LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A woman is teaming with a personal injury firm to sue a former Little Rock hotel ownership group after she says she was held captive for weeks by a sex trafficking ring on the property and that management was aware of what was going on.
"Our hope is that even if we don't succeed with the lawsuit that we succeed in instilling change," said Lauren Manatt, an attorney with Rainwater, Holt & Sexton. She and her colleague Meredith Moore filed on behalf of a "Jane Doe."
The fight against sex trafficking usually resides in criminal court. Law enforcement has learned from data on the fight that much of the crime takes place at hotels or motels. An Arkansas law passed earlier in 2019 allows attorneys like Manatt and Moore to pursue civil cases against passive participants in trafficking, like hotel owners.
It still required a brave victim to take the first step.
"Our victim is incredible," said Manatt. "She is hands down the strongest woman I've ever met in my entire life."
The woman says her captors held her against her will on the fourth floor of the former Quality Inn near Interstate 30 and Geyer Springs Road. She says the ring leaders had the run of the entire floor and that she and others were assaulted up to a dozen times a day for several weeks in 2014.
The plaintiff said staff at the hotel "put their heads down or looked away" anytime they saw her and never offered to help, even when she was clearly injured.
"We are hoping to open the eyes that this is a problem and to expose the public to see, to maybe have their eyes peeled for these types of issues," said Manatt.
Advocates for trafficking victims applaud the new soldiers in their fight against the criminals.
"We love the idea that they are trying to hit the market from all directions to try to protect those that are being sold or victimized," said Louise Allison, the executive director of Partners Against Trafficking Humans.
"It's a great first step. Awareness everywhere is going to stop this."
Finding the former owners has not been easy. Investigators hope to serve papers this week out-of-state on what was then called the Seven Star Hotels Group. There are three named defendants, Shri Jinasha, Rajni Patel and Lina Patel. The suit also names five unidentified "John Does" and five unidentified entities.
The new owner is cooperating and completely renovating the property. A sign calls the place Geyer Springs Inn & Suites. Construction workers could be seen coming and going with evidence floors have been completely gutted, including that infamous fourth floor.
Both the current owner and the lawyers know that hoteliers can do more. Cases like this could be a way to get bad actors out of the business.
"All of the hotels out there, from my perspective, that are doing it right, shouldn't be worried," said Manatt, pointing to training programs designed to identify signs of trafficking used by many hotel chains. "But if you're not you should be very worried."
The new laws that allowed for civil suits also protect trafficking victims—especially minors— from being charged with crimes like prostitution. The victim in this case is asking for a jury trial and claims the hotel was negligent and a damage award.
The amount would be determined by the judge and jury.