking cases against hotel chains, told me. “At the end of the day, it’s new. You’re creating what the law will be.”
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, Anastasia, an eighteen-year-old adoptee from Russia, met Fredrick Brown, a thirty-year-old drug dealer, in the parking lot of a Wawa in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. “Wish you were my Valentine,” Brown told her from the front seat of his car. Anastasia smirked. On her way out of the convenience store, Brown offered her a ride. Anastasia had run away from foster care and was sleeping in abandoned warehouses. She was wearing a hoodie and sneakers in the dead of winter. She got in. “He asked me what I wanted out of life,” she said. “I told him I want happiness, stability, and he told me that I would have to do these bad things in order to get to where I want to be.”
Brown initiated Anastasia into the business by telling her that she had to have sex in a trailer with someone he sold drugs to. Then he began to advertise Anastasia online for three hundred dollars an hour; for an additional thousand dollars, men could have unprotected sex with her. Anastasia said that she was forced to have sex with as many as two dozen men a day. Brown himself raped and beat her. He gave her Adderall and Ecstasy to keep her awake, took possession of her immigration papers, and threatened to hurt people she was close to if she fled. When she became pregnant, Brown took her to get an abortion. On a trip to New York, she was raped by a customer at knifepoint. What scared her most about the assault, she recalled, was that it meant she would have to return to Brown without any money.
Brown cycled Anastasia through hotels in four states on the East Coast. But, most of the time, she was kept in a first-floor hotel room at a Howard Johnson in Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, which Brown called his “home base.” The general manager, Faizal Bhimani, offered rooms to Brown in exchange for sex, including with Anastasia. Anastasia had a complicated relationship with Bhimani. They would joke around and have heart-to-hearts by the pool, but when she’d show him her cuts and bruises, he never tried to help. She came to see him as two different people: “The same man that would crawl his disgusting body over me for a room swap was not the same person that opened up and gave me candy bars and made me Shirley Temples at the bar.” Bhimani alerted Brown whenever the police were patrolling the area. When the hotel was booked or law enforcement was present, he referred Brown to the Pocono Plaza Inn, which was a few miles away and shared an owner: Nazim Hassam.
Anastasia engineered her escape from the Howard Johnson one evening in the late summer of 2013. That night, Brown had thrown Anastasia across the room, sending her head into the corner of a nightstand. “I was very groggy and out of it,” she said. “And I just sat up, and I’m, like, I am going to die here unless I get out.” She cut a hole in the window screen using something from her makeup bag—she can’t remember what—and hobbled into the parking lot, her head dripping with blood. A driver later found her collapsed on the side of the road, and she was taken to the hospital. After she was discharged, she went into hiding.
Nearly four years later, F.B.I. agents knocked on the door of her apartment and asked for her help in a sex-trafficking investigation. Since fleeing the Bartonsville Howard Johnson, Anastasia had had a child, survived a string of abusive boyfriends, and got sober. She was trying to regain custody of her child, who was then a toddler, while working double shifts at an Irish pub and picking up catering gigs on the side. Initially, she didn’t want to get involved in the case; she didn’t want to dredge up her past. “And then I just realized that if someone doesn’t do something about it,” she said, “it’s going to keep happening.”
Given how intertwined the Howard Johnson, a Wyndham-branded property, had been in the trafficking of Anastasia and others, the federal government criminally prosecuted not only Brown but also Bhimani and Hassam. At their trial, Anastasia and seven other women testified about being forced to sell sex at the Howard Johnson. Jurors learned that a dozen convicted traffickers, including Brown, had exploited women and sold drugs from the Bartonsville hotel between 2011 and 2019. Bhimani was convicted of aiding and abetting sex trafficking, as was Hassam’s company. (Hassam was personally convicted for drug trafficking.) “I mean, it was a safe haven for the traffickers,” Anastasia said. “It’s just too easy for them because no one does anything about it.”
Wyndham ended its relationship with Hassam’s company in 2020, the same year his case went to trial. Babin is now preparing to file a lawsuit against Wyndham on behalf of Anastasia. There had been a raft of negative customer reviews, and the local police had been dispatched to the hotel nearly a hundred and thirty times in the course of five years. In addition to those who had testified at trial, at least two dozen women who had been trafficked at the Howard Johnson were identified during the federal government’s investigation. “This was open and notorious,” a federal prosecutor said at Bhimani and Hassam’s trial. “This was obvious, and this was constant.”
The modern American hotel industry is built on franchising, and the popularity of the model can be tied, in part, to Howard Deering Johnson. In the nineteen-forties, Howard Johnson restaurants, or HoJos, became beloved throughout the Northeast for their fried clams, twenty-eight flavors of ice cream, and iconic orange roofs. To maintain consistency, Johnson distributed a “bible” to his franchisees that described, in exacting detail, the type of signage, décor, and staff uniforms to use, and how to prepare and serve food. In 1953, Johnson opened his first motor lodge, in Savannah, Georgia, which he positioned next to the restaurant. The idea was that road-trippers needed comfortable places to stay after finishing a meal. Within a decade, Howard Johnson had become one of the country’s largest motel chains.
Today, the so-called asset-light model of franchising allows brands to grow their reach with the added benefit of eliminating real-estate and overhead costs. “That’s where the money is,” Greg Hanis, a veteran hotel consultant, told me. “When I’m a franchiser, whether that franchisee is performing well or not, I get a royalty fee on those rooms that sell.”
Initially, franchisers provided detailed instructions—like those in Howard Johnson’s “bible”—on every aspect of a franchisee’s operation, including safety. This, in turn, opened up companies to lawsuits when employees or customers were hurt or harmed at a franchised property. In 1983, for example, a guest at a Chicago Travelodge was injured after jumping from a second-floor window to escape a burglar who had entered his room. The customer sued the franchiser, Travelodge International, arguing that prior inspections of the property had identified safety problems and its franchise agreement required properties to maintain a “clean, safe, and orderly operation.” As lawsuits mounted, franchisers learned to limit their liability by removing overt security requirements from agreements and operations manuals. Instead, corporate brands have come to focus their contracts and policies on maintaining material consistency. As a result, the type of coffee served in the lobby and the thickness of the towels in the bathroom are closely policed, but decisions regarding crime prevention are not.
Corporate brands are also careful to emphasize that franchisees are independently owned and operated—an arrangement that allows chains to argue they shouldn’t be held responsible for safety and security problems that emerge at a property they don’t directly oversee. (To further complicate questions around liability, some franchisees hire third-party management companies to run their hotels.) Although the practice doesn’t automatically insulate hotel brands from liability, it has formed the basis of viable defenses against lawsuits related to sexual assault, Americans with Disabilities Act violations, murder, and even repeated carbon-monoxide poisonings in a single hotel room.
Trafficking, though, has created a unique set of challenges for hotel companies. In the late two-thousands, Valerie Heinonen, a nun who worked for a socially responsible investing firm called Mercy Investment Services, began pushing hotel corporations like Wyndham, Marriott, and Hilton to sign a pledge to fight child sexual exploitation. In 2007, Wyndham, then known as Wyndham Worldwide, published its first Human Rights Policy Statement, which said that the company condemns the exploitation of children and “will cooperate with law enforcement authorities to address any such instances of exploitation of which the Company becomes aware.” The threat of a shareholder resolution on human trafficking by Mercy Investment Services also spurred Wyndham to adopt the United Nations Global Compact, which says that “businesses should make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses,” including when a company “benefits from human rights abuses even if it did not positively assist or cause them.”
Four years later, news broke that street gangs in San Diego were running an underage-sex-trafficking ring out of two Wyndham-branded hotels, a Howard Johnson and a Travelodge. The arrests inspired a Change.org petition demanding that Wyndham take a more proactive stance against the sexual exploitation of children. The company had previously resisted signing a six-point pledge called the Code, which was coördinated by the global anti-child-trafficking organization ecpat (now known as pact). The Code calls on businesses to express zero tolerance for sexual exploitation of children in their contracts and to provide anti-underage-trafficking training to employees. Scott McLester, Wyndham’s former general counsel and chief compliance officer, wrote in an e-mail to the company’s then C.E.O., Stephen Holmes, “Even though we have been hesitant to commit to everything the Code was asking for, the issue is not going away and it’s starting to impact commercial relationships.” McLester added that the organization’s “concern about being ‘bullied’ into signing the Code is outweighed by the relative harmlessness of the Code itself.”
In 2018, the same year that police arrived at Elizabeth’s hotel room in Marietta, Wyndham issued an updated Modern Slavery Statement, which described policies for addressing human trafficking at the small fraction of hotels it directly oversaw. Wyndham had already introduced training to aid employees in identifying human trafficking, made a third-party hotline available to help them report it, and created a process for escalating concerns. But, as the largest hotel franchiser in the world—at the time, it had nearly nine thousand hotels and twenty brands—the use of these resources was not a requirement for employees at more than ninety per cent of the properties bearing the company’s logos, such as the Days Inn where Savannah and Elizabeth had been trafficked.
In the past twenty years, Wyndham-branded properties have been mentioned in at least two hundred criminal trafficking cases filed by the federal government, according to data from the Human Trafficking Institute. (Wyndham declined multiple interview requests but said in a written statement that it condemns human trafficking and that it could not comment on past and current litigation.) In 2020, after more than a dozen civil trafficking lawsuits were filed against Wyndham, the company made some changes. In a recent Environmental, Social, and Governance Report, the hotel chain notes that it has created “enhanced policies and mandated training for all team members and independently owned and operated franchisees, to help identify and report trafficking activities.” General managers at franchised properties must now complete an hour of training at least once every two years, and certify that their staff has been trained. In the past few years, the rest of the hotel industry has similarly emphasized training for hotel employees, including those who work at franchisees. The American Hotel and Lodging Association Foundation partnered with ecpat-U.S.A. to create a “No Room for Trafficking” training program that has been taken more than eight hundred thousand times. Additionally, twelve states now require that hotel staffers receive human-trafficking training. Brad Bonnell, the head of security at Extended Stay America, said that, although training hotel staff is critical, the high turnover rate in the industry creates challenges: “You have to train and retrain and remind people.”
Although the industry has repeatedly pledged to take a stand against human trafficking and has donated hotel rooms and millions of dollars to support survivors, its business model discourages more proactive approaches. As of this year, according to a survey of disclosure documents from ten major franchisers, none had updated their agreements to cite even pervasive human trafficking as a clear basis for terminating a contract. “If you start to do something and do an incomplete job, you’re at greater risk than if you had done nothing at all,” Brian Cole, an attorney who specializes in franchise-law compliance, told me. “In more modern franchise relationships, the franchiser would try as hard as they can to stay away from issues like the human-trafficking law. There would be a general statement that the franchisee must comply with all laws but not anything more specific than that.” In other words, less precision means less liability.
As of 2022, ninety-eight per cent of Wyndham-branded properties are franchised, providing the company with more than $1.2 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, arrests for human trafficking continue at its hotels nationwide. In May, 2022, a man was arrested for allegedly forcing fifteen women to sell sex at a Days Inn and a Hawthorn Suites, another Wyndham brand, in Connecticut. (He was ultimately found guilty of promoting prostitution.) This past March, two people in Kentucky were charged with trafficking out of a Ramada Inn, also a part of Wyndham’s portfolio.
On August 12, 2020, almost two years after Elizabeth was arrested, she filed a lawsuit against the owners of the Marietta Days Inn, and the corporate chain Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and one of its subsidiaries, Days Inns Worldwide. Her attorneys discovered that, as early as March, 2017, Wyndham executives had been aware that the Days Inn in Marietta had chronic quality and safety issues. The problems were identified in a property inspection, about four months before the hotel was sold to Lincoln Hotels, L.L.C., a family-owned business. A Wyndham inspector found peeling paint on the roof, rust on the stairwell, and mildew in the bathrooms. The inspector attached pictures of worn furniture, stained ceiling tiles, and damaged carpet, and assigned the property a D quality-assurance score.
After Lincoln Hotels took over, guests reported to the company’s complaint line finding cockroaches in the rooms, blood on the towels, feces on the floor, and a dead mouse in the bathroom. Some relayed security issues, such as having a stranger walk into their room or someone banging on their door at 3 a.m. One customer complained that, shortly after checking in, he was solicited for sex. When he got to his room, all of the bedding had been thrown on the floor and there was an “ungodly smell.” “I doubt this is a corporately-owned property,” he wrote in a message to Wyndham, “as they would never let this property fall into such a mess.”
In every case, Wyndham received the guest complaint, monitored the response, and tried to placate disgruntled guests with Wyndham Rewards hotel points. If the hotel’s management didn’t resolve the problem within three days of being notified, Wyndham, per its franchise agreement, fined the franchisee, typically less than two hundred dollars. In at least one instance, a complaint about the poor state of the Days Inn in Marietta was sent directly to Geoff Ballotti, the C.E.O. of Wyndham Hotels. (These documents, along with e-mails and a deposition transcript, were filed under seal as part of Elizabeth’s case; I accessed them after they were briefly made public by an attorney in a related case.)
In March, 2018—five months before Savannah called the police—Wyndham and Days Inns Worldwide executives learned that teen girls had been forced to sell sex from another room at the property. After the news broke, Mary Wasshausen, a local director of operations and support at Wyndham, sent an e-mail to Patrick Breen, the president of Days Inns Worldwide, who was based at Wyndham’s headquarters, in Parsippany, New Jersey. She included a link to an article with the headline “14-year-old among girls saved from motel prostitution ring, police say.”
Breen had already reached out to Bukhari Khan, one of the hotel’s owners. “I read about the arrest that took place at your hotel,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This story is very disturbing to me; I am also concerned that this type of activity, along with drug activity, has allegedly happened at your hotel prior to this most recent event.” Breen encouraged Khan to work more closely with local law enforcement and to let him know, in writing, what the hotel planned to do about its issues. “This is not only a problem for your hotel but also the Days Inn brand,” Breen wrote.
At the time, franchisees were not required to take the online training that Wyndham had made available to help employees respond to human trafficking. In his reply to Breen, Khan said that he was developing relationships with local police and looking into hiring security for the hotel. It’s unclear if Khan took any of these measures. The local police department told me that Khan and the hotel’s management didn’t coöperate with them, and frequently gave excuses about why they couldn’t turn over security-camera footage.
After the raid on Room 211, in August, 2018, Breen again e-mailed Khan to notify him of a “PR issue.” Wyndham’s customer-care department had flagged news articles about the arrests, and Breen asked Khan to tell him what steps he was taking to prevent this from happening again. Khan assured Breen by e-mail that he and his staff “keep our eyes out for shady guests” but wrote that “some people carry out their business silently and its tough, impossible even, for us to crack down on them—until its too late.” He promised to be “even more vigilant.” The next day, Breen sent a one-line e-mail: “BK, thank you for your prompt response. We appreciate your vigilance on this serious matter.”
By then, the offices of the Georgia attorney general and the local district attorney had asked Wyndham to facilitate a conversation between law enforcement and the Days Inn owner. One official who was part of this conversation said that the company’s executives were “refreshingly” responsive. Afterward, Marcus A. Banks, a senior vice-president of litigation, employment law, and government relations at Wyndham, wrote to Khan to notify him of the development. He suggested that Khan consider increasing security and training, and to contact prosecutors if he suspected trafficking was taking place. Banks emphasized in the letter that both Wyndham and Days Inns Worldwide took trafficking seriously and had actively supported anti-trafficking organizations. “Please also be reminded that you are responsible for the operations and legal matters at the Facility,” Banks wrote, adding that Wyndham could pull the franchise agreement if Khan didn’t maintain the “good will of the Days Inn brand.”
A couple of weeks later, Breen sent Khan another e-mail to offer “two support points for you to consider.” Breen pointed the hotel owner to an anti-trafficking training program provided through ecpat, which was available on Wyndham’s online portal. Breen also passed along the cell-phone number of a detective at the local police department and a contact at the district attorney’s office. “We appreciate your concern over and attention to addressing this issue as we discussed,” Breen wrote to Khan.
When I reached Khan by phone, he told me that Wyndham hadn’t offered much guidance: “I received little to no support from Wyndham when all of this went down except for e-mails in my in-box jumping on my back, asking why is this happening at your hotel?”
More than two years later, Breen was deposed by videoconference for Elizabeth’s lawsuit. Near the end of the session, which lasted more than seven hours, Elizabeth’s lawyer pressed Breen on what action he had taken after the first sex-trafficking arrest at the Marietta Days Inn, in March, 2018. Why had he waited until after the second incident to suggest that Khan take the anti-trafficking training that Wyndham had been publicly touting for years? “I did not think about the training,” he said. “Personally, I wish I would have done more.”
Elizabeth’s attorney also pushed for an answer to why neither Wyndham nor Days Inns Worldwide had tried to end its relationship with the Georgia franchisee, given its D quality-assurance rating, a ream of customer complaints, and two arrests for child sex trafficking in less than six months. “So the D score, again, that’s a passing score,” Breen replied. “The customer-care complaints are concerning, but by themselves aren’t a reason to terminate a hotel. The human sex trafficking is a concern. But I can’t answer the question as to when or why it hasn’t been terminated.”
Elizabeth’s attorney asked if he personally thought that the franchise agreement should be terminated. “I’d want to know what else a hotel owner was doing to address the situation, working with local law enforcement, if the problem continued,” Breen said.
When asked to clarify what he meant by “if the problem continued,” Breen said, “Well, I’m only aware of two instances, two that have been reported. I don’t know—I don’t have any other personal knowledge of this hotel.”
Savannah, the fifteen-year-old who met Gunna in the stairwell of the Marietta Days Inn, filed a lawsuit against Wyndham and the Days Inn at the same time that Elizabeth did. On March 24, 2021, a couple months before her eighteenth birthday, she was in the passenger seat of a car that was involved in a high-speed police chase in Phenix City, Alabama, just across the Georgia border. The driver was twenty-six and had an outstanding warrant for simple battery. When a patrol car attempted a traffic stop, he accelerated. The car darted over a median and crashed into a utility pole. The driver was hospitalized but survived. Savannah died at the scene.
Savannah had grown up poor, under her grandmother’s care, first in rural Arkansas and then in a small house with a dirt driveway outside of Atlanta. Her mother wasn’t around much; there’s no father listed on her birth certificate. The case against Wyndham was still pending at the time of her death, and there was no money for a funeral. Her grandmother started a GoFundMe page that included a tribute to Savannah. “Cuss like a sailer one minute, then the next, had her head in my lap telling me she loved me!” her grandmother wrote. “She’s left a hole that cannot be filled.” (In January, 2022, Wyndham settled its case with Savannah’s family for an undisclosed sum.)
Elizabeth was once again using meth and selling sex when she learned from her lawyer that Savannah had died. After she left the group home, she had moved to a hotel where she met someone a few doors down who got her addicted to meth again. In the summer of 2019, she moved to Texas, where her mother lived. To pay for drugs, she began seeing clients at a dodgy hotel in Houston. She started dating an older man. Soon, he was helping her score meth, keeping all of her money, and physically abusing her. He only brought her food—usually a Big Mac—every few days. One night in late winter, as Elizabeth prepared for the arrival of a client, she dabbed concealer on her face to cover up her bruises. Years of violence, drugs, and near-starvation had turned her fine features and high cheekbones into a coarse and swollen mass. “I just decided then and there, This is enough,” she said. “I was tired of getting beat up, and I was tired of being sexualized.”
It took weeks to escape her pimp. A friend who was visiting from Atlanta gave her a plausible excuse not to see clients, and a regular customer shuttled her and her pitbull, Stella, away in his Cadillac S.U.V. Elizabeth returned to Georgia and, in July, 2021, gave a deposition at her lawyer’s office in an Atlanta suburb. As she put it, the deposition was, in part, a chance to deliver a message to the hotel industry. She also felt a sense of responsibility to Savannah. “Once I found out Savannah died, I also wanted to speak for her, too, because she couldn’t speak for herself,” Elizabeth said. “And it felt good to put that out there that, like, she was there. We existed.”
In August, 2021, a few months after Breen’s deposition, Bukhari Khan and Lincoln Hotels sold the property to a new owner. Two weeks later, Wyndham filed a lawsuit against Lincoln Hotels and its owners, for failing to indemnify the corporation and for not paying the company’s legal expenses, which they estimated at $1.5 million. (That case has since been resolved.) Elizabeth’s case was settled when Savannah’s was, in January, 2022. By then, Elizabeth had found out that she was pregnant.
The father didn’t want her to keep the baby and stopped responding to Elizabeth’s messages four months into her pregnancy. But Elizabeth had always wanted kids. When I knocked on her door earlier this year, her nine-month-old son was fussing in his playpen. Her house, paid for in cash with settlement money, was off a main road, hidden by a stand of trees, down a long dirt-and-gravel road. It looked like an avant-garde school building, with a cherry-red door, gray vinyl siding, and a tiered, gabled roof.
I’d come unannounced, but Elizabeth, who is now twenty-two, seemed unfazed. We sat and talked in folding chairs on her front porch. She vaped and bounced her son, whom she’d wrapped in a thick blanket, on her lap. Law enforcement and social-service providers often say that one of the challenges in addressing trafficking is that victims have been coerced and manipulated to the point that they don’t see themselves as having been exploited. Elizabeth was in the process of confronting a lifetime of damage and dysfunction, and learning not to judge herself for what she’d done to survive. “I sat down in the middle of the worst days of my life, and I manifested this life for myself,” she said.
Elizabeth had dreamed of having her own place since she was a kid—it was one of the ambitions that multiple traffickers had exploited to pull her into prostitution, by promising her that she would be able to afford one. Her sister, who is a senior in high school, lives with her in the house; her mom lives in an R.V. on the property. On weekends, Elizabeth plans family activities, such as trips with her son to a nearby park. She’s still adjusting to her new life. “It didn’t come with the perfect family and the white fence,” she said. “It came with a gravel driveway. It has its bumps, and it has its flaws. But it’s, in its own way, beautifully perfect.”
When we met for lunch a few days later, at a Southern-food buffet in a strip mall, she wore a hooded sweatshirt, with her hair pulled back and no makeup. As we ate fried chicken and mac-and-cheese from Styrofoam containers, she told me that downplaying her appearance was part of a conscious choice to reject her past life. “I can’t be vain anymore,” she said. “I have literally humbled myself to stop doing what I did.” In therapy, she has talked through her trauma, and worked to build a new sense of self-worth. “When you’re not, you know, selling your soul anymore, who likes you?” she said. “That’s when you have to sit down and love yourself.” ♦
This article is part of Trafficking Inc., a reporting collaboration involving the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners in multiple countries. It was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.