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Law enforcement, hoteliers join against sex trafficking

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Ramsey County Attorney John Choi
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, left, holds a press conference Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, before hosting a training session for hotels. The class brought together law enforcement and about 75 employees of the hospitality industry to tackle the problem of child prostitution. Hospitality maven Marilyn Carlson Nelson, center, said she never imagined she would become an expert on a subject so dark.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Pimps go online to sites like Backpage.com to advertise young girls for sex. But the classified ads are simply where the sex-trafficking transaction begins.

Local hotels, especially those in the suburbs, are where the sex typically takes place.

In Ramsey County, law enforcement officials are taking the unique step of training hotel employees to spot signs of trafficking at their places of businesses. And they're turning to a prominent Minnesota hospitality company, Carlson, to help lead the way.

As a hospitality maven, Marilyn Carlson Nelson never imagined she would become an expert on a subject so dark. She said years ago she was sickened when she realized her industry, including hotels around the world under her Carlson umbrella, were inadvertently providing a stage for where children were being sold for sex.

Today, Carlson Nelson can rattle off aspects of the child sex trade operating right in her home state of Minnesota.

"We are often very proud of our Scandivanian/Germanic population, and it turns out that blond-haired, blue-eyed little girls go for a great premium, frightening as it is to say," Carlson Nelson said.

Marilyn Carlson Nelson
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former CEO and chairwoman of the Minnetonka-based hospitality company Carlson, was a guest speaker at a training session Thursday for hotels on how to spot signs of child sex trafficking. Carlson Nelson says hotels can "inadvertently provide a stage" for children to be prostituted if they don't actively train their staff to identify signs of trafficking.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

She says 10 years ago, Minnetonka-based Carlson  became the first corporation to sign a code of conduct to prevent child sex tourism and trafficking in the travel industry. Carlson also began training employees, from housekeepers to hotel managers, how to identify possible victims.

Carlson Nelson, the company's former CEO and now chairwoman, said if hotels don't try to fight child prostitution in their own guest rooms, can they truly say they're not at fault?

"It's critically important that we take hands as a community and refuse to accept this is a problem that can't be solved," she said. "We're not going to let bad things happen because we didn't take a stand. We are taking a stand in Minnesota, and I'm very, very proud of it."

This week, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi invited Carlson Nelson to speak to several dozen hotel employees as part of a first-of-its-kind training session at the Radisson in Roseville. Prosecutors, police, and women's advocates shared tips on what to look for and what to do if hotels suspect their guest rooms are being used for illicit sex. About 20 hotels in Ramsey County participated in the class.

Choi said his office usually sees up to 10 cases a year involving child prostitution. Most victims are local girls as young as 12 years old. Many are runaways. And he said almost every case starts on Backpage.com.

Backpage website
Websites like Backpage.com to advertise young girls for sex. But the classified ads are simply where the sex-trafficking transaction begins.
Screen grab

"I also know that I see these rendezvous points happening in hotels and motels in our community," Choi said. "I wanted to engage the lodging community and say, 'We need your help.'"

Choi notes that just across the street earlier this year, a quick-thinking manager at the Days Inn called police to report her suspicions that one of her guests was running an escort service. That man is now serving 21 years for prostituting a 17-year-old girl.

Officials hope this week's training becomes a model for the rest of the state. They're working on a new training video for hotels, inspired in part by the best practices promoted by Carlson. 

Brenda Schultz helped create the training for Carlson and said there are some telltale signs of trafficking at a hotel.

"If you're a housekeeper and you go into a room, and you see there is child pornography in the rooms, that's something to watch for," Schultz said. "Watch for a room that has a lot of phone calls to it, a room that has people going in and out of it, a child who comes in and is dressed inappropriately for her age."

Other signs include rooms paid for in cash, guests who appear fearful or disoriented, and guestrooms with numerous smartphones, computers, credit cards and excessive cash lying around.

Minnesota is not alone in its effort. In Missouri, St. Louis meeting planner Kimberly Ritter makes a point to educate hotel managers around the country about trafficking when she is booking conferences.

"A lot of times I get some resistance: 'This is resort property, this is a family property, this doesn't happen here,' " Ritter said. "What I learned to do was go onto that Backpage.com, I could sometimes find girls being sold in their hotel rooms, and I could identify the hotel rooms by the throws, headboards, or by what was outside of the window where the girls were standing."

Ritter said trafficking can happen anywhere, from the roadside motel to the five-star resort. She said half the battle is convincing these businesses that girls can be bought and sold under their own roofs.