When Kyle Hepp stepped off an international flight at New York’s JFK Airport, all she wanted to do was get to her hotel room. Unfortunately, she got more than she bargained for.

As Hepp and her boyfriend waited outside the airport for the hotel shuttle, she noticed a Sheraton van parked at a distance. After patiently waiting several minutes, she walked to the van see if the driver was inside.

According to Hepp, as she approached, she could see someone was in the van. And as she got close to the passenger side window, she couldn’t believe her eyes: the driver was masturbating, “with his penis fully out.”

Hepp’s shocking case and the hotel’s responses raise important questions about corporate responsibility for employee misconduct toward its customers. Because in this case, the Sheraton didn’t just fail to help its guest — its attorney also arguably discouraged her from reporting the incident.

When Hepp realized what the driver was doing, she ran back to her waiting boyfriend. Moments later, the driver stepped out of the van to tell the couple he could take them to the Sheraton. “He didn’t say anything about the incident and we rode to the hotel in silence,” Hepp recalls.

But it wasn’t over yet. “When we got to the hotel, my boyfriend got our luggage out of the van. I just wanted to get away from this man as fast as possible,” she remembers. “But he walked in and purposely stood behind the check-in counter, waiting to see if I said anything about the incident. As soon as he left, I told the women behind the counter what happened, and they gave me the hotel manager’s email address.”

According to Hepp, the front desk staff at the Sheraton JFK told her the general manager would contact her the following day, but he never did. Hepp demanded to speak with him upon check-out, but he wasn’t there.

Hepp says everyone at the hotel was dismissive of her complaint. Even after Hepp emailed the general manager, it was a few weeks and several emails later before anyone responded.

Instead, Hepp spoke with the hotel’s sales manager, who, according to Hepp, barely offered an apology before adding, “Well, I hope everything else was great with your stay and you come back and see us soon!”

Hepp’s disgust over witnessing the sexually inappropriate behavior by Sheraton’s employee turned to anger when the hotel’s management first ignored Hepp’s complaint and later showed more concern for its employee than for Hepp. She pressed the issue, asking for the driver’s name so she could file a police report, but the hotel’s attorney refused to disclose the requested information, citing privacy laws.

The hotel’s lawyer sent Hepp an email explaining which New York statutes apply to her allegations of sexual misconduct. Specifically, the lawyer explained the difference between the charge of “public exposure,” which is a misdemeanor and results in a fine, and “public lewdness,” which is a crime and could result in jail time and a criminal record. According to the hotel’s lawyer, the distinction is whether the alleged party intended to be seen unclothed, which is a question of fact.

The lawyer wrote: “The facts and circumstances are for the police to determine under their investigation. The allegation here is serious. We would not release personal information of the person alleged to have committed a crime due to the sensitive nature of this allegation.”

Was the lawyer trying to discourage Hepp from reporting the incident, and if so, why? If the employee was accused of engaging in behavior that was both inappropriate in his employment and criminal under New York law, shouldn’t Sheraton want the matter to be pursued?

The driver was in a public place with a high probability of being seen. He was in a vehicle, so if he wanted to go to a private place, he had the ability to do so. Instead, he made the choice to engage in this behavior in a populated area right outside one of the busiest airports in the world.

The hotel’s lawyer’s message seems to convey an overwhelming concern for what might happen to its employee should Hepp file a report. The hotel restated its refusal to disclose identifying information about the shuttle driver but said it would cooperate with authorities if Hepp obtained a subpoena or court order.

The lawyer’s email only strengthened Hepp’s resolve. She responded:

I hope he does get a criminal record. It was extremely traumatizing for me to see a random penis, when all I wanted to do was get safely to my hotel, then have to be in the shuttle with that same man. And worse still was that the hotel didn’t do a damn thing. I told the front desk, then the next day I told the sales manager because the general manager was not around. Both times I was told he would contact me, but it’s been three weeks and he never contacted me. I continued to wait because I figured they were doing some kind of internal investigation. But I just now finally received word from the manager, after I wrote to him again, and it’s clear the hotel has taken this matter very lightly and doesn’t think it’s a big deal that one of their employees was masturbating on the job and in a place where he clearly knew the hotel’s customers would see him.

The manager eventually told her that the hotel would issue a refund, but said it would only be a partial refund of the $190 paid, because some of the funds were kept by the online booking site Priceline.

I spoke with Hepp to understand exactly what she hoped to achieve. Offended by the hotel’s brush off, she wanted a full apology — and a full refund. I agreed her expectations were reasonable, and I contacted the hotel on her behalf.

But I didn’t just contact the hotel, which is an independently owned franchise run by a Philadelphia-based company. I also copied an executive at Marriott, the parent company of the Sheraton brand, because it is important for the parent company to know what was going on at a franchise location and how it was handling serious complaints like Hepp’s.

I urged them to contact their customer directly, explaining that Hepp understands that privacy laws prevent the company from revealing the name of its employee without a court order. However, we both felt that there was room for improvement from a customer relations standpoint.

Shortly thereafter, I received a response from both Marriott and the hotel management company, assuring me that they were concerned and would look into the situation. They wanted to speak with Hepp directly, which of course she was willing to do.

Within a few days, Hepp had a phone conversation with a Marriott representative and the hotel’s regional manager, who apologized profusely for her experience. The hotel also refunded the additional $61 to cover the amount that had been paid to Priceline.

For its part, Sheraton JFK issued the following statement:

“We are deeply sorry that this guest was offended and feels the hotel management was not appropriately responsive. Our guests trust us to provide a safe environment and we take the guest’s allegations very seriously and conducted an internal investigation. Due to privacy laws, we are not at liberty to disclose the results of our investigation, nor provide the name of the associate she said was involved. However, if she wants to pursue this with the authorities, we encourage her to contact the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, whose police department has immediate jurisdiction at JFK Airport. We will fully cooperate with any law enforcement investigation.”

We may never know the outcome of the internal investigation at the hotel. But the hotel’s initial response to the incident implies that if someone wasn’t physically harmed by sexual misconduct, it’s not that big a deal.

Downplaying the incident was the wrong move — it invalidates her experience, and compounds her distress at being violated and traumatized by a company she trusted. Although there was no physical contact between the driver and Hepp, this is not a victimless crime, and no one should have to witness others’ self-gratification involuntarily.

The hotel’s management should have taken this complaint seriously as soon as Hepp reported it. Sheraton had been given ample opportunity to listen to their guest, validate and acknowledge her experience and make her feel empowered by letting her know in a timely manner what they will do and what she can do.

After the company called her to apologize and issue a full refund, Hepp felt some closure over this unfortunate incident. “The management company finally seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. They listened and apologized profusely, and offered me a free night at a Sheraton in the city on my next trip.”

Hepp still plans to file a police report when she returns to New York City.

If you are ever confronted with a situation like the one Hepp faced — and let’s hope you’re not — there are a few things you can do:

  • Don’t get in the van. It’s probably best not to get into a vehicle under the control of the suspect. Instead, move to a safe area away from the offender.
  • Call the police immediately. In this case, airport police were moments away and could have responded to the situation, identifying the culprit on the scene. Given the location, police may have access to video surveillance footage which would help the prosecution of the case.
  • Finally, call the hotel. The hotel should know that an incident occurred at the airport, that the authorities are involved and that alternate ground transportation is needed.