Hotel and motel workers in Washington County will take part in a new law enforcement training program to help them recognize and report sex trafficking activity.

The campaign, called "Speak Up. They Can't," is intended to help workers in the hospitality industry counter illegal behavior and in effect become a voice for victims, said County Attorney Pete Orput.

In the past 18 months, Orput's office has prosecuted more than two dozen men looking to buy sex with girls and women. Many arrests have occurred in Woodbury, the county's largest city.

"This is not a hotel problem," said Lee Vague, Woodbury's public safety director, at a news conference Thursday in Stillwater. Rather, he said, Woodbury is a high-profile city because police aggressively arrest sex traffickers who exploit the city's lodging establishments.

Washington County has 33 motels and hotels, said Doug Dyer, the county supervisor who oversees food and lodging licensing.

Oakdale Police Chief Bill Sullivan said hotel and motel workers will be trained to watch for signs, such as people wanting to pay for rooms with cash, carrying no luggage with them and declining to register their vehicles.

Prosecutor Imran Ali, of Orput's major crimes unit, said sex traffickers often want rooms near elevators — unlike most guests — to disguise people coming and going. Cars roaming a hotel parking lot might be sex traffickers making sure police aren't nearby, and women and girls ushered past the front desk often show appearances of fear and abuse.

"No hotel owner wants this to happen," said Dan McElroy, president of Hospitality Minnesota. Lodging establishments around the Twin Cities metro area have become targets of sex traffickers who make quick appearances with frightened girls and then move on, he said.

"Our goal is to make it so difficult that they don't want to use hotels," he said.

The news conference also included Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry, Cottage Grove Police Chief Craig Woolery and Lowell Johnson, who oversees the county's Public Health and Environment Department.

Washington County law enforcement leaders have taken a victim-centered approach to sex trafficking, concentrating on perpetrators. Many of the victims are girls who are coaxed with alcohol and drugs and then forced into repeated sex acts with men.

"Do not purchase a human being. It's illegal, it's immoral and it's wrong," Ali said.

County prosecutors do not negotiate with sex traffickers, he said, but instead seek maximum prison sentences.

More than 50 victims have been "recovered," Ali said, in Washington County since early 2016. Some work willingly but most are forced into sex against their will and, once police intervene, are taken to social services for treatment and counseling.

The average age range of girls entering the sex trade is 12 to 14, according to a "Speak Up" video.

Sullivan said that for desperate women and girls, selling sex can be a form of survival.

"If you are cold and hungry and homeless, you are not going to make decisions that are in your best long-term interests," he said.

The Washington County campaign's new website is

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037