The photographs on a popular online site advertising “escort” services showed three young women selling their bodies, posed against floor-to-ceiling windows of the same high-rise hotel.
One of them perched provocatively atop a desk.
Hotel rooms by their very nature often feel anonymous, but the view beyond the women in the windows was unmistakable: the landmark green dome of St. Louis’ Old Courthouse adjacent to the easily identifiable facade of another downtown building.
Photographs of the hotel’s interior posted by guests on an online travel site confirmed that the style of desk on which the one young woman was posed matched the desks used inside Crowne Plaza guest rooms in St. Louis.
Making this solid connection between sex trafficking and the specific places it happens is at the heart of a new effort driven by three St. Louis area women.
Molly Hackett, Jane Quinn and Kimberly Ritter are developing a website of hotel room photographs that can be accessed by police and the public hoping to track down both victims of sex trafficking — many as young as 13 — and their pimps.
It’s an effort that is counting on the millions of people who use hotels nationwide to take digital pictures of their rooms and then share them with the website. The more detailed the better: the bedspread, the accent pillows, the furniture and headboard, the rug pattern and even the view from the window.
The website is in initial development and needs about $200,000 in funding. When it is ready, images sent by hotel patrons will be cataloged by hotel name, city and date taken and possibly made searchable by room color or other basic decor.
It’s part of the Exchange Initiative, a new community action group formed by the three women to combat sex trafficking, particularly among minors.
The group first took up the issue through their Maplewood company, Nix Conference and Meeting Management, which does business with hotels. Hackett and Quinn, owners of the company, and Ritter, a director, are all mothers. They said they couldn’t in good conscience do business with hotels without addressing the sex trafficking of minors that might be happening inside them.
How could mere photos snapped on cellphones help to rescue these victims and catch their predators?
Backpage.com is one of the best known and most widely used websites among hundreds that sell escort services nationwide. That site generates more than $37 million a year in revenue.
Anyone can access the website at any time, click on a city or region for escorts and find dozens of explicit pictures uploaded daily of females and males available for paid sex.
Many of photographs on the site are taken in hotels.
Ritter said one of the realities of human trafficking is the routine use of hotels by pimps — not just the seedy ones on the side of the road, but national chains with shiny reputations and marble in the lobby.
Parents and investigators searching for runaway children often resort to scanning online escort sites for signs of their children. Finding a trail sometimes depends on matching a photo they have found of their child on an online escort site to the decor of a specific hotel, such as a unique pattern on a bedspread or carpet, the color and style of bed linens and even the view out the window.
Dean Bryant, special agent in charge of the St. Louis division of the FBI, supports the planned website.
With the hotel identified, he said, police can then interview cleaning crews to identify the victim and the pimp and potential hours they have operated in the hotel. That can lead to a look at hotel camera footage at particular times for more evidence.
Such investigations could also reveal whether such cases pertain to consensual prostitution or the more organized trafficking of women.
The three photographs that point to potential sex trafficking at the Crowne Plaza in downtown St. Louis appeared on Backpage.com. One was uploaded as recently as Feb. 18.
In a written statement, a spokesman with InterContinental Hotel Groups, owner of the Crowne Plaza brand, said the company “will investigate and take action as appropriate,” and referred to its human rights policy that “condemns human rights violations in all of its forms.”
Crowne Plaza was not the only St. Louis area hotel identified via photos on Backpage St. Louis escort ads.
Other ads showed three young women posed individually on beds with the same white linens embellished by a distinct light beige box border on the top of the bedspread.
The beds had throw pillows covered in the same type of fabric, including a cylindrical pillow. The linens and pillows were an exact match to pictures of beds posted on the Marriott chain’s website.
A spokesman for Marriott International Inc. said in an email that the company was committed to human rights and the protection of children and had trained more than 144,000 employees on those principles. The company has secured $550,000 in federal grants to monitor and combat trafficking and help victims of sexual exploitation. The spokesman did not address evidence of sex trafficking in one of its St. Louis hotels.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, most victims of sex trafficking are recruited when they are 13 or 14. About 300,000 youths a year are exploited. Many are trafficked by pimps who move them from city to city, often to coincide with major sporting events and large conventions. The victims are coerced through drugs, violence and mental intimidation.
St. Louis has been identified as one of the top 20 areas for sex trafficking in the United States. Accounting for population differences, St. Louis has the same rate of sex trafficking as major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, said Bryant, of the FBI.
From the start of 2012 through 2013, the St. Louis Division of the FBI, which handles all of eastern Missouri, reported 10 sex trafficking indictments. Nine of those indictments involved victims who were minors.
Last week, Reginald Williams was convicted in the federal court based in St. Louis of multiple charges after testimony revealed he had advertised two girls, 16 and 17, on Backpage and transported the younger girl, originally from Collinsville, to both Chicago and St. Louis for forced prostitution. The bust took place in a St. Louis hotel. On the Backpage advertisement, the 16-year-old was listed as being 20.
Hackett and Ritter say they want people to realize they can take action against sex trafficking by uploading their images or making donations to exchangeinitiative.com.
Though the women want people to enjoy their stays in hotels, they want everyone to think of their stay a bit differently and to learn how to safely address it with hotel staff.
“We want people to be on the lookout,” Ritter said. “We want people to question why the door keeps opening and closing to the room down the hall at 3 a.m.”
Their bigger goal is to get the word out and bring differing groups together to combat it. Earlier this month, the Exchange Initiative held a three-day conference in St. Louis on sex trafficking. The conference included national politicians, law enforcement, survivors and others.
The event was at St. Louis Union Station DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, where Ritter said workers had been trained in looking for signs of sex trafficking.
Speakers included U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin. She plans to file the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation bill in Congress this week, seeking to close marketplaces that host advertisements for the commercial exploitation of minors.
The bill would also make it unlawful for Backpage and similar websites to sell or commercially promote an advertisement that willfully facilitates human trafficking.
“My feeling is you’ve got to follow the money, and if we can take the money out of this, perhaps we can save some of these victims and shut down some of these hideous marketplaces that are advertising sex slavery,” Wagner said.
Representatives from Backpage could not be reached for comment. The company’s website does, however, include a statement condemning illegal uses of its site, such as human trafficking.
Hackett said she hoped corporations that don’t necessarily see themselves in the travel industry would financially back the Exchange Initiative website and, most importantly, educate their employees about how they can stop sex trafficking.
Even companies that don’t seem to be in the hospitality business have a component that involves hotels and travel, she said. They have sales people out on the road, or send employees to training seminars and conferences.
“We’re looking for corporations to take a stand,” Hackett said. “We never used to be doing diversity or sexual harassment training through a human resources department, and now most corporations do that. So the next step for corporations is to take a stand on sex trafficking and tourism.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: A prior version of this story contained an image of a woman from a Backpage.com ad posed on a hotel bed. The bed linens were described as matching the Marriott chain but actually were a closer match to another St. Louis hotel. Other Backpage.com images do appear to match Marriott bedding but are too explicit to post on STLtoday.com.