On October 12, 2023, the Monroeville District Attorney’s Office charged Donte LaShawn Cole, 28, with a total of 19 counts including: Trafficking in Individuals, Involuntary Servitude, Dealing in the Proceeds of Illegal Activity, and Corrupt Organizations. Cole was arrested by Ohio Police and extradited to Monroeville where he is currently awaiting his preliminary hearing.
In May 2023, Monroeville law enforcement began surveilling rooms at the Rodeway Inn and Suites, conducting what they called a “knock and talk” after receiving a trafficking tip in connection with an ongoing drug investigation. A “knock and talk” is a practice often undertaken by law enforcement to informally investigate a residence, or in this case, a hotel, to obtain information about those residing in the residence. During the course of the “knock and talk,” investigators came across two women and a teenager. These women, later identified as victims of sexual exploitation, told investigators that they were placed in motel rooms at the Rodeway Inn where they performed sex acts for money under the direction of Cole. According to the criminal complaint, one of the victims told police that she had heard Cole say, “ya’ll try to leave, there will be consequences.” A search of the victims’ work and personal cell phones indicated that Cole received most of the profits made from these sex acts. Further, the phone conversations purportedly show that the woman appeared to be recruiting other girls into the operation.
As investigators questioned the women, they discovered that Cole allegedly used online advertisements to solicit his victims. Investigators spent the next several months combing through data including text messages, cell phone data, and Cashapp data. They found advertisements supposedly posted by Cole in multiple cities across the country including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland, Charlotte, Tampa, Charleston, and Washington D.C.
On October 5th, police found online advertisements that featured the same teenage victim they encountered in Monroeville back in May. After tracking her down to a hotel in North Randall, Ohio, investigators made contact with her, and she agreed to commit sex acts for money. When investigators met with the girl, she eventually identified Cole as a trafficker, alleging that he had recruited her to perform sex acts for money when she was only 12 years old. When asked why she never attempted to leave Cole, the victim explained that Cole allegedly threatened his victims with consequences if they tried to leave. Following this interview, Ohio Police were able to apprehend Cole based on the victims description of the various rental cars Cole used to transport his victims.
The CSE Institute notes that hotels and motels are among the most common venues for facilitating and financially benefitting from sex trafficking. These venues provide both easy entry and financial secrecy for sex buyers. The Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act provides means to hold hotels both criminally accountable and civilly liable for sex trafficking. In fact, Tom Kline, Nadeem Bezar, and Emily Marks, lawyers with many years of experience with sexual abuse litigation, filed suit in 2017 under a newly enacted Pennsylvania human trafficking statute against the owner and manager of the Roosevelt Inn in Northeast Philadelphia on behalf of a teenage girl who was enslaved and forced to perform sexual acts over nearly two years. Numerous lawsuits against other hotels have followed.
The CSE Institute urges the hospitality industry to take ownership of this problem and confront it with tangible solutions. These solutions may include mandatory trainings for all management and employees to help them recognize the signs of sex trafficking in hotels and what to do if they suspect trafficking. The CSE Institute also urges the industry to stop turning a blind eye to the commercial sexual exploitation happening within their hotels. Instead, hotels and motels should become a leading force in stopping this exploitation altogether. The CSE Institute recognizes the need for legislation that would require these types of trainings, policies, and procedures to be implemented in every hotel and motel across the country.
The CSE Institute applauds the Pennsylvania State Police, Ohio State Police, and the Office of the Attorney General for their zealous fight against the traffickers in this case. Most importantly, the CSE Institute applauds the bravery of the survivors in this case. After all, it is irrefutable that survivor voices will be the force of change in the sex trafficking narrative.
Cole’s case is being prosecuted by Senior Deputy Attorney General Summer Carroll. The CSE Institute will continue to provide updates as this matter unfolds.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.