Authorities Look To San Diego Hotels For Help In Fight Against Sex Trafficking
This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh pick up girls as young as 13 and sometimes boys are bought and sold for sex every day in San Diego County. One study found that sex trafficking here brought an over $800 million. Authorities want to eradicate that business and they believe hotels can help. KPBS investigated reporter brings you the story and a warning that some of what you hear may be disturbing. Tiffany Mester calls hotels the epicenter of the sex trafficking industry. You can sit in a hotel room post ads Johns come to your door. At the hotel services the front door of the business. Reporter: when her boyfriend sold her at 14 to men she spent every night for three months and one hotel in San Diego. I was desperate for somebody to notice that I was with older men and to notice that it was out of place. To notice that I looked alone and afraid and one of those key people that could have noticed that are the people that were working at the little dumpy hotel we were staying at just to see that something was not right. My soul screamed it out. Reporter: law enforcement is noticing what hotels are and are not doing in the face of all these human trafficking. Authorities are now pushing training for hotel staff on how to spot and respond to signs of trafficking. We see the really good owners who really do not want this there and they understand that this is not a crime of choice but crime of exploitation and then he will have the other extreme which are really criminally -- criminally and legally responsible. Reporter: chief District Attorney Sommer Stefan said these are the cases were hotels not only no girls are being sold on your property they are complicit. One hotel charged higher rates for the illicit activity and even set aside certain rooms away from normal customers. The 27-year-old Mester who now speaks publicly about trafficking recalls other blatant markers that hotels knew the score when she was trafficked 11 years ago. It is so seedy and gross. There are places that rent to you for an hour and those places have to know what is going on. Reporter: the prosecutor says the harder cases are when it's clear that hotels know because of repeated trafficking activity but there is no direct evidence. She appeals to these hotels by explaining the violence that company is trafficking. Some of the men who buy what they claim to be consensual sex are actually rapists and sadists. She tells of one case where a man greeted a trafficking victim in a hotel room with a wrench. The sex trafficking in -- industry will not diminish without the help of the hundreds of high-end low-end hotels and motels in the region. It is happening everywhere. You absolutely need the insiders the hotel motel staff the housekeeping the clerical and security to be the eyes and ears. Reporter: Vipul Dayal saw and heard a lot growing up as a boy at his father's hotel in Texas. 90% of our business was prostitution. Reporter: he says at the time he did not question what he saw. As a 12 or 13-year-old I thought that was the way it was that it was a business. His Indian immigrant father did -- eventually question himself and did not like the answers. As soon as he realized that this was not the way that he wanted to do business we sold that hotel and had nothing to do with it and never ever dealt with that kind of business again. Reporter: today he uses his platform as director at large for the ages American test the Asian American hotel owners Association to train their staff on trafficking detection and reporting. Hotel owners especially from Indian descent do not want bad karma. Reporter: typically not every hotel in a care center for their employees likely making minimum wage the choice to report trafficking may be a tough on. She is however helpful. Maybe they will make a phone call or trying to be extra nice and show that girl that she is valuable and special. KPBS news. And now Vipul Dayal joins me. Welcome to the program. Think you for having me. You estimate 90% of the business at your hotels -- your families hotel was from prostitution. What about now? You have about nine hotels in a family. That was in reference to the 1980s. We happen to have a motel -- one motel there that on that Street was probably the number one prostitution Street in the city of Dallas. Fast forward to now we have nine hotels that are limited service hotels. They are all higher end than what we started off with. Can you ever get down to zero? What would you say -- how much of that still goes on do you think? Not necessarily in the hotels that we own now because there is so much awareness. There is the franchisee and the franchisor.'s I think in reality it still happens and the truth of it is that we found out that it happens in some of the big hotels as well as the little guys so it is equal opportunity. My job in San Diego was to create awareness within the smaller hotel chains so that is what we have been doing. How are hotel and motel staff trained to spot sex trafficking? The DAs office along with the motel Association created this program where we combined two programs into one between all levels of hotel staff the front desk the main housekeeping they all have different sorts of keys to look for human trafficking. So the hotel signs up in the website and once they do that they do this training which will level the departments and after 70% of the staff completes the training the hotel look at certificates and that they completed the training that they will put up in a hotel. Even one hotel and motel staff spot sex trafficking what can I do about it. That's a very good question. The problem we had back in the days as you alert the police and they were already so swamped that sometimes they would just let it go. Sometimes they would act on it but now what we have done is created a hotline. This hotline is specifically geared to federal information. If they do find out that there is human trafficking going on that can alert the police and a special task force that they have assigned just for that. I hotel workers but in a jobs on the line by using those kinds of hotlines especially management is not upset at the amount of sex trafficking that is going on in the hotel. Not necessarily. When you call it is anonymous. You do not have to give your name or number but we want to encourage that sort of stuff. Trafficking is almost like modern-day slavery. To me it is more of a moral issue. So I train all my staff. The DAs office is in board. She told me that they have never prosecuted anybody for reporting this kind of stuff they are more trying to find it instead of prosecuting the people that are trying to help the situation. In your hotels you post signs that indicate that sex trafficking is not allowed. Do you think that has been a deterrent having a sign posted up for people. I think that is a huge deterrent. One -- once the traffickers see that they already know that people are aware and are looking for science and the has been some sort of training going on but I don't want to get caught. They want to go to the hotel and they don't care and I'll just take you many. They would rather do that. That sign is huge. We do it for several things. What about those hotels and motels whose management sort of depend on the revenue that they get from the sex trafficking business going on inside their establishments. What do you say to them? There is a fine line between them. I have experienced both sides of it and I think now the future that you will see with everybody on board the franchisor's and the franchisees and the city are creating their own programs and the states are creating their own programs I think you have to lean toward more morally to do the right thing and not necessarily look for money. If you are in that kind of business you need to get out of it. That is what the messages and just do the right thing. What kind of criminal liability to the owners of hotels and motels have potentially if they are aware of sex trafficking going on in their establishments and they do not do anything about it. If they are aware and they do not do anything about it they will be prosecuted. For example there was a motel in Oceanside where they -- the manager knew about prostitution that was going on he would specifically give the room in the back where the people could keep track of it. If police would come they would actually alert the person. Those guys got hit really hard by the federal government. The FBI came in and did a six month sting and they totally got them. Those kinds of messages that we want to send to them. A lot of people are not aware there -- they think that they can keep doing it nothing will happen but things are happening. Finally we heard from Tiffany Mester who said that she would be so happy if someone had helped her when she was being trafficked or even showed her some kindness in those days. Do you hear from hotel workers that they feel sorry for these girls that they try to help them? That is one of the things that I want to teach to my staff is out there is a human element. It is more of a victim-based program. Not only are we trying to prosecute the people that are doing this but we are also trying to help the victim. We teamed up with churches and social organizations here in San Diego so once we identify the victim there are things in place. We can take care of them for a couple days and give them some education and vocational training. It is more of a comprehensive training in San Diego. I have been speaking with Vipul Dayal director at large for the Asian American hand -- hotel Association in San Diego. Thank you very much.
Tiffany Mester calls hotels the epicenter of the sex trafficking industry.
“You can sit in a hotel room, post ads and Johns come to your door," she said. "Hotels serve as the front door of the business."
When Mester’s boyfriend-turned-pimp sold her at age 14 to men, she spent every night for three months at one hotel in San Diego.
“My soul screamed out," Mester said. "I was desperate for someone to notice that I was with older men, to notice that I was out of place, to notice that I looked alone and afraid and one of those key people that could have noticed...are the people that were working at the little, dumpy hotel we were staying at."
Law enforcement is noticing what hotels are and are not doing in the face of obvious sex trafficking. A study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University estimated that the illicit sex economy in 2013 in the county was $810 million. Authorities want to squash that business and believe hotels can help them by ensuring their staff are trained in how to detect and respond to signs of trafficking.
“We see the really good owners who really don’t want this there and they understand that this isn’t a crime of choice but a crime of exploitation,” said San Diego County Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan. “And then you have the other extreme which is really criminally and legally responsible.”
Stephan said when hotels know girls are being sold on their property, they are complicit. One hotel in Oceanside charged higher rates for the illicit activity and even set aside certain rooms away from normal customers.
The 27-year-old Mester, who now speaks publicly about trafficking, recalled other blatant markers that hotels knew the score when she was trafficked 11 years ago.
“It’s so seedy,” she said. “It’s so gross. There are places that rent to you for an hour. Without a shadow of a doubt, they have to know why someone is renting a hotel room for an hour."
But Prosecutor Stephan said even when it’s clear that hotels know because of repeated trafficking activity, little can be done if there’s no direct evidence. Part of her appeal to hotels includes a talk on the violence that can accompany trafficking. Stephan said some of the men who buy what they claim to be consensual sex are actually rapists and sadists. She told the case of one man who greeted a trafficking victim in a hotel room with a wrench.
"And he took the wrench to her face,” Stephan said. “He knocked out her teeth, disfigured her. So of course that shut down the hotel. That brought the police. It disturbed all of the business for that hotel.”
Stephan said the sex trafficking industry won’t diminish without the help of the hundreds of high-end and low-end hotels and motels in the region.
“You absolutely need the insiders, the hotel-motel staff, the housekeeping, the clerical, the security to be the eyes and ears,” she said.
Vipul Dayal said he saw and heard a lot as a boy in his father’s hotel.
“I grew up in a 24-unit motel in Dallas, Texas and probably 90 percent of our business was prostitution,” he said. “At 12 years old, I was cleaning up needles in my parking lot, cleaning up bloody sheets, cleaning up a trash can full of condoms, dirty rags.”
Dayal said at the time he didn’t question what he saw.
“I just thought that was the way it was,” he said. “It was a business.”
But Dayal said his Indian immigrant father did eventually question himself and didn’t like the answers.
“As soon as he realized, within a couple of years, that this is not the way he wanted to do business, we sold that hotel and we never ever dealt with that kind of business again,” Dayal said.
But Dayal hasn’t forgotten what he saw as a child. He said the girls whom he thought were prostitutes were actually victims with no choice, no way out. Today, he said he uses his platform as director at large for the Asian American Hotel Owners Association to convince hotels to train their staff on spotting and reporting trafficking.
He said it’s an easy sell.
“As hotel owners, especially from the Indian descent, we don’t want bad karma," Dayal said. "We don’t want money we got illegally."
But Tiffany Mester believes it will take a “mind switch” for hotel owners to choose compassion over business. And for their employees — many of whom make minimum wage — the choice to report trafficking may not be so easy. Mester, is however, hopeful.
“Maybe they’ll make a phone call and maybe they’ll try to be extra nice and show that girl that she’s special and valuable," Mester said.