The fight to stop the sex trafficking of teen girls moved from courtrooms to motel rooms on Thursday.
Noting that the sale of young girls for sex often begins with online ads and ends in suburban hotels, a coalition of officials from law enforcement and the hospitality industry launched an initiative to put hotel and motel workers on the front lines of the fight against prostitution.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who is leading the effort, said his office now prosecutes seven to 10 cases per year involving underage girls and prostitution. One led recently to an ex-con being sentenced to 21 years in prison and was made possible in part by an inquisitive Roseville hotel employee.
Innkeepers already attuned to possible drug use and adult prostitution in their facilities say the use of their rooms for the trafficking of minors "makes their blood boil," said Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota, who attended Thursday's event at the Radisson Hotel in Roseville. Operators are parents, too, he said, and are committed to stopping the exploitation of children.
The initiative's launch included a training session that drew about 65 employees from nearly 20 hotels and motels, plus police and prosecutors from across the metro area. It came a week after the Minneapolis City Council called for the closure of the controversial adult section of classified ads on the website Backpage.com.
On Thursday, Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media, owner and operator of Backpage, applauded the initiative and said it seemed like a "terrific step forward" to help combat sex trafficking.
"It has to be attacked on a variety of fronts," said McDougall, adding that shutting down Backpage's adult section wouldn't solve the problem of trafficking.
"It's just so much bigger and broader and deeper than one website, one category," said McDougall, who has attested to the company's cooperation with law enforcement and work on many levels to stop trafficking on the site.
Still, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman renewed demands that the company end the advertising.
"They ought to shut that crap down, and they ought to do it tomorrow," he said.
Choi, too, has targeted Backpage. In addition to the Roseville case, which occurred at a Days Inn and involved a 17-year-old victim, his office recently charged a former Minnesota Army National Guard member with arranging and paying for sex with two teenage girls at a hotel in Eagan. Two St. Paul men who allegedly pimped the girls also are facing charges for the sex trafficking of minors.
Each of the three suspects made court appearances this week. Mickey Cupkie, 37, of Elko, the former National Guard member, is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing next Friday.
The Ramsey County attorney's spokesman, Dennis Gerhardstein, said that the initiative is expected to cost no more than $10,000, with much of the money to go to creation of a training video that lodging-industry employees statewide could access -- most likely via the Internet, he said.
Funding will come from forfeiture proceeds, Choi said.
For Thursday's presentation, police, prosecutors and industry officials shared a guide book providing tips on what employees should look for to help stop sex trafficking in their establishments.
Workers should be alert to guests who have no luggage, who pay for rooms with cash and who appear fearful or disoriented. Attention should be given, too, to younger people who are "made up to look significantly older" or who have significantly older "boyfriends."
Other signs of potentially suspicious behavior include the continuous refusal of housekeeping services, the presence of excessive pornography or sex paraphernalia, the use of numerous smartphones, tablets or computers, and the presence of individuals who are exchanging money or who are loitering or soliciting in common areas.
Earlier this year, at the Days Inn in Roseville, an employee called police after a co-worker's boyfriend was approached in the hotel by a man who had asked where he could get phony identification for a 17-year-old.
The worker went online and discovered that the man, Samuel Cozart, 39, of Columbia Heights, had a written entry on a website for prison pen pals and had also placed an ad on Backpage for "traveling escorts" as part of a business called M.A. Entertainment.
The employee suspected that Cozart was running an escort service out of Room 222, and she called police.
Roseville police Chief Rick Mathwig, who discussed the case with training-session attendees Thursday, said detectives were able to win the trust of the 17-year-old girl, who initially denied being involved in prostitution and had given a birth date indicating she was an adult.
The girl eventually acknowledged that she was being prostituted by Cozart and that the two had been preparing to go to the Litchfield, Minn., area for a sex-for-money deal when officers arrived.
Cozart was sentenced in June to 21 years in prison.
Before speaking at the training session, Mathwig said the girl had been a runaway from southern Minnesota and that her mother had no idea where she was.
"Who knows what her life would be like today if not for the hotel employee?" he said.
Reporter Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041