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Authorities Look To San Diego Hotels For Help In Fight Against Sex Trafficking

Reported by Matthew Bowler

Authorities Look To San Diego Hotels For Help In Fight Against Sex Trafficking


Vipul Dayal, director at large, Asian American Hotel Owners Association


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.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Tiffany Mester talks about her experience as a sex trafficking victim, October 31, 2016.

“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.


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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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