HOUSTON (CN) — A mother has sued a Houston hotel, claiming it allowed her daughter to be sold for sex there and then killed nearby.
Janiece Charlez sued the Plainfield Inn and Rajan and Dahyabhai Patel on Friday in Harris County Court. Houston and Texas sued the hotel and its operators in November last year for contempt of a court injunction involving dangerous conditions at the hotel.
Charlez says in her lawsuit that her daughter Natalie Fisher was trafficked at the hotel in 2015 and then “brutally murdered and dumped on the side of the road less than 10 miles” away from it in September 2016.
Since May 2014, the Houston Police Department has received more than 400 calls requesting assistance for crimes at the Plainfield Inn, including “violent assaults, prostitution arrests, drug offenses, weapon offenses, armed robberies, and theft,” the complaint states.
Charlez says Plainfield and the Patels “were and remain aware of the illegal activities, including human trafficking, at the Plainfield Inn and yet still rent rooms to known pimps and drug dealers.”
Charlez’s attorney Ross Bussard said in an interview Tuesday that the defendants continue to “turn a blind eye” to human trafficking at the hotel. Bussard said it is important to hold the Patels accountable for the illegal actions on their property.
Charlez’s lawsuit is the first in Texas to cite civil charges under 2009 human trafficking statutes, and it will be the first of many, Bussard said.
He described the civil complaint as a collaborative effort with law enforcement and prosecutors against human traffickers and the establishments that harbor the practice, including Plainfield.
A Harris County judge granted a temporary injunction against Plainfield in August 2016 on common nuisance charges for allowing prostitution. The city and state followed up with the contempt order in November, saying the Patels and their hotel continued to play a “key role in supporting prostitution and associated crimes.”
A manager at the Plainfield Inn declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Texas Assistant Attorney General Melissa Holman said that while civil penalties against a property may not rise to the level of human trafficking, a property and its owners could be criminally charged if city and state attorneys found evidence that properties or owners profited off of trafficking directly.
Bussard said that Charlez’s lawsuit is part of an effort to “attack the demand side” of sex trafficking on behalf of victims like Fisher by seeking financial restitution from establishments that ignore or allow it.
Charlez struggled to keep Fisher on track after she became a mother in her teens while they lived in Temple, Texas, according to a December 2016 story in the Temple Daily Telegram.
After Fisher failed a job program in Killeen, she moved to Dallas to “get on her feet,” Charlez said in the Telegram story.
But her daughter became involved in a “sex ring” and traveled to Mississippi, Dallas and Houston to earn money for her pimp, according to the Telegram. Charlez tried to rescue her from the situation for two years, but her efforts came to an end when “Natalie was found in a ditch near some bushes,” according to the Telegram.
Fisher’s story reflects findings of a 2011 Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force report. “Poverty, low self-esteem, and the dream of finding a better life are some of the factors that increase the likelihood of international and domestic human trafficking,” the 72-page report to the Legislature states.
“The challenge is to distinguish between those who engage in the illegal activity by their own choice and those who are forced to commit the act by someone else,” the report adds.
But the Texas Tribune and Dallas Morning News reported in February this year that Texas leaders have failed to meet that challenge.
The Tribune reported that Texas legislators “have also passed few policies aimed at directly helping victims, and they have balked time and again at providing the money to pay for them. That has left a laundry list of empty laws and hollow programs.”
Legislators have “devoted hardly any resources to the victims whose testimony is essential to putting sex traffickers behind bars,” according to the Tribune.
From a prosecutorial standpoint, Holman reiterated the importance of law enforcement officials and prosecutors treating trafficking victims with care.
Trafficking victims often have criminal histories, but prosecutors “always treat them as victims,” Holman said in an interview.
Texas legislators have submitted a slate of bills for the 85th legislative session, including a bill allowing trafficking victims to avoid criminal charges.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, filed House Bill 269 in November 2016. It would allow people to petition a court to set aside conviction if the petitioner “engaged in prostitution solely as a victim of trafficking of persons or compelling prostitution.”
H.B. 269 was pending in committee as Monday, according to the Legislature's website.
Charlez seeks punitive damages for civil liability regarding human trafficking and gross negligence. Her attorney Bussard is with Hotze Runkle in Austin.