WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — To the rest of the world, it looked like a hotel off Interstate 95. To Robert Atlee Miner V, authorities allege, it was a classroom — one where he taught an 18-year-old woman how to sell her body for sex.
Get a room above the first floor to avoid attention, the 27-year-old man told the woman, who authorities say he lured to South Florida with the promise of work either as a dancer or an escort. Cover up your body while checking in. And get two keys to the room, so Miner could enter through the back of the hotel and collect the money.
Miner is facing multiple charges of human trafficking, which some have called modern-day slavery, and the hotel isn’t the only lodging in South Florida to become scenes of that crime. Hotels and motels across Florida — essential parts of the state’s tourism economy — are emerging as some of the most common places where trafficking occurs, according to law-enforcement officials and victims-rights advocates.
One national survey found hotels and motels to be the single-most common venue for sex trafficking in Florida during the first half of 2017, with 1 out of every 6 cases taking place there. The ability to rent rooms for short periods of time and to have a degree of anonymity can make hotels attractive to human traffickers, victims advocates say.
“Traffickers want to remain transient,” said Blair Pippin, the prevention and creative director for Florida Abolitionist, an anti-human trafficking organization based in Orlando. “They want to be able to move from place to place so that they’re less (visible). . They also want to keep their victims moving from place to place.”
According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that tracks calls to the national human trafficking hotline, there were 329 reported cases of human trafficking in Florida through the end of June — including 215 sex-trafficking and 79 labor-trafficking cases. Hotels and motels accounted for 36 of the sex-trafficking reports, ahead of massage and “spa” businesses.
Florida’s 2017 numbers are on pace to surpass the hotel-related cases reported to the hotline in 2016, when there were 59. In 2015, there were 41 reported cases in Florida, according to Polaris.
While cases are more common at budget places, Palm Beach County authorities also have traced traffickers to higher-end lodgings as well.
“It definitely is happening more on the lower-end places,” Pippin said. “It doesn’t mean that the higher-end places are immune to it. There are some higher-end escorts that could be trafficking victims. But we’ve seen some of the lower-end places that don’t cost as much, some of the cash places. It’s going to be more prevalent in those types of places for sure, where security isn’t going to be as high. ”
In Palm Beach County, there have been at least three cases this year where human traffickers either used, or attempted to use, a hotel or a motel to exploit their victims, according to authorities.
— Miner, who was arrested this week on multiple counts of human trafficking as well as other charges, allegedly used at least one-half dozen hotels in Palm Beach and Broward counties to force women into prostitution. His alleged crimes date to 2015, and authorities say a DoubleTree and a La Quinta Inn in West Palm Beach were among the lodgings that he used in exploiting his victims. A manager at the DoubleTree declined to comment on the report this week. A spokeswoman for La Quinta said she was unaware of the charge and could not comment.
— Marco Orrego forced a teenage girl into prostitution in a second-floor room of a budget motel in Boynton Beach, state and federal authorities say. According to a police report, Orrego rented a room at the Homing Inn on Federal Highway and sold the girl for sex to various men. With a knife by his side, he warned the girl not leave her room and to pay him all of the money from her encounters. Orrego, who was arrested in May, pleaded to guilty to federal sex-trafficking charges and faces a sentence of 20 years, court records show. A manager at the Homing Inn denied trafficking takes place at the motel.
— Boynton Beach police say three men kidnapped a now-20-year-old woman at gunpoint in February, forced her to advertise sexual services online and drove her to The Inn at Boynton Beach, where undercover detectives were waiting. Managers at the hotel, at Boynton Beach Boulevard and Interstate 95, did not return a call seeking comment.
Officials in the hotel industry have acknowledged the issue and are trying to combat it.
Human trafficking was the topic of a gathering of West Palm Beach hotel employees this summer at the Best Western on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. Hotel and police officials meet throughout the year to discuss crime trends, said West Palm Beach police Officer William Dames, who attended the meeting and spoke briefly. The event was part of a series of training sessions at county hotels by the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches.
Rick Netzel, the Best Western’s sales director, said employees receive regular training to identify suspicious activity. Signs that might raise suspicion include a significantly older person arriving in the company of a younger person who appears to be unrelated, a lack of eye contact on the part of a guest, or a person exhibiting fearful behavior.
“A lot of times the human trafficker, the guys won’t come in,” Netzel said. “They’ll send the girls in. They pay cash. You can tell they’re hesitant. They’re not sure of themselves. (Also), the lack of luggage. If they just have a small bag and they’re staying multiple nights, that’s a heads-up.”
Netzel said the hotels share information about visitors and guests who create problems. He described it as a delicate balance between maintaining security and respecting a guest’s privacy, but said that ultimately. Safety is a hotel’s top concern.
“Every hotel has the right to refuse service to anyone who walks in. That’s our prerogative,” he said.
While sex trafficking has been the major concern, The Polaris Project estimates that about 5 percent of human trafficking cases in hotels and motels involve labor trafficking, which can include wage and hour abuse, contract fraud and unsafe working conditions. Victims of labor trafficking can include housekeepers, janitors and dishwashers, advocates say.
“The reason we don’t hear as much about it is because it’s so much harder to identify and to investigate,” Pippin said. “When it comes to sex trafficking, law enforcement can go into a prostitution sting and they find that this person is a victim. . With labor, trying to figure out if someone is there by force rather than just working the job is really tricky.”
Craig Kalkut, the vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotels around the country are providing training to spot sex and labor trafficking.
“Hotel employees want to be part of the solution and want to help,” he said. “It’s something our industry takes very seriously. We’ve taken it seriously for a while.”
What is it?
State law defines human trafficking as “transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, enticing, maintaining or obtaining another person for the purpose of exploitation of that person.” The exploitation would be for labor, domestic servitude or sexual exploitation. It’s often described as modern-day slavery.
Why is it a problem here?
According to the state’s Department of Children and Families, there has been a 54 percent rise in human trafficking reports from 2015 to 2016.
What is Palm Beach County doing about it?
A task force, made up of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office and the FBI, was formed this year. As of October 2017, there have been 11 men arrested in Palm Beach County. There also have been seven arrests in Broward and one in Martin.
See anything suspicious?
Some warning signs of human trafficking in hotels/motels:
— Pays for room in cash or with prepaid card
— Signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment or fatigue
— Evidence of verbal threats or physical violence
— Exhibits fearful, nervous, anxious or submissive demeanor
— Excessive foot traffic in and out of rooms
— Significantly older boyfriend or with older men at the hotel
— No freedom of movement, constantly monitored
— Hourly stay or extended stay with few possessions
Who to call
Anyone who sees a person they think may be a victim of human trafficking can call one of two telephone numbers:
— Palm Beach County Human Trafficking Hotline, 561-598-9848
— National Human Trafficking Hotline, 888-373-7888
SOURCE: The Polaris Project