A 2013 human trafficking arrest and subsequent conviction in Dothan has resulted in a lawsuit filed by the victim against the assailant, a classified ad website believed to have been used in the trafficking operation, and the owners of the hotel where the victim was found.
The suit was filed by the victim – 17 years old at the time of the incident – Wednesday in Houston County Circuit Court.
The suit claims the assailant – Santiago Alonso – used the classified ad website backpage.com to advertise the victim for sex and that the owners of the website are liable because the website has been generally known to be used by sex traffickers to advertise illegal activity.
The suit further claims the hotel owners are liable because the owners should have known Alonso was engaging in illegal activity at the Quality Inn in Dothan. The suit claims Alonso achieved “Diamond Level” status in the Choice Hotels customer loyalty program and that the hotel benefited financially from Alonso’s illegal operation.
Dothan Police arrested Alonso in August of 2013 after the victim escaped a Quality Inn hotel room, made her way to another hotel, approached a patron and asked the patron to call the police. Investigators determined the victim had recently run away from home in Meridian, Miss., and was approached by Alonso, who told the victim he could help her. Investigators believe the victim was initially taken to Tennessee, where she was given drugs as a means of controlling her.
Alonso then took the victim and another woman to Dothan. The suit alleges Alonso photographed the victim and posted the photos on the backpage.com website as part of a classified advertisement. The suit alleges the victim was offered to customers willing to pay a certain amount of money for specified periods of time. The suit alleges Alonso and the victim were in Dothan at least 37 nights between May of 2013 and August of 2013. The suit alleges multiple men visited the hotel room daily.
The California Attorney General’s office in December of 2016 charged Backpage.com executives with conspiracy to commit pimping and money laundering. A judge dismissed similar charges earlier in December, but the office re-filed charges later. The owners are accused of knowingly profiting from prostitution. The website stopped publishing adult service advertisements two weeks ago, citing years of government pressure.
Similar civil suits have been filed against backpage.com and its owners, and at least one federal court has ruled that websites are generally not liable for content posted to the site by its users. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a case brought by three Massachusetts sex-trafficking victims who claimed the website helped facilitate their abuse.
Alonso was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at the Bibb County Correctional Facility in Alabama.
The four-count suit claims unjust enrichment, negligence, outrage and general violation of Alabama’s Human Trafficking statute.
“Plaintiff has suffered and continues to suffer damages, including, but not limited to, serious personal injury, mental anguish, loss of quality of life, emotional pain and suffering, and has incurred and/or will incur medical and/or therapy expenses,” states the suit, filed on behalf of the victim by Birmingham attorney Gregory Zarzaur of the firm Zarzaur, Mujumdar and Debrosse.