Hundreds of police and federal agents raided and then shuttered a trio of troublesome motels in Tukwila, where police say the owners arranged drug deals and the front-desk clerks charged visitors a fee to direct them to the rooms of tenants who were selling drugs or sex.
Tukwila police said that during the past two years, the motels — within two blocks of one another — have accounted for nearly one in six calls for service to the police department. The motels have been the scenes of rapes, assaults, drug dealing, prostitution and at least three overdose deaths in recent years, according to court documents.
Tukwila Mayor Jim Haggerton said the motels in question had been a blight since the International Boulevard area was annexed by the city.
“We’ve had problems and challenges from a few owners from the beginning,” Haggerton said.
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The complaint alleges that there were 223 calls for police service to the Boulevard Motel between July 1, 2012 and June 20, 2013. The structure has just 27 guest rooms — the largest of the three.
According to Assistant Chief Bruce Linton of the Tukwila Police Department, owners of the three motels have rejected numerous efforts to clean them up.
According to court documents, one of the owners, Kulwinder “Chris” Saroya, told police in 2010 that “normal people will not come to [his] hotel so [he has] to do business with crackheads and prostitutes to make money.”
The motel owner/managers — Saroya, Jaspal Singh and Lakhvir “Larry” Pawar — were arrested and appeared before a U.S. magistrate Tuesday afternoon on charges of distribution and attempted distribution of crack cocaine in a series of deals with a paid confidential informant during the past five weeks. Four others, including motel tenants, also were charged.
Singh, Saroya and Pawar were ordered detained by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler during their brief appearance in U.S. District Court.
As law-enforcement officers boarded up every window and door of the motels, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said at a news conference at the Tukwila Community Center that the action ought to serve as a warning to owners of other troubled properties. She emphasized that the Department of Justice will use every tool to combat what it considers “drug-involved premises,” including forfeiture.
To that end, federal prosecutors filed a 48-page civil complaint claiming the motels and some other properties — including Saroya’s recently remodeled 4,480-square-foot, 6.25-bath home in SeaTac — will be forfeited because they were purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity.
The federal lawsuit alleges 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.
It alleges the owners were involved in money laundering and a series of complex business transactions apparently designed to hide ownership of the businesses.
The early-morning raids snarled traffic along Highway 99 as hundreds of police poured into the motels, rousting tenants and boarding up the rooms.
While there was grumbling and a few arrests, no officers were injured, and the raids and evictions proceeded peacefully, said Tukwila Police Commander Eric Drever.
One federal law-enforcement officer snapped a photograph of a cardboard sign, posted near the command center, whose spray-painted scrawl read: “Thank You for Cleaning Up ‘Our’ City! God Bless!”
In preparation for the raid, police had road crews come to the area very early Tuesday 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 social-service agencies were on the scene to provide “humanitarian relief” to motel patrons 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 was involved because some of the alleged illegal activities involved food stamps.
In addition, a King County Animal Control crew was there to help with pets displaced by the raid. The law-enforcement contingent at the scene also included two large moving-van style trucks and a line of four portable toilets.
Among those displaced by the raids was Jacob Shaffer, who was staying at the Great Bear Motor 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 of 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.
Four people, including the owners, were taken into federal custody. Jack Williams, acting chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service for Western Washington, said he did not know how many were arrested on state charges. 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 been a problem on the Highway 99 strip for at least four decades. Gary L. Ridgway, the Green River killer who pleaded guilty to 49 murders, 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.”
The Travelers Choice Motel
garnered a few one-star reviews on Yelp, where a visitor wrote “turn and run!” Another commenter said her husband was offered sex many times during a three-week stay and that 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.
Mike Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3706. Seattle Times reporter Jack Broom and Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.