A popular budget hotel chain is being sued for allowing sex trafficking to take place right under their noses and for failing to do anything about it, even as the warning signs were all over. Ring of Fire’s Farron Cousins talks with attorney Carissa Phelps about the lawsuit.

Click here to find out more about the Red Roof Inn trafficking lawsuit.


*This transcript was generated by a third-party transcription software company, so please excuse any typos.

Farron Cousins: The month of January is Human Trafficking Awareness month, and right now there is a major lawsuit against the Red Roof Inn hotel chain for their, let’s say, tacit involvement, I guess, in human trafficking. Joining me now, once again, she’s been on the show before, is Carissa Phelps attorney, co-chair of the Empower Her Network, and Carissa this lawsuit against Red Roof Inns, they themselves are not doing the human trafficking, but human trafficking has basically, from what I’ve read, been going on right under their nose, and they have turned a blind eye to it, I guess we could say. So tell us what we know about what Red Roof Inn did and did not do.

Carissa Phelps: Well, what we know, especially during this time period and more recent time periods, is that there has been plenty of information around trafficking, what it is, what it looks like, how hotels are used by traffickers, the number of trafficking victims who have been taken to hotels, specifically around sex trafficking at hotels, where those venues have been used. So it’s no longer turning a blind eye and not knowing or, or really should have known. There’s enough information that they should have known what has been going on. And this case may be about one Red Roof Inn location, but what we’re finding and what we see across the board, across various chain operations is that this is happening at various locations. They have the information like no one else does about all of these hotels and all of the activity that’s going on and how their hotels are being used by traffickers, and it’s right under their noses and they’re refusing to look.

Farron Cousins: And, and one of the things I’ve seen too, and this is just very interesting, is even on the reviews, you have people that have just stayed at the hotel and they’ve said, hey, if you’re planning on staying here, just know there seems to be a lot of prostitution, you know, people soliciting in this building. So for these hotels to act like, oh, we didn’t know this was happening. This is absolutely not the case. The people who just stayed at the hotel were warning them that this was taking place in their hotels. And there’s resources that hotels have now too, that they didn’t have several years ago. They, they have specific guidelines, you know, that, that they can follow. Numbers they can call to report this and, and based on what we know, none of that happened. Did it?

Carissa Phelps: Correct. I mean, not in this case and even 10 years back when they had the information, they weren’t doing it. So, ECPAT has had a code for a number of years that various hotel chains have signed on to that outlines what to look for in terms of how traffickers use hotels and utilize hotels to exploit. And that’s been something that’s been well known across the industry that hasn’t been implemented because of either cost or because maybe perhaps they wanted to continue to enjoy revenue and room bookings from both the buyers, the people who are exploiting from the obtaining end of it, and also from the traffickers who are exploiting and renting the rooms out for the purpose of trafficking. But all that information, the resources they have been there, training, effective training has been available and has not been utilized. And we, we can only imagine how they value the lives of the people who are being trafficked in front of their eyes, how they devalue them because they haven’t done anything.

Farron Cousins: And, and so these resources that they have, you know, you mentioned even 10 years ago, are, are these from the federal government? Where, where did all this come from?

Carissa Phelps: And there’s been a combined effort since 2000 when the original Trafficked Victim Protection Act was enacted in the United States, and we started recognizing that slavery and trafficking could happen in the United States still and was happening. And so since then, there’s been an effort to fund and educate across different industries, across different departments, law enforcement, first line responders, and it’s been difficult to bring people to the table unless, you know, their brand or their revenues are at risk.

Farron Cousins: And you bring up a great point too, just talking about the revenue that they receive off of this, because obviously, as far as we know, they’re not involved in the trafficking, in the, the selling of sex, but they make a lot of money from people coming to the hotels for that purpose. So they are directly profiting off of this, you know, whether it’s just this one Red Roof Inn, whether it’s, you know, other hotel chains, truck stops, truckers. Folks have to understand and you and I have had actually many conversations about this, this problem is so widespread and it touches so many different industries, and, and most people have no idea. They truly have no idea how extensive this network of traffickers really is here in the United States. And it’s terrifying when you start digging into it and seeing what’s happening. It’s absolutely just horrifying.

Carissa Phelps: Correct. I mean, an international ring was just brought down recently, it was trafficking, sex trafficking over webcaming, involved a tremendous amount of, you know, violence, sexual assault, harm to, threats to people that were being victimized through that ring. And that happens here locally as well. And the, the fact that we don’t know all these different ecosystems is, again, because we don’t want to look, right. We don’t wanna look at the person who’s being victimized as a human being who may not be making this choice to be involved and to be sold, that we don’t wanna see them as potentially a victim, because that then leads to so many other responsibilities potentially. What I’ve heard some victims say about specifically hotels is that they have been more strict about smoking in their rooms than they have about trafficking in their rooms.

Farron Cousins: That, that is unbelievable. So when most people, I guess, think of human trafficking, they probably picture, you know, know, Taken by Liam Neeson or with Liam Neeson, excuse me. But, and while that certainly does happen, you know, people snatched off the street, more often than not, it’s more subtle.

Carissa Phelps: Yes.

Farron Cousins: You know, the, the manipulation, the psychological manipulation, there’s different tactics that these recruiters use to bring women in. And, and it’s not as overt as people think, right? It’s not just.

Carissa Phelps: Correct.

Farron Cousins: You’re, you’re walking down the street and suddenly you’re snatched into a van. A lot of it starts at home. A lot of it starts with, with the family itself. So talk about that a little bit, like, you know, the, the methods that, that these people use.

Carissa Phelps: Yeah, sure. I mean, what traffickers have been quoted as saying is, if there aren’t vulnerabilities, they’ll create them. So if there aren’t, if there isn’t a way for me to somehow find a, a sexual abuse in your past or something where I can latch on and say, look, you know, someone was taking it for free, why don’t you just sell it? If that didn’t already happen, then you know what? I’ll have you raped tonight so that you’ll know what it’s like to be raped, and then you won’t wanna be raped again. Instead you’ll want to sell it. So those are the types of things where traffickers, because they’re seeing this individual as a product, as something to market and not as a human being, they’re willing to go to great lengths to alter them, to, to change their, even their own personality, to change their own likes or dislikes in order to use them for their benefit. And it could start with something very simple like, you know, a boyfriend girlfriend relationship. It could start with something like a, a friendship send in another victim to befriend somebody, to, to make them feel like they’re accepted and that they could possibly make money or have the things that I have. So it could be luring in somebody in that way as well. It could be with drugs, it could be with threats, it could be with weapons. Many other things that are involved in, in aspect of how do you get somebody to the point of, of making them a product.

Farron Cousins: And, and another tactic, and this pops into my head right now because we have this issue with Andrew Tate.

Carissa Phelps: Mm-hmm.

Farron Cousins: Who, who was recently arrested in Romania.

Carissa Phelps: Mm-hmm.

Farron Cousins: He was, you know, the big men’s rights kind of guy.

Carissa Phelps: Yeah.

Farron Cousins: What he, and I guess his brother are accused of doing is more of the, the lover boy scenario. And then they’ve openly, you know, talked about, hey, we get these girls to, they fall in love with us, 16 year old. They’ll do whatever we tell ’em to do. And that’s also a ploy. I mean, that, that is.

Carissa Phelps: Sure.

Farron Cousins: Almost right out of what we’ve seen in some of these instances. And I’m hoping that that particular case, since it is a high profile individual, hopefully that opens more eyes, especially since we’re in Human Trafficking Awareness month.

Carissa Phelps: Mm-hmm.

Farron Cousins: People need to start paying attention.

Carissa Phelps: Yeah.

Farron Cousins: So, you know, what do you think about all that? I mean, just the.

Carissa Phelps: Well, I think that, you know, a couple of things. One, even though they say that’s their game is to like romance and all of that, there is violence involved. There is violence all the time. When you involve, when you try to get somebody to change their free will to your will, that is a violent act. That is something where you are changing somebody’s free will to your will. So that in itself, the manipulation, the harm, the force, the rapes, the things that you know, or allegedly have happened. The degradation, the emotional abuse, the verbal abuse, all of the things that took place. And really, I think it’s such a euphemism to say like men’s rights, because it was really, it was, it was anti, it was anti humanity. It was anti-women.

Farron Cousins: Yeah.

Carissa Phelps: It was anti your mother, your sister, your daughter, you know, it was, everything was about demeaning women. It wasn’t about uplifting men.

Farron Cousins: Right.

Carissa Phelps: I’m all about uplifting men. I could uplift men all day long to be a part of this movement and to be a part of this work. But it’s, it’s not about that. And he was demeaning a whole class of human beings.

Farron Cousins: And another thing too, and I believe you mentioned this last time you were on the program, but I want to hit on this again because it is figuratively and literally so close to home and this is just a great example of how a lot of folks don’t realize how close they may be to this, is a little place in Gulf Breeze, Florida, a massage parlor.

Carissa Phelps: Mm-hmm.

Farron Cousins: Rundown, hole in the wall, kind of shoved in a weird location, had been operating for years, never really saw a lot of cars there. But, tell us that story.

Carissa Phelps: Yeah. I mean, right, right here in, you know, a small area, there were actually three businesses that an individual was operating, recruiting people through a social media giant, through a company, through Facebook to, in another country, to come here for employment opportunities. Then, and saying the employment opportunities were in the, in the service industry, the beauty service industry, massage industry, and then would bring them here and then force them into sex trafficking without any legal, you know, documentation being done, without them having the ability to contact their families or to get back home. And this was happening right here. People were driving by it regularly and it was, it was unknown until, you know, the first victim is identified and we listen and see that first victim, and then we hear and find out about all of the other victims that have been harmed in that way. And it’s, and it usually typically is a ring, right? Like, traffickers don’t stop. Once they figure out their profit and how they could make a profit and how they could benefit off of exploiting someone, they’re not going to stop, not one. It’s not gonna be just once with you, with the individual that they traffick and it’s not just gonna be one person or you, it will grow.

Farron Cousins: And, and this is a place as you, you know, people drive by it every day, as you said, I, I drove by it every day to and from work, you know, every single day I am driving past this place, having no idea. I mean, it’s honestly had crossed my mind. I’d had a couple conversations with people around here like, wow, that place really seems shady. Does anybody ever go there? And, you know, we, we had no idea. And it, again, it’s right under our nose.

Carissa Phelps: Right.

Farron Cousins: It, it was just right there out in the open and the only, you know, highway in this area, you can’t drive it without passing by it. And so sometimes people do have to stop and, and open their eyes a little bit and, and not just say that, oh, well this business looks weird, this is probably. No, maybe take a deeper look, maybe, you know, pay more attention to it. You know, talk to people in the community like, hey, um, have you ever seen any, have you ever used this? Have you talked to people? Do me a favor. Maybe next couple people you talk to, ask them as well. Let’s.

Carissa Phelps: Yeah.

Farron Cousins: Let’s figure out what’s going here because if it doesn’t smell right, usually it’s because it doesn’t smell right.

Carissa Phelps: And it was actually a survivor who has since started her own non-profit, which is called Take Flight, Sula Lael. She, she’s the one that trained law enforcement to look and to look at that specific location, to look at the victims in a different way, to look at them as victims and not as perpetrators. Not to just ticket them for prostitution, but to actually see how they got here and what was their story. So it was actually a survivor who helped shed, shed light on that, which I love. And it’s actually now as we know, a storefront to educate people about human trafficking through Magdalene. So that’s also an awesome kind of reclaiming of the community that the community can look forward to. It doesn’t have to be just a, a rundown place that stays there. You know, the right people with the right initiative and resources could change things.

Farron Cousins: Absolutely. And so I also want to talk to you for a minute because you recently became the co-chair of the Empower Her Network. So congratulations on that, first and foremost.

Carissa Phelps: Thank you.

Farron Cousins: So explain the Empower Her network.

Carissa Phelps: So Empower Her Network goes alongside of survivors who have gone through resources and services. They’ve, they’ve basically been identified as victims, received resources and services, and they have graduated those services. They’re onto the next thing in their life, and we wanna make sure they get there. So just like I became an attorney and was able to dream that and become that, we wanna offer those opportunities to survivors who are ready to go that next step in their journey. So we pair them up with, we have amazing program team, clinician team that pairs them up with advocates who work alongside of them on a plan that they themselves develop to reach fiscal independence. Because we know that, you know, vulnerability could be one paycheck away, it could be one illness away, that if you don’t have that strong support network and system and really supportive work environments too, that can, that can hold somebody together when they’re, when they’re going through their hardest times, you know, those aren’t in, working two minimum wage jobs aren’t gonna give you that kind of job security.

Farron Cousins: Yeah.

Carissa Phelps: So we’re really trying to, and we have successfully walked through hundreds of, hundreds of survivors now. And it’s not only female, it’s all genders, but we are Empower Her Network. I think we come from a very female, like, motherly driven spirit. So I, I love the name of the organization, I love what we do, and we walk alongside survivors and we have various languages that are, are spoken. We have people from all over the country that partner with us, and those partner organizations nominate ready survivors to have empowerment plans that are 12 to 18 months long. We take a measurement, you know, what were they making and what was their job when they started and what are they making, what’s their job when they’re exiting out to their empowerment plan. We’ve had women start, you know, sewing businesses and, and make beautiful gowns and dresses. We’ve had people become, you know, law enforcement officers and graduate from social, social work programs. And we’ve even rehired now some survivors as advocates themselves. So.

Farron Cousins: Oh, wow. And so is, is there any way for folks to support this group? You know, anything they can do?

Carissa Phelps: Absolutely. So this last year, 2022, I began the process of joining and, and officially 2023 became co-chair of the organization. So you’ll see a lot more of me talking about this over the next several years. But we became a million dollar organization last year. So we reached our goal of raising $1 million in donations. And that was thanks to a lot of people here at the firm, supporters, people who knew what we were about and what we’re doing. And we are going to exceed that goal next year. So anyone who wants to support who or who wants to con, consider bringing Empower Her Network to their community, to their anti-trafficking organizations should reach out to us, should go to our website, empower her network.org. There’s a donate button at the bottom of that, if that’s how you wanna get involved. And there’s also ways, again, to learn more about us and to create, to create great job opportunities for survivors. To work alongside of us or if you have resources or tools or educational programs, certificate programs that you want our groups to know about. If you’re a coach or wanna offer some, some fiscal coaching, something like that, that is an in-kind, kind of supportive service. We, we wanna hear from you because we want our survivors and our, well our members, we call them members, to have access to all of that and more.

Farron Cousins: Yeah, that’s, that’s absolutely a brilliant idea. I love it. I love that you’re a part of it because I know how wonderful you are with this. So, Carissa Phelps, again, hope everything goes tremendously with your organizations. You’ve done so much wonderful work. I can’t wait to see what else you got because I know there’s gonna be more coming in the future. So thank you so much for talking with us today.

Carissa Phelps: Thanks, Farron.