First of four parts.
The assault spilled into the fifth-floor hallway of the Plaza Hotel on State Road 7 in Fort Lauderdale.
Angry that a 17-year-old girl refused to turn over the full $200 take from two sexual encounters with men, Damion Miller allegedly struck her and choked her. She fled the room and ran down the hallway screaming for help as other hotel guests called 911.
Miller, who had been paying the girl with drugs, would be arrested a week later at another Fort Lauderdale hotel, plead no-contest to sex trafficking and receive a five-year prison sentence. The Plaza Hotel would be cited four times in the next three years for violating a 2019 state law intended to fight sex trafficking at hotels.
More than 14,000 such citations have been issued to 6,669 hotels and other public lodging establishments for violating the law, which requires employees to be trained to recognize and report trafficking for sex or forced labor. Violators are subject to fines of up to $2,000 a day.
But the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has not issued a single fine, even though more than 100 hotels and other lodging establishments have racked up at least six violations each, the South Florida Sun Sentinel has found.
State Sen. Lauren Book, who sponsored the original legislation, said she was surprised to learn of the lack of fines and that she planned to introduce a bill in the coming legislative session to require fines for repeat violators.
Anyone checking in for the night could notice the signs — an exit door propped open so clients can come and go, frequent male visitors to one room, a scared-looking girl walking down a hallway between “dates.”
Sex trafficking involves forced sex work and applies to only some of the women being paid for sex in Florida hotel rooms. Many, if not most, are independent, engaged in the trade voluntarily and sharing the proceeds with no one.
But traffickers are also at work, exploiting minors, as well as adults who are threatened with violence or dependent on the trafficker for drugs. And by any definition, it’s clear the sex trade is thriving in Florida’s hotels, which represent a uniquely powerful industry in a state that depends on tourism.
Operating at a sophisticated level was an organization run by a South Florida couple that used Priceline.com to pay for 3,276 hotel bookings around the United States and required “employees” to light candles, practice excellent hygiene and remember “your clients are paying for a fantasy.”
At the low end was the experience of a woman trafficked out of a Holiday Inn and an Extended Stay in West Palm Beach, who relied on breakfast buffets for an entire day’s nutrition since the trafficker “paid” her only in crack cocaine. When she said she was hungry, he asked her, “What do you need food for? You ate yesterday.”
The 2019 Florida law was meant to crack down on activities like this by requiring hotels to take modest steps to restrict the sex trade, under the threat of $2,000 daily fines for violations.
But the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation says there has been no reason to fine hotels so far because all violations had been corrected within the 90-day window provided for in the law.
Trafficking victims and their advocates, some of whom traveled to Tallahassee to testify about the hotel industry’s role, say they’re disappointed at the lack of fines on businesses that profited from their suffering.
“I was just appalled,” said Linsey Ruth, who had testified about spending eight weeks trapped in a hotel room while being sold for sex. “All they have to do is follow the law. These people are breaking it. They are fineable, and nobody’s following through on anything. That’s been the problem the whole time.”
When it comes to the sex trade, forget the image of the dilapidated motel with a blinking neon sign that’s missing a letter.
Trafficking takes place at hotels of every kind, from budget motels off Interstate 95 to beachfront resorts.
“Hotels are the main location for trafficking or for commercial sex dates,” said Brent Woody, a Tarpon Springs lawyer who helps trafficking victims clear their criminal records and take other steps to restore their lives. “We’ve represented a lot of survivors out of the Orlando area, and I can’t go to Orlando and drive past a hotel that one of our clients hasn’t been trafficked out of or in. That includes all the big places.”
Brandon Martin and Tameko Lindo, of Boca Raton, were sentenced last summer on money laundering charges in connection with running a prostitution ring using Priceline.com.
Their escorts, required to see up to seven clients a day, traveled with “multiple outfits and lingerie (stockings, fishnets, heels, garters, bikini, nurse outfits, schoolgirl outfits, dresses, yoga pants, miniskirts, jeans etc.),” according to the operation’s written guidelines quoted by prosecutors in court papers. At the hotel, they were required to light at least three candles and make sure there were fresh towels.
“The defendants operated a sophisticated escort network that facilitated illegal prostitution all over the country,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing letter to the judge. “…They placed women in vulnerable situations, all while they sat in the safety of their Florida home.”
The court papers don’t make any claims that they used violence or coercion, and neither received a heavy sentence. Both pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy. Martin, who was considered the boss, received four months of house arrest and two years probation. Lindo received a year’s probation.
When the Florida Legislature took up the issue of sex trafficking in hotels, young victims provided stark testimony about the horrors they experienced at name-brand hotels that travelers might find among the fast-food restaurants, gas stations and strip malls of any major commercial street.
“There was one time I was left in the room after being sold to several men,” Savannah Parvu told a state Senate committee in 2018. “I didn’t have any shoes. I had marks all over me. I was crying, and the hotel staff came in and told me that my friend, who was really my trafficker, called and told me that I needed to walk home. I was walking barefoot, bloody, beaten and alone at 12 years old, down the hallway of a hotel, and no one helped me, no one asked questions, nobody asked if I needed anything.”
The hotel industry helped kill the proposal she advocated, which would have made it easier for victims to sue hotels where they had been trafficked.
But the next year, the state Legislature passed the anti-trafficking law that required action from hotels and motels, including:
- Putting up posters in English, Spanish and any other language appropriate to the area urging anyone with information or a need for help to call the National Human Trafficking Rescue Center at 888-373-7888 or to text INFO or HELP to 233-733.
- Providing annual training on human trafficking awareness to employees at the front desk and for housekeepers.
- Implementing a procedure for reporting suspected trafficking.
The law also imposed restrictions and training standards on massage businesses, required training for medical professionals, set up a support organization for trafficking survivors and established a registry of convicted johns and pimps.
“Florida has zero tolerance for human trafficking and those who allow it to thrive in the shadows,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said on signing the bill.
“This law sends a powerful message to traffickers and pimps: the State of Florida is CLOSED for business,” state Sen. Lauren Book, one of the bill’s sponsors, said at the time. “When we curb the demand for the illegal sale and purchase of sex, we also curb the profitability of human trafficking — and take a stand against the enslavement of men, women and children in communities across our state.”
But Florida was not closed for business to traffickers and pimps. Although the state’s inspectors issued 14,279 citations, as of Sept. 20, 2022, they issued no fines, and the sex business continued to flourish at Florida hotels. Web sites continued to cater to sex trade customers, sometimes naming the hotel or listing its address.
At room 212 of Quality Inn & Suites of Hollywood, a mustard-colored hotel that wraps around a pool, the door is opened by a woman with long auburn hair, a short pink robe and black fishnet stockings.
At first she starts crying because she thinks she’s going to be arrested. After she was told her visitors are a reporter and a private investigator, she calms down and agrees to talk about her life, saying she wants people to know that women turn to prostitution largely because they have few other options.
“Girls don’t do this work because they want to,” says the woman, a native of the Dominican Republic who gives her name as Joanna, speaking softly in Spanish. “It’s dangerous, unpleasant and very scary.”
Women like Joanna can be found at hotels throughout Florida, with their services advertised on the internet.
A web search on Oct. 20 of the popular prostitution advertising site ListCrawler, found that Quality Inn & Suites was the most commonly named hotel in the Fort Lauderdale area, listed as home base for 13 women.
Joanna, who was advertised on ListCrawler, spends her days in dimly lit hotel rooms, wondering if the next “date” will fail to show up or scam her or worse, as she works to support her three children in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.
She earns $300 to $600 a day. But she gives 40% to a man who “helps” her with the work, with one of his associates arriving by taxi every week to pick up his share, which usually amounts to about $1,000. The rest covers her living expenses and allows her to send a monthly sum to her children.
The worst part, she said, is the danger and extortion from customers. She points to a mark above her left eye from one man who hit her. And some men ruthlessly demand their money back after sex — and get it.
“They know we can’t call the police,” she said.
Two other women who are advertised on ListCrawler were interviewed at the Quality Inn that day. But the manager of the hotel, Izzy Fintz, said he had no knowledge of the ads that named his hotel and wasn’t aware that prostitution was taking place there. He said he cooperates with law enforcement and takes human trafficking seriously.
“Some idiot that puts an ad that I have nothing to do with, and it’s not in my control, not my ad,” he said. “…I’ll have these things cleaned up. You will not see an ad out by next week.”
By the following week, most of the ads that mentioned Quality Inn were gone. The last one remaining was posted Oct. 20.
“It’s not like we advertise, ‘Hey, hookers, come home. We have a special. We have clean beds.’” Fintz said. “We actually do have clean beds. But we don’t advertise that.”
He said the hotel requires guests to show identification at registration but can’t control what they do in the privacy of their rooms.
“You don’t ask people, ‘Why are you here? What are you doing? Where are you from? What’s your income? What’s your nationality?’ ” he said. “You know, we don’t even ask if they’re legal or illegal. We just ask for a valid ID, which they must have. We don’t rent to anybody without valid ID.”
The hotel, which stands about a mile west of I-95, has been cited twice for violating the 2019 human-trafficking law, once for not providing proof of annual training of employees and once for not placing a human-trafficking awareness poster in a conspicuous place.
Fintz said he was aware of these violations and could explain them. The staffer in question had been trained, he said, it’s just that they hadn’t renewed the document that provided evidence of that. “It wasn’t that they didn’t do it,” he said. “They did it, they just didn’t renew.”
And he said the issue of the poster was a matter of where it was placed, not that it wasn’t there, and it was corrected.
State inspectors routinely visit hotels to check on issues such as fire safety, air quality and cleanliness. With the action by the state Legislature in 2019, they added human trafficking compliance to their checklist. Enforcement began on Jan. 1, 2021.
Of the 14,279 citations since then, 8,137 were issued to hotels and motels, 5,430 to apartment complexes and the rest to various vacation rental properties such as bed-and-breakfasts and time shares.
The $2,000 daily fines provided for in the law were intended to help fund the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking, which was created under the 2019 law that established the hotel standards.
The lack of fines drew condemnation from victims and advocates who had traveled to Tallahassee to testify about the abuses taking place in hotel rooms.
Linsey Ruth, a trafficking victim, told a state Senate committee in 2018 that she had been sold out of a hotel room in a situation that should have been obvious to the hotel’s staff.
“We only paid in cash,” she said. “When we would leave together, I was afraid and very submissive. The cleaning staff were never allowed in the room for the over eight weeks that my children and I were trapped in this room. My children, at 1 and 4, were never allowed to play outside. No one said anything, no one did anything.”
Told that not a single hotel had been fined, she said she was “just appalled.”
Savannah Parvu, who testified that she walked through a hotel hallway “barefoot, bloody, beaten and alone,” said she was surprised by the lack of fines, especially since there had been more than 14,000 citations.
“There could be honest mistakes, but not anywhere near that many,” she said.
A real threat of fines, she said, could make hotels “more proactive to get their employees trained, rather than just waiting until they get a citation and are forced to do it.”
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation said in a statement to the Sun Sentinel that the law allows hotels a 90-day period to fix violations, and so far all have done so.
“The division’s main goal is to focus on educating licensees and assisting them as they strive to come into compliance with the law,” the statement said. “Division inspectors address violations by diligently educating operators on the requirements and penalties for noncompliance, as well as emphasizing the 90-day period allowed by s. 509.096, Florida Statutes, to come into compliance.
“By performing follow-up inspections at 60 days and then again at the 90-day deadline, division inspectors have been successful in compelling establishments to comply prior to the issuance of an administrative complaint. To date, all public lodging establishments have complied by the conclusion of 90 days and no enforcement cases have yet been generated due to non-compliance with the law.”
The department would not make any officials available for an interview, spokeswoman Beth Pannell said.
Sen. Book, who represents western Broward County and serves as the Senate’s Democratic leader, said she was “disappointed” at the lack of fines, which she said were necessary to make sure hotels took the law seriously.
Book, who was sexually abused by a nanny as a child and has made fighting child sex abuse her life’s work, said she would introduce legislation to make sure repeat violators are punished.
“The reason that we had the cure period was that you fix the problem, not that you fall back on your laurels because the department then gives you another 90 days after some time,” she said. “That’s not the intention, that’s not the spirit of the law or the intention. So it’s my intention to go back and change that and not allow for that.”
The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association said fines would be premature at a time when the focus needs to be on educating hotel managers and staff.
“Given the immense challenges of the past few years, from the pandemic to staffing shortages to supply chain disruptions, we support regulatory efforts to first educate the industry before taking an enforcement stance,” spokeswoman Ashley Chambers said in a written response to questions from the Sun Sentinel.
“It is important to remember this new regulatory requirement is focused on education and raising awareness of human trafficking, which we support. It is not intended to replace robust criminal investigation and prosecution of traffickers, which we also support.”
She said her association’s members are “highly supportive of anti-trafficking efforts, and we have heard no difficulties or challenges regarding implementing requirements of the new law.”
About half of the citations for violating the hotel human-trafficking law were issued in the first four months of 2021, when the state began to enforce the law. Since then, the monthly number of citations has declined, with just 224 issued last August. There was a spike of 921 citations, however, last June.
Others say the law has had an impact, even if there haven’t been any fines.
Erin Collins, executive director of the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking, said the 2019 law raised awareness at hotels and led to an increase in tips to human-trafficking hotlines.
“A lot of that is attributed to industry requirements or encouragement of awareness training,” she said. “So I think they’re taking it seriously.”
Her organization, which was created as part of that law, has provided training to nearly 10,000 people, she said, mostly in the hotel industry, on how to recognize and report human trafficking.
Sen. Book had previously sponsored legislation to allow trafficking victims to sue hotels, unless the hotel could prove it had taken steps to fight trafficking. But she was told by Senate leadership to withdraw her bill allowing victims to sue, she said, after they were pressured by the industry.
“The restaurant and lodging folks, people in the hotel industry, tourism — those interests that you can imagine would have some concern about liability in their establishments,” she said.
Chambers, of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said it would be unfair for hotels to become targets of lawsuits over circumstances that are often beyond their control.
“Human trafficking can occur even at highly respected hotels beyond the visibility of even the most diligent and engaged hotel staff,” she said. “To offer the opportunity for nuisance lawsuits, or, worse, punish a business for crimes it has no part in, will not reduce trafficking. If a business is complicit in trafficking, this is a crime with criminal statutes already in place to address it. We support efforts that ensure the provision of the resources needed to effectively prevent, investigate, and punish the criminals that perpetrate these crimes — not the businesses that are also unwitting victims of the criminals.”
John Rode, a former Miami-Dade Police detective who works as a private investigator and founded a non-profit organization to rescue trafficking victims, said many hotels don’t know what’s going on in their rooms.
“The hotels have no idea who’s actually there,” he said. “And the hotels don’t really care. Hotels are the biggest problem with this type of illegal activity.”
He said the 2019 law made little difference, serving only to give the impression that legislators and hotel operators were taking action.
“I think it’s a total joke, total smoke and mirrors,” he said. “At the hotels I’ve dealt with on a daily basis, I don’t see them doing anything to try to crack down on it. They don’t want to get the police there because it looks bad for business. It’s a law that was passed but I don’t think it’s making that big a difference. It’s putting posters up. It’s all for show.”
Prostitution is often thought of as a victimless crime. Yet even with adults, the business can involve a strong element of coercion, particularly when the woman is a drug addict.
Traffickers often recruit women from the streets, sometimes as refugees from drug treatment centers, said Brianna Coakley, assistant state attorney who specializes in sex crimes for the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office. They pay them in cocaine or heroin and threaten to withhold the drugs if they don’t cooperate.
“They’re walking around on the street or looking for something to do or trying to buy drugs,” Coakley said. “And they encounter someone, and that person offers them a place to stay and offers them some drugs, and then 24 to 48 hours later, they’re no longer allowed to leave.”
For the trafficker, she said, the profits from trading a day’s supply of drugs for the revenues of a day’s worth of prostitution can be immense.
“In Palm Beach County a cap of heroin is roughly $20,” she said. “Some of these girls do 10 and 11 dates a day. They can be making a thousand dollars a day. And in exchange they’ll get two or three caps of heroin, which is $60.”
In the case of the woman who scrounged nutrition from hotel breakfast buffets, she had been a crack addict living on the streets of West Palm Beach. One day on North Dixie Highway, a “friend” traded her to the trafficker, a man named Justin Oliver, for crack, according to court papers.
Oliver took her for a walk and explained the rules. She had to call him “King” or “Daddy.” She couldn’t look any other man in the eye. He would give her a piece of crack after every “date.”
He put her up at the Holiday Inn near Palm Beach International Airport and later at an InTown Suites Extended Stay on North Military Trail, according to court records. He posted her photos and those of another woman on websites such as Megapersonals, Bedpage and Escortbabylon.
As one woman used the bed for her “date,” the other hid in the bathroom. They typically made about $900 each per day for Oliver. To keep them under his control, Oliver unplugged the hotel phone.
“Victim 1 stated that she had to grab the free continental breakfast and sneak some food back to room if she wanted to eat later in the day,” an arrest warrant stated.
Eventually, the two women made a plan to save a little of their “date” money, one of them called a friend and they escaped the hotel. Oliver was charged with human trafficking and false imprisonment and pleaded not guilty. His case is pending, and his attorney declined to comment.
The hotels often know perfectly well that activities like this are going on in their rooms, said Lisa Haba, a former Florida sex crimes prosecutor who now represents trafficking victims.
“The majority of the trafficking operations that I’ve seen that have made serious money and have been criminal organizations have all been at hotels,” she said.
The evidence of trafficking is often obvious, she said.
“Several of my clients have told me, ‘Oh, yeah, the hotel I was working out of, we had between 15 and 20 people coming in and out of the room all day, every day,’” she said. “I mean, that is an excessive amount of foot traffic, so you have somebody who’s rented a room and you’ve got that much traffic coming in and out. That is a huge warning sign.”
The incident at the Plaza Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, in which a 17-year-old girl ran screaming from her trafficker, took place Jan. 5, 2020. The victim had met Damion Miller at a party when she was 16, and they agreed she would have sex with men for money and they would split the profits to buy drugs.
But he kept all the money for himself. During the next eight months, they had a sexual relationship and he made clear to her that if she did not engage in prostitution for him, he would withhold drugs.
In the hotel confrontation, he chased her down the hall, reached a stairwell and threw the money at her. Then he picked it up and left. The hotel, which he had booked for a week, canceled the rest of his reservation.
The incident took place before the hotel trafficking law took effect on Jan. 1, 2021. But the hotel would be cited four times since then for violating the law — once for lacking human-trafficking awareness posters and three times for failing to provide proof that employees who have contact with guests have had trafficking awareness training.
Danny Santiago, general manager of the Plaza Hotel, acknowledged the 272-room hotel has problems with prostitutes and drug dealers, and he said he’s working on it.
“We do have some issues here,” he said, seated in the office of the hotel on a busy stretch of State Road 7. “We have prostitutes. You can’t pretend it doesn’t happen here.”
After starting on the job just over a month ago, he said he replaced staffers, hired a new security firm that provides armed guards on weekends, raised room rates and took steps to discourage the use of cash to rent rooms.
He estimates women engaged in the sex trade make up about 10% of the hotel’s guests, but he vowed to change that.
“We want to run a very clean, very safe hotel,” he said.
He uses videos and other methods to train his staff to recognize human trafficking. But he said the state’s human-trafficking inspections for hotels were “a joke” since the requirements are so limited and fines non-existent.
“They don’t really hold anyone accountable,” he said. “I just think it’s a joke that they don’t enforce this the right way.”
If the state issued fines, he said, “then the matter’s serious, and we’re going to take it seriously.”
Trafficking victims have begun suing hotels and hotel chains, arguing that hotel employees knew or should have known what was going on.
One lawsuit concerns the short, difficult life of a girl who ended up dead at the Extended Stay America Premier Suites in Pompano Beach. Located among small warehouses and low-rise office buildings about a half-mile from I-95, the hotel has been cited twice for violating the 2019 anti-trafficking law.
On the floor of room 334, the body of Marina Ralph, 16, was found Oct. 4, 2019, seated against the bed and partially covered with a sheet, according to a lawsuit filed in Broward County. She was dead from an overdose of cocaine and fentanyl. A report by the county medical examiner said her body appeared to have been moved after she died.
Her death came as a shock, but not entirely a surprise, to her mother, who had received increasingly frantic messages as her daughter repeatedly escaped the grip of sex traffickers and then returned to them.
They posted photos of Marina in an advertisement on the web (“Available now till early mornings…I wanna get naughty for you”). And she called her mother, saying that her cellphone had been taken away at knifepoint. She begged her mother not to call 911 because she was afraid of the people she was with — that they would harm her or her mother. She said that they knew where she lived.
Whether the girl’s death was an accidental overdose or something else may never be known. Her mother, Charity Pearrow, filed suit against the company that owns the hotel, ESA P Portfolio LLC, accusing the company of negligence for running the hotel in a manner that made it easier for traffickers to operate.
Since trafficking is widespread at hotels, management should have done something about suspicious activity at the room, including unknown men who were not guests coming and going late at night, states the lawsuit, filed by Justin Grosz, partner in the Kelley Kronenberg law firm and co-founder of Justice for Kids, a division of the firm.
The hotel’s security was poor, with insufficient lights and security cameras, and doors to interior hallways that are routinely propped open with rocks, among other deficiencies, the lawsuit stated.
The hotel’s lawyers contend that there’s no evidence that Marina was trafficked at that hotel or that the hotel’s security practices played any role in her death. They say the lawsuit is full of generalities about sex trafficking, hotels and Extended Stay security practices, without showing what they had to do with Marina’s death by overdose.
“Extended Stay America is deeply committed to providing a safe environment for our guests including operating a zero-tolerance policy in regard to trafficking and prostitution,” the company said in a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “We are aware of the lawsuit and are unable to comment further at this time as it’s a pending legal matter.”
Steven Babin, an Ohio lawyer whose firm is handling several trafficking cases against major hotel chains, said it’s important to hold the corporations responsible, not just their individual franchise holders, especially now that trafficking has been recognized as a problem throughout the industry.
“The brands have all of the power and control when it comes to setting up a franchise to delineate brand standards,” he said. “Those brand standards are incredibly specific. They tell them things like what type of creamer they can buy.”
“If a guy in his 40s takes five girls in their 20s to a hotel, buys rooms for cash for a week at a time, asks for rooms by exit doors and then you see 20 or 30 men go in and out of each room every single day, it looks a little weird,” he said. “It’s not as hard to spot or identify as the hotels would have you believe.”
Part 2, coming Nov. 27: ‘A human trafficking pipeline’
Florida sends vulnerable foster children to group homes across the state, where they are at a substantially higher risk of falling prey to violent child sex traffickers. In some cases, like that of 16-year-old Jayden Frisbee, those children end up dead.
Part 3, coming Nov. 28: Where’s Sophie?
Part 3: At just after midnight more than five years ago, 15-year-old Sophie Reeder walked out of her Fort Lauderdale home and disappeared. Initially thought to be a runaway, evidence emerged that she had fallen into the hands of sex traffickers. But just how much effort investigators made to find her isn’t known. The family says they were stonewalled from the start and leads were never explored.
Part 4, coming Dec. 4: Punishing the victims
Part 4: Victims of sex trafficking are frequently retraumatized by a system that was designed to investigate, indict and prosecute them for crimes they are coerced by their traffickers into committing — even when the victims are children. In the end, girls are left with few options and no help clearing their tarnished records. Coming Nov. 28.
Coming Nov. 28: Felonious Florida podcast
A new six-part season of the award-winning podcast Felonious Florida brings you back into the Dark Side of the Sunshine State with the mysterious story of Sophie Reeder and other young girls who have been lured into the dangerous world of child sex trafficking. For more information, including ways to listen, visit FeloniousFlorida.com.