A Northeast Philadelphia motel that prosecutors have called the city's "epicenter of human trafficking" was sued Friday under a recent state law for permitting the pimping of a teenage girl in one of its rooms for two years.
The suit, filed in Common Pleas Court, was the first under a 2014 state law that allows victims of sex traffickers to sue hotels and motels where abuse occurs.
"This is a message to the entire motel and hotel industry that if you allow and enable trafficking of youngsters, young women, or any person on your facilities, you will be held responsible and sued for damages under the law," said Center City lawyer Thomas R. Kline.
Kline and two lawyers from the Kline & Specter law firm, Nadeem A. Bezar and Emily B. Marks, announced the filing of the lawsuit on behalf of a 17-year-old girl, identified as "M.B.," who in 2013, at age 14, was "sold into sexual slavery at the Roosevelt Motel."
During 2013 and 2014, said Bezar, M.B. sometime spent weeks or months living at the motel at 7630 Roosevelt Blvd., was barred from leaving, and was forced to commit sex acts with about 1,000 men "double, triple and quadruple her age."
In addition to Roosevelt Inn LLC, the lawsuit names the motel's owner, UFVS Management Co., of Purchase, N.Y., and the motel's resident manager, Yagna Patel.
A spokeswoman for UFVS Management, who declined to identify herself, said she had been told not to comment to reporters about the lawsuit. The company manages about 40 commercial properties in New York, North Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Patel, 72, said he had not seen the lawsuit and was not aware of any minors being abused or used in prostitution at the motel.
"We just rent the room and that's all we can do," Patel said, adding that "if we think a lot of people are having a party in the room, we kick them out."
Patel said he has a close relationship with the police. Indeed, Assistant District Attorney Erin O'Brien said Patel has cooperated and been a witness for the prosecutor's office in previous cases of prostitution and human trafficking.
O'Brien said the Roosevelt Inn is well-known in the District Attorney's Office.
"Almost every trafficking investigation we have, we see the victim is at Roosevelt Inn," O'Brien said. "I know our vice officers are out there on a regular basis."
Several people have been convicted over the last few years on charges of using the motel for prostitution.
On March 31, 2014, one pimp at the motel began a gun battle with another man he thought was infringing on his turf. The gunfight, which continued through the halls, down a stairwell and into the lobby, was caught on security cameras and went viral when it appeared on YouTube.
Vincent Jackson, 32, of Grays Ferry, was convicted of aggravated assault, promoting prostitution, corrupting a minor and three gun offenses, for which he was sentenced by a Philadelphia judge in 2015 to 10 to 20 years in prison.
Kline and Bezar said they found it hard to believe that Patel could not know what was going on in his 107-room, two-story motel. "Johns" were directed to the teenager's room after inquiring in the lobby and security cameras inside and out would have shown a steady queue of men going in and out of her room.
The teen, sometimes scantily dressed, wandered the halls while the room was being cleaned and befriended some of the motel staff. Some staff even accepted gratuities from the girl's pimp, Klein said.
"This was open, obvious and notorious," Klein said. "It is a flagrant and blatant example of a motel looking the other way — profiting from it and allowing it to occur."
Bezar said his 17-year-old client was a young girl when "she was left to fend for herself."
She was transient, sometimes homeless, and "got involved with the wrong crowd and was eventually forced into the sex-trafficking industry," Bezar said.
Bezar said the girl managed to get out once during the two years but was forced to return until she finally broke free and reestablished contact with her family and city child-welfare workers.
The traffickers who pimped the teen were later arrested, convicted and sent to prison. Bezar declined to identify her abusers, saying he feared exposing the girl, who lives in Philadelphia, to retaliation.
"She's devastated with what has happened to her," Bezar said. "She's just trying to piece her life back together. She's getting the therapy she needs but her life will never be the same."
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 7,572 human trafficking cases were reported in 2016, including 151 in Pennsylvania and 193 in New Jersey. Almost three-quarters of those cases involve sex trafficking; almost a third of sex-trafficking cases occurred in hotels and motels.
Kline said the 2014 Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Law will prove to be a powerful tool for sex-trafficking victims.
"Jury verdicts will resonate with owners and operator of motel and hotels," Kline said. "There is no doubt that this is more commonplace than any of us would like to believe. This is an open, obvious, notorious case. But we also believe it occurs in fancy hotels in Center City, and occurs in casinos in our midst, and it occurs in shacks that are motels along the roadside. This is where the purveyors of sex traffic do their business."