UPDATED: 1:55 p.m. | At a news conference in Tukwila this afternoon, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and Tukwila Police Department Assistant Chief Bruce Linton said that the three hotels at the center of the investigation have accounted for 17 percent of all calls for police services in the past year.
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Despite intense efforts to educate and work with the owners, the properties remained a huge drain on police and a blight on the city , said Tukwila Mayor Jim Haggerton.
Durkan said investigators believe the owners actively profited from criminal activity and that residents were involved. Typically, she said, the owners would direct potential customers to certain rooms for drugs and sexual services and take a cut of the profits.
Durkan said this is not only a “new day for a part of the city of Tukwila,” but also a warning to other owners of similar hotels and properties.
In addition, she said, this demonstrates how the US Attorney’s office will not only prosecute criminal activity but will actively use the tools of forfeitures and seizures to force compliance with the law
Federal and state law-enforcement officers poured into Tukwila along Highway 99 this morning seizing three motels whose operators are suspected of participating in illegal drugs and prostitution.
The operation involved about 200 officers at the scene and another 200 who helped develop the case during a year-long investigation that culminated in this morning’s raid, according to Tukwila Police Commander Eric Drever.
A federal criminal complaint, filed last week and unsealed today, charges seven people –including the managers and owners of the three motels — with attempted distribution and distribution of crack cocaine. According to the charges, a paid undercover informant purchased cocaine in deals set up with hotel residents by the hotel managers during the past month.
The complaint identified three of the defendants as Jaspal Singh, Lakhvir Pawar and Kulwinder Saroya, who federal prosecutors say ran and owned the hotels: the Great Bear Motor Inn, The Boulevard Motel and the Traveler’s Choice
In addition, a detailed, 48-page civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court seeks to forfeit the properties as proceeds from illegal transactions, including drug dealing and money laundering.
The complaint says that the hotels have been the focus of an inordinate amount of crime and calls for police. It states that the problems date back several years, however during 2011 and 2012, almost one of every six calls for service to Tukwila Police Department were to those three motels. “The crimes for which police responded to the Target Motels include, among others: rape, robbery, assault, drug transaction, gun crimes, prostitution and stolen property,” the civil complaint says.
“The investigation revealed that the owners of the properties are engaged in, encouraging and making significant cash profits from criminal activity at the Target Motels,” wrote Special Agent Joe Miller of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in a sworn affidavit.
A federal warrant authorizing this morning’s raid was unsealed this morning. Several people have been taken into federal custody. Some individuals were picked up by local authorities on other outstanding warrants.
Drever said he had heard of no one resisting officers or anyone injured during the raid.
In preparation for the raid, police had road crews come to the area very early this morning to make it look as though roadwork was being done. But the real reason was to close off portions of Highway 99 to allow officers easy access to the motels.
Sealing off the lanes “allowed us to deploy quickly and safely,” Drever said.
He said agencies were on the scene to provide “humanitarian relief” to patrons of the motels who were not being sought by law enforcement.
The lead agencies on the raid were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Tukwila police, but Drever said many federal, state and local agencies participated including the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Renton and Seattle police departments, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Agriculture, which is involved because some of the alleged illegal activities involved food stamps.
In addition, a King County Animal Control crew was also there to help with pets displaced by the raid. The law-enforcement contingent in place at the scene also included two large moving-van style trucks and a line of four portable toilets.
Police also have a load of plywood at the scene and have been boarding up rooms at the motels.
Among those displaced by today’s raid was Jacob Shaffer, who was staying at the Great Bear Inn. He was detained for two hours by police and was without lodging after he paid $290 Monday night for a room for a week.
“I woke up to what sounded like flash grenades and people kicking doors open … I didn’t expect anything like this to happen. I’m a law-abiding citizen,” said Shaffer, who said he is a fisherman headed to Alaska in a couple weeks.
“I didn’t do anything. Now I’m kicked out of my room.” Shaffer said a police official gave him a number to call, but he thinks it would be a lengthy process to seek a refund.
As of 9:30 a.m., three hours after the raids began, residents and owners at the motels were still being interviewed by law enforcement officers. Jack Williams, acting chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service for Western Washington, said he doesn’t know how many people will be taken into custody.
Williams said the motels were seized by the federal government because the owners “had knowledge of the continuing crime committed there.”
Prostitution and drugs have long been a problem on the Highway 99 strip for at least four decades. Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer, trolled the area in the early 1980s to find young prey.
A woman walking across the street from the raid said that in her 12 years living in Tukwila, “I’ve seen police out here but this is the first time I’ve ever seen them do anything like this – shut down a bunch of motels. Usually it’s just like one room.”
Several displaced patrons of the Boulevard Motel said immigration officials were at the scene as well, interviewing some of the motel customers.
One woman, who asked not to be named, said law-enforcement officials told her they would be putting her and others who had no connection to the alleged crimes in rooms at another motel farther south on the highway.
The Travelers Inn garnered a few one-star reviews on Yelp, where a visitor from Oklahoma wrote “turn and run!” Another commenter said her husband was offered sex many times during a three-week stay, and a man with bloodshot eyes pounded on their door at 2 a.m. But the sheets were clean and the grounds well-lit, she said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom and Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.