For local hotel owners and workers, it is no longer enough to make the beds and clean the bathrooms. Management, maids and clerks must keep their eyes open for signs of human trafficking, a scourge involving mostly young women exploited as commercial sex workers now surfacing throughout Virginia, including in Prince William County and Manassas.
The Hampton Inn near Interstate 66 in Manassas was the scene of the latest effort to educate the public about human trafficking. On a recent Monday morning, 40 hotel managers and employees gathered to hear from Prince William County police officers who specialize in the crime of trafficking.
Hampton Inn’s General Manager Jennifer Decker organized the event. “The only way to stop this is to bring awareness to it,” she said.
Attendees came from Dumfries, Manassas, Woodbridge and Gainesville. Neighboring Fauquier County was represented by a contingent from the events venue, Airlie, outside Warrenton.
“If one case comes to light on a property, it could have serious risks to the business,” Decker told the group. “There could be legal fees, damage to your reputation. You could be held liable.”
‘A hotbed for this kind of crime’
Commercial sex trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world and on track to become the first, Prince William County Police Det. Robyn Hyatt told the group.
“One trafficker with three victims [and a] customer every 15 minutes can make $2.19 million in one year,” Hyatt said, noting that sex trafficking is more lucrative than selling drugs. “We are actively working cases within our hotels. Trafficking is here. It’s everywhere.”
Virginia is among the top 13 states in the U.S. for human trafficking incidents, she said.
“The demographics here [in the Northern Virginia region] make it a hotbed for this kind of crime. We have a lot of venues that attract large numbers of people: lots of hotels, FedEx Field, National Harbor, the 95-corridor,” she said.
Large-scale events amp up the business. “Just to give you an idea, during the January Super Bowl in Atlanta, there were over 150 arrests for suspected human trafficking,” she said.
As for Prince William specifically, police Sgt. Nicole DelVecchio named gangs with a presence in the county, including 18th Street, the Bloods, Gang 12-14, MS-13.
“Sex trafficking is one way for gangs to make money,” DelVecchio said.
The police officers shared a typical scenario whereby a young woman might become ensnared in a sex-trafficking scheme: She might be approached by a trafficker in a mall. He flatters her, buys her presents, makes her feel special. She finds herself trusting him, they said.
Then one day she wakes up from a drug-induced state; she’s been raped. He has taken photographs. He forces her to do things under the threat of distributing the photographs. Scared, she complies. She might go to school every day but spend her afternoons with him. She becomes trapped, brainwashed and might see her trafficker as her protector. If caught, she may not cooperate, they said.
“We have Latina brothels, often run out of apartments, sometimes in hotels. We have massage parlors,” DelVecchio said.
“There is a big difference between smuggling and trafficking,” Hyatt said. “Trafficking is making a profit off of someone. For example, someone is promised they will have a restaurant job in the USA, and once they get here, [they] are sent to work in illegal massage businesses -- the ones behind locked doors and out of sight. Their documents are taken and they are told they have to work off their debt. That is both labor trafficking at sex trafficking. Unfortunately, the laws in Virginia are not yet precise enough for us to prosecute that kind of sex work, but we are working on changing that,” she said.
Hyatt said dealing with these cases is a community effort. Angelina Alvernaz is a human-trafficking-prevention specialist employed by Prince William County Public Schools. She runs what is considered a model school-outreach program in the nation.
‘A little tip can go a long way’
The Prince William County Police Department also works with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, multiple non-governmental programs and local social service agencies.
Also speaking was Lydia Teutsch, director of sexual assault services at the Dumfries-based nonprofit, ACTS. Teutsch works to rehabilitate victims.
“There is a lot of brainwashing and coercion. Some of these women are brought in as young as 11. If they have not been rescued and recovered, they fall victim to the industry and it becomes all they know how to do,” Teutsch said.
Deborah Strausser has managed the nearby Manassas Quality Inn for seven years. “I’ve seen a lot go on,” she said. “I think every hotel in this area has seen it to one extent or the other. The police do a wonderful job coming out and dealing with it.”
“Trust your gut, call us,” Hyatt told the hotel staffers. “A little tip can go a long way.”
She passed out forms for each business to sign up for an assigned police department crime prevention unit contact.
There will be another session for area hoteliers planned in Woodbridge in October. For information, contact Hampton Inn’s Jennifer Decker at 703-369-1100.
Reach Karen Chaffraix at email@example.com