By Farrah Fazal
ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - The wrong kind of hotel guests are checking into luxury hotels across St. Louis. They are sex traffickers - selling girls, women and boys in one to five star hotels.
They're doing it in secret. Some hotel managers may not even know about it.
"If you're not looking for it, you won't see it. You can go online and you can order a girl to any hotel room you'd like in St. Louis" said Kimberly Ritter, an advocate for sex trafficking victims.
She said sex traffickers force, coerce and threaten girls, women and boys into selling sex. The youngest victim she's heard of was a year old. A trafficker tried to sell the baby to a man looking for sex. She says the average age for a child victim is 12 years old.
The traffickers have relationships with hotel staff that makes it easy for them to sell the children and women to hotel guests.
"They could have contact with the front desk agents, they could have contact with the housekeepers," said Ritter. Ritter worked in hotels for 20 years before she moved to a meeting management company called Nix.
Nix and Ritter found a way to educate hotel owners and managers about spotting trafficking that could be right under their noses.
"There are pictures of girls online and you can absolutely identify which hotel that is," she said.
She finds pictures on a website called Backpage that identify landmarks of local hotels. She takes those images to hotel owners so they know their hotel is a hot spot. She wants them to become part of the solution to fight trafficking. Ritter and her company are asking hotels in St. Louis and across the country to sign a code of conduct to end child pornography and trafficking. Hotels would commit to training hotel staff on how to identify trafficking victims and report them if they see them.
"The girls, a lot of times will not make eye contact if you ask them their name. They'll pause and hesitate because they're not sure which name to use," said Ritter.
Hotel workers need to know the red flags. "Just one person coming in no luggage paying for room in cash. Housekeeping will get a call for fresh towels or fresh sheets more than once, that's not normal," said Ritter.
The Milennium Hotel in St. Louis signed the code of conduct a few years ago. Ritter said traffickers don't use that hotel anymore for their criminal activities. She also said the traffickers are trying to stay one step ahead of her.
"The more I talk about what I can identify, the less I see in the pictures," she said of the pictures she finds on Backpage.
She won't stop watching them.
"I care because I've held these girls, I've held their babies," she said.
The FBI gave Ritter an award for her work to save trafficking victims. She and her company are trying to form a new network of law enforcement, private corporations, advocacy and religious agencies that can come up with a strategic plan together to fight sex trafficking.