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Prosthetic limb maker David Sisson thought he knew what to expect when he moved his business next to the Highlander Motor Inn on the West Beltline at Verona Road. After all, he'd previously been a neighbor of the Capitol Motel, a similarly run-down establishment down the road. His biggest hassle there was shooing away a prostitute who'd occasionally drop by, offering her services.
Now, one year later, Sisson is utterly confounded by the Highlander's bustling open-air drug market. He often starts his days by sweeping up beer cans, dirty needles, discarded crack pipes and used condoms from his parking lot. Throughout the day, Sisson watches the dealers serve addicts as quickly as they come, sometimes four or five cars at a time.
"In the winter, there wasn't a lot of traffic, but once the weather warmed up it was mind-boggling," says Sisson, who used to work near Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. "I stopped in to talk to the owner and asked, 'Do you have many problems here?' and he says, 'Bad people come and they do prostitution and buy drugs, but there's no problems.'"
On June 20, Dane County's drug taskforce executed search warrants on two rooms at the Highlander and seized large quantities of cocaine base, the active ingredient in crack. A raid nearby that same night uncovered more of the drug and a firearm.
The Highlander is one of several low-budget motels dotting the West Beltline corridor that have over the years become magnets for drugs, prostitution and crime. Three of them - the Highlander, Expo Inn and Kings Inn - have in the last 18 months generated more than 850 police calls. And each is on pace to exceed last year's totals.
Most of the calls involve noise complaints, but police incident reports also detail attempted suicides, drug crimes, car thefts, property damage, robberies, fights, sexual assaults and weapons offenses. Last summer, a 65-year-old man was stabbed and beaten to death at the Kings Inn. The killing remains unsolved.
South-side Ald. Tim Bruer, who for years has implored the city to take action against these properties, thinks the problem is worse than the 911 call log reflects. Many incidents go underreported, he says, and police often uncover other crimes when called to the scene. He accuses the motel owners of willfully exploiting the needy and enabling crime.
"These owners have really profiteered on the backs of customers in crisis, in many cases whose only fault in life is that they're poor and struggling," says Bruer. "For decades, these establishments placed sheer greed above the health and safety of customers and the neighborhoods at large."
Owners of all three motels maintain that problems on their properties spill over from the troubled neighborhoods around them. They argue that the city must clean up its own messes.
"There are some things that there's no solution for, and those things are a much bigger problem in this area," says Bob Patel, general manager of the Expo Inn. "The south side is not a great place. You're not going to find the pillars of society in this area."
The Beltline motels, built in the 1950s to accommodate the growing motorist economy, have over the last several decades declined, along with the neighborhoods around them. Economically stressed owners reinvested little in their properties, and began catering to the city's destitute classes.
Cheap and isolated on poorly lit streets lined with commercial properties that close in the evening, the motels are ideal havens for mayhem. They serve as crash pads for the poor, emergency shelters for social-service agencies and makeshift halfway houses for the justice system. And the state Department of Corrections has placed parolees in the Expo Inn and Capital Motel (across the street from the Kings Inn in the town of Madison).
"They really went from providing quality, affordable longer-term housing, especially for seasonal construction workers and the like, to really becoming a dumping ground for agencies that use them as last-resort housing for people in crisis," says Bruer.
Guests include battered women with children, military vets, people with physical and mental handicaps, convicted felons, drug runners, dealers, users, prostitutes and johns. At least four people have lived at the Kings Inn for nearly a decade.
At all three places, the specter of victimization looms. Thieves have been known to use copied room keys to steal from rooms. The motels provide immediate shelter, but are more costly than other accommodations for those in need.
"People are paying much more than they would if they were renting an apartment," says Bruer. "These owners have taken full advantage of government programs that need housing of last resort, with little oversight of the quality of the units or motel management."
Owners and police say the more transient guests are typically the troublemakers. But even if long-term guests do cause problems, ejecting them isn't always easy. After 60 days, a guest becomes a legal tenant, and motel owners, in effect, become landlords who must file for eviction. Ald. Brenda Konkel, who heads the Tenant Resource Center, says the rules are meant to give homeless tenants some rights.
Highlander owner Yichang Wang dislikes the law, saying guests sometimes stop paying after 60 days, forcing him to file for eviction. "What can I do when they won't pay or leave?" asks Wang, who, according to online court records, has filed only one eviction since 2001. "I have to go to court. That is money I pay."
Over the last year, since the murder at the Kings Inn, the city has taken a tougher tack toward the West Beltline motels. City building inspectors have written the hotels up for numerous code violations. Since then, Kings Inn owner Vitthal Shah has replaced moldy bedding, fixed leaky ceilings, removed broken-down vehicles from his lot, and painted over mildew.
Shah says the city has been "very nice to him," but that the repairs have hurt him financially. "People think we make a lot of money, but we don't," he says. "Even big hotels don't make much money."
In April, inspectors ordered nearly 200 improvements at the Expo, including replacing broken smoke detectors, shampooing carpets, removing mold and mildew and fixing leaky toilets.
Last year, Madison police named Officer Rahim Rahaman as liaison to the motels in the south district. Each week he visits with owners to learn, among other things, who is walking the parking lot or which guests have a lot of visitors. "The challenge is to keep tabs on who is there and to also crack down on the drug behavior," he says.
Rahaman also runs each name on the guest register, looking for people wanted by police. It's very common, he says, to find guests with warrants out for their arrest. One check this spring turned up five fugitives at the Expo.
In February, the city council passed an ordinance Bruer introduced prohibiting owners from renting the same room more than once in a 12-hour period. Owners say they've never offered brothel rates, and no one expects the new law to be vigorously enforced.
"We're dealing with fights in Penn Park and shots being fired left and right," says Rahaman, adding that he believes the owners he works with are making a good-faith effort to discourage problems. "I'm going to say it's not on our top three things to do right now."
'I can't do anything'
A typical day at any of the West Beltline motels involves lots of commotion. Activity is particularly heady at the Highlander Motor Inn.
As early as 10 a.m., the Highlander is clearly a destination place. In the parking lot, an older couple fire up a crack pipe inside a rusty Buick. The hotel's two rear doors, both with busted locks, accommodate the foot traffic that comes and goes from all directions.
Inside, owner Wang stands behind a barred window meant to stop people from hopping over the counter, but which did little to prevent four armed robberies in as many years. Some guests hang out in the halls, rapping on doors and shouting over one another. Wang, who also lives at the hotel, lowers his head.
"I can't do anything," he says, almost whispering so he can't be overheard. "It's too many bad people in the neighborhood. I call too much and police complain, so I don't call, but sometimes I have to."
Police have responded to nearly 300 incidents at the Highlander in the last 18 months. Most calls are well-being checks, disturbances and reports of suspicious or unwanted people. At least nine people have attempted suicide there. A few calls deal with drugs or prostitution. Overall, there is little documented violence.
Wang, like Patel, blames the neighborhood. Madison Ald. Brian Solomon agrees: "The Highlander, in and of itself, is a symptom, not a cause, of problems in the area. You can't blame a motel for the inability of society to address issues of poverty."
Solomon "has a dialogue going" with police about the motel. The cops have warned Wang about the high volume of calls, but any steps he's taken have merely reduced the boil to a simmer. He notes that he has no legal basis for denying someone a room until that person becomes a problem.
Sisson believes Wang and the police could do more to restore order. He says he's frequently called police, once handing an officer the crack pipes he'd found since moving in, but they've stopped returning his calls. Now he doesn't call except to report vehicles parked illegally in his lot.
"Thankfully, it doesn't affect me so much except that they just throw their junk in my parking lot, and I've had some stuff stolen, hoses, shovels," Sisson says. "Being poor isn't a crime, but it doesn't mean you can't have respect for people's property."
When new owners took over the Expo Inn last spring, they hired a security guard, installed cameras and fixed up some rooms, but problems there persist. Heavy car and foot traffic is still the norm, but without the Highlander's sense of lawlessness.
A young man visiting Madison last summer who stayed at the Expo posted an online review. "I was propositioned by a tenant at the Expo Inn during my stay, which was disturbing," he wrote. "She was a rather interesting character with 'meth teeth' and a cracked-out countenance.... I can't say I recommend the hotel, but it is convenient, and the staff was nice."
Police have, in the last 18 months, logged more than 500 incidents at the Expo, which has about 100 rooms. Most are for disturbances, but like the Highlander, incidents run the gamut of criminal deviance. For owner Patel, this is proof that urban decay more than poor management is to blame for the ongoing troubles.
"I'm not used to running a property like this," says Patel, who expresses worry that this article will give the motel a bad name. "We ran a property in Jefferson, where the clientele was a little, shall we say, different. They're all good people, but sometimes good people make bad decisions, which may affect their stay here."
Meet the neighbors
Dave Sisson was working late at his shop one night earlier this year when, just before midnight, three cars rolled into his parking lot. From his window, he watched several young men tuck guns in their waistbands as they exited the vehicles. Moments later, a man came over from the Highlander, jacked up one of the cars and removed a wheel.
After about 20 minutes, Sisson realized the man was trying to do brake work, but didn't have the proper tools. He stepped out to offer help.
"The kids were freaked out and literally went for their guns," Sisson recalls. "I asked them if they needed any tools. The older guy, it turns out, was an old gangbanger from Chicago. He'd been shot a couple of times, then worked as a mechanic. He was staying at the motel. They were all very appreciative."
Despite his distaste for the activities next door, Sisson is sympathetic toward the struggles facing the people staying there. He's never felt unsafe, though one man did threaten Sisson when told he couldn't park in his lot. "When things really get bad," says Sisson, "police will send a marked car, and things are quiet for a while."
Chad Gephardt, who owns commercial property next to the Expo Inn, hasn't had many issues with the motel's guests, except for the trash his tenants find in the lot each morning. He's had a window broken and some lobby art stolen, but his biggest problem is with people cutting across his property. In general, his tenants haven't had any problems with safety.
"Then again, I only know what my tenants tell me," says Gephardt, who's owned the property for six years. "I'm not sure what goes on over there after [the tenants] close up for the night. Let's just say the motels haven't created a friendly renting environment."
Across the Beltline from Gephardt's property and the Expo is the Kings Inn, a 39-room motel known for its dumpiness. As one out-of-towner summed up online, "If you're a fan of fleabags, this is the place for you. However, you still might want to get deloused after your stay."
Owner Shah deplores the criticism, claiming he's been unfairly targeted since George Thomas, a transient, was murdered at his motel last summer. He blames media in particular for placing undue scrutiny on the Kings Inn.
"They want to ruin everybody's life," says Shah, who's owned the motel for 13 years. "You look at the Highlander, the Expo Inn, the Super 8, they have many more problems, but it creates headaches for us, too. When I bought it, it was a mess, but I clean it up. I do more maintenance than any of the motels. If I go, where will the poor people go? They play with a lot of people's lives."
Shah recalls Thomas as a quiet man and a good customer, who admittedly may have come to the Kings Inn looking for sex. Yet Shah maintains he's gotten rid of "the bad people."
"We don't like prostitutes," he says. "We get rid of them. If women knock on the doors, we make them leave. If they come back, we call police. We don't have many problems here."
The Highlander, Expo and Kings Inn are not the only low-budget motels in Madison. On the east side, the Spence Motel and Aloha Inn, both on East Washington Avenue, present their own set of problems. In 1997, a 22-year-old former mental patient brutally murdered a female escort at the Spence Motel.
These motels, even in their architecture, are places where trouble can fester unnoticed.
"Ironically, what was originally a selling point is now one of the most detrimental aspects of motels, from a crime-prevention standpoint," says a 2005 U.S. Justice Department report. "Direct access to rooms allows problem guests and visitors to come and go without being seen by motel personnel."
UW-Madison sociology professor John DeLamater says police departments often have informal policies that aim to manage rather than eliminate problems at nuisance motels.
"Often you find that the police in the area are aware of those locations, and they keep an eye on them, but they don't rigidly enforce the laws," says DeLamater, who has studied social deviance. "If they enforce the laws more rigorously, it drives it underground so it's harder for them to have any kind of control over it."
Madison Police Capt. Jay Lengfeld says the Highlander is treated like any other commercial property, monitored through routine patrols and community policing efforts.
"The Highlander is like the stock market, it goes up and down," says Lengfeld. "There's definitely plenty of room for improvement there. We do all kinds of preventative stuff, but now, after the [recent drug] warrants, we'll start looking for a more formal process for dealing with it."
As for public policy, Ald. Solomon believes targeting the motels is the difference between treating a symptom and curing the illness.
"The reality is that if we close [them] up, it's not going to do anything to stop drugs or prostitution or the associated violence," says Solomon. "The Highlander just happens to exist in the neighborhood it does rather than, say, Shorewood Hills. We need to look at the root causes of poverty and not just blame a hotel."
In April, Rahaman invited Shah, Patel and a Super 8 staffer to the south Madison police station for a presentation on ways to discourage illicit behavior. An assistant city attorney was also on hand to discuss the new ordinance. Rahaman says it's critical for owners to communicate with each other.
"If they have to evict somebody, they should get it around that this person isn't a very good tenant," says Rahaman. "With them coming in here, I hope that they will get together and call each other and say, 'Hey, don't let them in. They're trouble.'"
Owners say they do regularly communicate. "We're all good friends," says Shah. "You can find little things wrong at any place."
Bruer and Gephardt doubt motel owners genuinely want to improve their properties, but say it needs to happen.
"We really need owners to want to make it a better property, and a better neighborhood as a whole," says Gephardt. "But if they're not willing to clean up their mess, we're going to help them. It's been happening, and I'd like to see it move quicker, but I understand that things take time."
Bruer, who's at his wit's end with motel owners, suggests that it might be time for the city to raze the properties.
"They've become such a public nuisance and risk to public safety that I think the time has come to seriously consider whether we can continue to tolerate their existence," he says. "These motels are ground zero for drugs, prostitution and crime. Do you think that the residents of Nakoma or Midvale Heights would enjoy this? Not for a moment."