Hotel staff on the front lines of sex trafficking fight

It's all thanks Seattle woman who's on a mission to train them.

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PUYALLUP, Wash. — It seemed no different than most Tuesday mornings at the Puyallup Fairfield Inn & Suites — until Angela Martinez towed her supply cart closer to the corner room at the end of the sixth-floor hallway.

Something felt off about room 601.

"There were people — a lot of traffic up and down the hall, which is kind of abnormal," she said.

Earlier, the then 30-year-old room attendant got a good look at the people who checked in. Two men followed a teenage girl into that queen double room, carrying a laundry basket full of clothes instead of luggage.

The men who checked in with her didn't stay for long, though. They waited on the front steps of the hotel as much older men — in their 50s and 60s — came to visit the girl for an hour at a time.

"That kind of triggered a few things — that this isn't right,” Martinez said.

Photo: A hotel security camera shows two men follow the girl into her hotel room in October 2014 at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Puyallup.

Martinez could hear conversations through the door. One of the visitors asked the girl for a discount on oral sex. But it clearly wasn't the girl's money to keep.  The room attendant was sure of it, she said, because the man who carried the laundry basket at check-in came back to the room between each visit to collect the teenage girl's cash.

In between visits, Martinez offered the girl fresh towels. It was her only real chance to ask her: “Are you OK?"

"She had a sense about her that said 'help me' without shouting 'help me,’” she said.

Had it been the year before, Martinez wouldn't have thought twice about the unusual scene. She wouldn't have picked up on the girl's nonverbal cues.  She wouldn't have asked her boss, Chuck Valley, to call the police.

Even Valley used to turn a blind eye to prostitution in hotels. Years ago, many in the lodging industry didn't know what sex trafficking looked like.

WATCH: 'I Think We Have A Trafficking Situation Going On' (Part 1) 

“(Prostitution) was laughable (in the hotel industry)," Valley, the hotel's former general manager, said. "We (always) joked about the person being in the room for a couple hours, and it was like 'Oh, there's that guy again.'"

The pair owes their change in heart and swift actions to Mar Brettmann, a Seattle woman who's on a mission to teach managers and employees in Washington's lodging industry that sex trafficking doesn't always look like a hostage scene from Hollywood.

Often, it looks like prostitution. 

"Half the people who walk into our training think that prostitution is a victimless crime," said Brettmann, the founder of Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking (BEST).

"We try to take the blinders off so that they understand that the majority of people in prostitution do not want to be in prostitution -- that a lot of people in prostitution were trafficked into prostitution and may currently be trafficked... or they may currently be underage."

Hotel Training A Key To Trafficking Prevention  

Since 2012, Brettmann's organization has trained Valley, Martinez and staff from over 170 companies on how to spot potential trafficking situations and prevent it in their workplaces. Most who attend her 45 minute to two-hour long training sessions work in the hotel industry. It's where sex buyers, pimps and traffickers most often commit their crimes.

Sixty-three percent of King County's sex trafficking-related cases between 2008 and 2012 took place in hotels, according to a study led by Brettmann's team.

Photo: Mar Brettmann leads a training at a Washington Hospitality Summit in Tacoma on June 12, 2017.

"It wasn't just the motels up on Aurora (Avenue), which is where people often think it's happening. It was the hotels -- like three, four, five-star hotels in downtown Seattle and in Bellevue," Brettmann said. "It was little motels out in a small town, a nice business hotel in a suburb. We were finding sex trafficking just across the board."

Under federal law, sex trafficking is "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for a commercial sex act." It's considered a federal crime when the sex act is motivated by force, fraud or coercion, or if the person working in prostitution is under 18.

RELATED: Local resources for sex trafficking victims, prostitution survivors

But it's hard for ordinary people to spot sex trafficking if they're not aware of the signs. Experts say that's because many survivors of prostitution never self-identify as sex trafficking victims, even though their pimps can become their traffickers. They often form trauma bonds with their exploiters, and that leads them to misunderstand their own exploitation. 

RELATED: Unshackled: A prostitute's journey to freedom 

"This is what I hear (from employees): 'I had this red flag that something was going on, and I didn't follow up on it," Brettmann said.  "But when you have that kind of red flag go off in your mind, just stopping and thinking 'What's happening here? You know, should I call law enforcement? Should I ask for intervention? Should I just ask this person 'Hey, do you need help?'" 

WATCH: The Signs Of Possible Sex Trafficking In Hotels

Stigma is one of the biggest hurdles Brettmann faces in her nationwide fight against trafficking. Not all managers are willing to attend the training or acknowledge that sex trafficking might be happening in their business.

"Nobody wants people to know that this happens in their hotel," she said. "There was a fear when we started working with the hotel industry that if the hotel industry took this on, that would mean that our community somehow had more of a problem than other communities.... but it wasn't that we had more of a problem. We were just acknowledging it."

Even so, the people who attend the class are putting their new lessons to work.

University of Washington researchers who evaluated the program in 2014 found that in the year before the training, only eight percent of participating hoteliers had identified one to five sex trafficking cases.  But after the training, in May 2014, that number jumped to 44 percent.

 "(It) helped us focus on the victim -- the girl that was in the room -- not the guy that checked in at the front desk or the people that we saw going up to the room," Valley, the former Puyallup hotel manager, said.

'She Was Stuck In Something'

After police finished up in room 601, Martinez sorted through the girl's belongings.

She remembers the drug paraphernalia on the nightstand; the sexy outfits and stilettos in that laundry basket. But what sticks out the most are the spiral notebooks. There were four of them, all full of phone numbers, appointment times, addresses -- from Seattle to Portland --and hundreds of customer names.

WATCH: 'I Think Have A Trafficking Situation Going On' (Part 2)

"When you finally realize what's going on, to see something like that... it just stops you," said Martinez, who is no longer a room attendant at the hotel. "It makes you realize that no matter where you go, this is happening."

Police had arrested the girl's suspected pimp, but they didn't have enough evidence to arrest him on a promoting prostitution or trafficking charge.  Instead, they arrested him on drug-related charges for an incident at a nearby hotel.

"When we're dealing with the girl that's stuck in that situation and the 'bad guy' so to speak, we don't always get that cooperation from the victim -- the girl that is stuck in sex trafficking. That's hard sometimes," said Capt. Scott Engle, a Puyallup public information officer. "They have a reason why they don't want to cooperate: their safety."

Valley, the hotel manager at the time, walked outside and offered to help the girl. She was sitting by herself on the hotel's front steps; her head down, with the hood of her sweatshirt draped over her face.

"When she looked up, I saw sadness. I just saw like despair and kind of a hollowness to her eyes that she was stuck in something," he said.

"She said there was no one we could call and nothing we could do."

Valley walked inside to grab the girl's personal items. But when he walked back outside to give them to her, the girl was gone.

He didn't even know her name.

But several weeks later, he received a phone call.

It was the girl's mother. 

"She said 'thank you for rescuing my daughter," Valley said.

"I just said,  'You're welcome. It's something we all need to be doing.'"

KING 5's Taylor Mirfendereski and Lori Matsukawa reports. None

 

If You Need Help 

The national hotline for human trafficking victims is 888-373-7888. Call this number to report a tip or to request services.

We've also compiled a list of Washington groups that provide support to prostitution survivors and sex trafficking victims as they recover from their experiences.

About This Story 

This story is affiliated with Selling Girls, a nine-month nationwide investigation into sex trafficking. TEGNA, our parent company, launched the project at each of our 46 stations across the country to help hundreds of thousands of American kids who are lured into a life they didn't choose. To watch the six-part series and to follow KING 5's ongoing local coverage of sex trafficking in Washington state, click this link

Contact The Reporter 

Taylor Mirfendereski is a multimedia journalist, who focuses on in-depth reports for KING 5's digital platforms. Follow her on Twitter @TaylorMirf and like her on Facebook to keep up with her work. For story ideas, e-mail her at tmirfendereski@king5.com.

 

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