An 18-year-old Houston girl lured into the shady underworld of sex trafficking has launched a sweeping civil lawsuit in Harris County that’s among the first in the country to accuse prominent hotel chains, well-known trucks stops and a ubiquitous website of profiting from illegal exploitation of a minor.
The suit, filed in Harris County court, seeks damages from 15 hotel chains and five truck stops, including Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Choice Hotels International, Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores, TravelCenters of America and the company that operates the Flying J truckstops.
The Backpage.com website and its CEO, Carl Ferrer, who have been named in a variety of legal actions nationally, are also defendants in the lawsuit.
Houston attorney Annie McAdams said the disregard for her client was egregious. Hotels and truck stops would take the reservations and then do nothing when a series of men visited a room occupied by a teenage girl, she said.
“When you have 40 to 50 johns in one night visiting one room and it’s not prevented or stopped, somebody should be held accountable,” she said.
Hyatt Hotels and Choice Hotels did not respond to requests for comment. Attorneys for Backpage.com and Ferrer did not return calls.
Kealey Dorian, a representative for Love’s, said officials had not had time to review the lawsuit.
The Houston girl was living at home with her parents when she was lured into the sex trade by a pimp who was ultimately convicted on criminal charges.
Houston police rescued her from a hotel on the eastern end of Houston in a dramatic undercover operation. She told law enforcement she was drugged and would wake up after having been assaulted by multiple men.
“It’s unspeakable,” McAdams said. “It’s the worst type of abuse you could imagine.”
The girl was born and raised in Houston, she said.
“She’s not somebody you would have expected to have been sucked into this,” she said.
The lawyer said her client, identified in the suit only as Jane Doe #1, is not alone. More than 300,000 people in Texas have fallen victim to human trafficking, including nearly 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking, according to a study last year by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin.
“This is not people from other countries,” McAdams said. “This is right here. Our children in Houston are being affected by this.”
The suit filed Tuesday cites a provision of the civil practice and remedies code called Chapter 98, based on a 2009 law brought by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, which states that the people can hold businesses liable if they knowingly profit by participating in a venture that involves human trafficking.
Advertisers seeking to evade law enforcement on Backpage.com use an evolving set of coded phrases, images and emojis to convey that the person the customer will be meeting is “young,” “fresh” or “new,” according to Ann Johnson, a former chief Harris County prosecutor over human trafficking who now supports victims though private practice.
McAdams said Backpage.com was well-aware of the coded language, even though filters had been set up to omit words such as “Lolita,” “little girl,” “Amber alert” and “rape” from ad submissions before they were screened by a moderator.
The aim of the lawsuit it to cut off this secret method of communication between pimps and potential customers, she said.
Johnson said the lawsuit could carve a path for other victims.
“It is rare that you see a civil prosecution on behalf of a victim against those individuals who have profited off it, not just the immediate nucleus of the pimp and the john,” she said. “Human trafficking is prevalent in Houston. Guys know if they want sex there are plenty of places they can go, but this lawsuit is an opportunity to shut down those locations.”