After more than two weeks of trial, a Gwinnett County jury delivered a post-apportioned award of $13.8 million to the mother of a baby who was born and died in an extended stay hotel at the hands of a cult leader now serving a life sentence for starving the child to death.
Alcenti McIntosh was just 15 months old and only weighed 7.5 pounds when she died.
A lawyer for her mother, Iasia Sweeting, said the young woman—kidnapped at 16, tortured, raped and starved—was herself barely alive when police rescued her and three other malnourished children, including another born by Sweeting, from the Extended Stay America Hotel in Norcross.
Hotel management was accused of looking the other way and ignoring its own rules for monitoring guests while cult leader Calvin McIntosh, reportedly a member of the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, brutalized the group, allegedly with the aid of his daughter—who is also the mother of the other two children.
On Tuesday, the jury took about five hours to agree, holding the hotel responsible for 30 percent of a $46 million verdict. McIntosh was deemed liable for 60 percent.
Plaintiffs attorney Andy Rogers declined to say whether there were any high-low agreements or other such arrangements in place, but he did say there would be no appeals.
He and his clients “are very satisfied with this verdict and that that this jury did a great job of providing justice for Alcenti,” said Rogers, who represented Sweeting at trial along with Deitch & Rogers colleague Michael D’Antignac and Naveen Ramachandrappa of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore.
Extended Stay America was defended by Christopher Byrd, Patrick Moore and Shubhra Mashelkar of Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial.
“This was a tragic case, and we are saddened by the manner and fact of this child’s passing,” said Moore in an emailed statement. ”We believe our client should not have been forced to answer for the child’s own parents’ choices, which is reflected in the jury’s apportionment of 70 percent fault to the child’s caretakers.
“Regardless of fault,” he said, “this was a terrible situation that deeply affected everyone involved.”
According to Rogers, court filings and other sources, the case began in November 2014 when McIntosh showed up at Northside Hospital with Alcenti’s emaciated body.
The baby was pronounced dead on arrival, and hospital staffers said she appeared to have been severely abused. Gwinnett County officers went to the hotel on Jimmy Carter Boulevard and found McIntosh’s sister, Najlaa McIntosh, Sweeting and three children ages 3 to 5 years old.
An adult son of Calvin McIntosh, Khanowk McIntosh, who reportedly also lived at the hotel and paid the bills, was not charged, Rogers said.
All of the children were malnourished, and Sweeting—who had been missing since 2010 and was then 21—only weighed 59 pounds.
“By the time she was rescued, Iasia was in a catatonic state, and she stayed in a catatonic state for the next six months,” Rogers said.
Alcenti was determined to have had 41 rib fractures in her short life, he said.
McIntosh, 48, entered Alford pleas to charges of felony murder and child abuse last year and was sentenced to life plus 30 years on probation in September.
Najlaa is in jail awaiting trial on charges including murder and cruelty to children.
In 2016, Sweeting and Alenti’s court-appointed estate administrator filed a premises liability suit against Extended Stay and several related corporate entities in Gwinnett County State Court, asserting claims that included negligence and failing to keep the premises safe.
Sweeting underwent mental health treatment and made a “truly miraculous recovery” and has since earned her GED, Rogers said.
Sweeting claimed to have been kidnapped and held prisoner by McIntosh and his sister for four years, while the hotel claimed it never had any indication anything was amiss, Rogers said.
“Everybody at the hotel claimed to have no knowledge that Alcenti was there, nor that her mother was there,” he said. “We wanted to find out how in the hell this could have happened without anybody knowing.”
It was revealed during discovery that Extended Stay had several policies that should have alerted staff to the conditions and plight of those held in the room, Rogers said.
“The hotel has a policy that someone is supposed to go into every room at least once a week, but for the entirety of the four years they lived there there was never a room inspection,” Rogers said.
The hotel argued that McIntosh would place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, he said, “but no guest is allowed to refuse entry. It’s a hotel, not an apartment, and they frequently go in if somebody doesn’t pay their rent.”
There is also a policy allowing the manager to use a master key to access a room if a guest refuses entry, Rogers said, but that policy was also ignored.
A mediation earlier this year before Gino Brogdon at Henning Mediation & Arbitration Services “went nowhere fast,” Rogers said.
Jury selection began Oct. 29 before Judge Joseph Iannazzone.
According to the defense portion of the pretrial order, Sweeting’s account of being kidnapped, raped and held against her will was “woefully inadequate.”
While Sweeting may have endured some abuse, the defense argued, she had consensually “run away” with McIntosh, was seen on multiple occasions by hotel employees and “appeared fine and never sounded any alarm. Likewise, over the course of her alleged captivity, Ms. Sweeting failed to inform police, EMTs, doctors or hospital staff that she had been kidnapped or was otherwise being held against her will.”
Rogers said key testimony was supplied by Delaware psychologist Steve Eichel, who specializes in cults.
“A lot of the defense case was spent trying to blame Iasia for getting involved, so we called this expert to help understand the cult dynamics between a 40-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl,” he said.
Rogers said he told the jury during jury selection and in opening and closing arguments that he would ask for “at least $50 million for the life of this child and the pain and suffering she endured.”
The defense did not suggest any damage figure at closing, Rogers said.
“They just wanted the jury to let their clients go,” he said.
Evidence ended and the judge charged the jury last Friday, and they returned Tuesday after the Veterans Day holiday for about five hours of deliberations.
“They didn’t ask a single question,” Rogers said.
On Tuesday afternoon, the panel awarded $23 million for Alcenti’s pain and suffering and $23 million for her life.
In addition to apportioning 30 percent of the liability to Extended Stay and 60 percent to Calvin McIntosh, the jury apportioned 9 percent to Najlaa McIntosh and 1 percent to Sweeting.
The jury “didn’t stick around to talk,” he said.