Fed up with motel row

EVERETT — The problem knocked on Stephanie Larsen’s door with a resounding thud.

A prostitute and her customer stood on Larsen’s front porch. The Everett mom had called police after seeing the man pick up the hooker on the street corner and take her to a nearby motel. Someone at the motel, who had dealings with Larsen in the past, apparently sent them across the street to her house.

The hooker and john didn’t live in the north Everett neighborhood but they were staking claim on it.

"They were yelling at me, telling me I was sticking my nose in their business," said Larsen, who has lived on Lombard Avenue for a decade.

Larsen and her neighbors say they are fed up with the prostitution, drugs and thefts plaguing their neighborhood.

"This is Everett’s dirty little secret," said longtime resident Jeanne Wohl.

City officials say the problems at the north Broadway motels and surrounding blocks are no secret and they plan to use a federal grant Everett received last month to begin cleaning house.

"We’re going to try to find out what is at the root of the problem," said community prosecutor Teresa Cox, who was hired last year to track high-crime areas in the city and create a plan to attack the hotspots.

The new grant will allow Cox to implement the plan.

North Everett is the first target.

Despite high-profile drug raids at motels along north Broadway last fall, crime apparently continues to flourish there, an analysis of Everett Police Department data shows.

Last year’s motel raids were followed by a noticeable decline in arrests for drug trafficking in that part of Everett. But the area around the motels, a four-block area between Eighth Street and 12th Street near the city’s north gateway, continues to be the top location in Everett for prostitution arrests.

That same area also remains one of the busiest places in the city for 911 calls. A computer analysis of 911 calls in Everett shows that in the first six months of 2003, the police were called there more than 900 times. In addition to drugs and prostitution, the calls include numerous requests to investigate suspicious circumstances, reports of domestic violence, assault, theft and public intoxication.

When the police department’s 911 calls are plotted on a map, the four-block area around the north Broadway motels assumes the appearance of a dark stain, like a spot of mold on a loaf of bread.

"When I was a kid, north Everett was Everett," said Larsen, who grew up in the area. "This is not the north Everett I used to know,"

North Broadway in the early 1980s was a thriving commercial area, home not only to the motels, but also a large department store, restaurants and neighborhood businesses.

Many of the businesses have since shut down.

Everett police Capt. Greg Lineberry said that the area’s slide into crime really started when a nude dance club opened more than a decade-and-a-half ago. Street prostitutes and their customers started frequenting the area. Although the club shut down long ago, the hookers and johns still frequent the area, Lineberry said.

"That in effect has created a sort of culture in that area," he said.

The city responded by enacting an ordinance that allows a judge to order people convicted of prostitution-related offenses to stay out of the area. Police also have staged regular stings to snare people who troll the area looking for prostitutes.

"We treat these cases with a high emphasis in my office," city prosecutor Laura Van Slyck said, adding the conviction rate is close to 90 percent.

City officials say the $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will help them do more.

The money will pay for Cox to stay in her position as community prosecutor. She was hired last year with a $75,000 grant from U.S. Department of Justice.

The next step in the community prosecution program calls for police, the city prosecutor and code compliance officers to work together to target problem areas. It also will organize residents and business owners to participate in cleaning up their neighborhoods.

Exactly why north Everett continues to generate so many police calls may not yet be clear, Deputy Police Chief Bob Stiles said.

Police already know that one of the most frequent reasons they are called to the area is to investigate suspicious circumstances, Stiles said. As happens in other parts of the city, police find criminal activity on only a fraction of those calls, he said.

Police Lt. Pete Hegge said sometimes what is first perceived as a crime problem turns out to be something else on closer inspection.

For example, he said, the department often gets 911 calls from people in north Everett who are concerned to see large numbers of often rough-looking people gathering in their neighborhoods. The callers suspect drug dealing, car prowls, and worse, Hegge said. But when police respond, they often discover that the crowd is assembling for a legal purpose, such as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Residents are convinced the crime stems from the motels.

"Garbage attracts garbage," Wohl said.

Neighbors near the North Broadway motels say they have seen a man stabbed and prostitutes "work" right outside their homes. They’ve had cars stolen and picked up used syringes from their lawns. They’ve hidden the truth from their children, explaining that the woman shooting up in the alley probably was "diabetic."

"Whose neighborhood is it? It’s not our neighborhood. It’s theirs," Wohl said.

Wohl and Larsen say police are very responsive to the problems in the neighborhood. They say it’s up to city officials to hold the motel owners accountable for what goes on at their businesses.

Since the raids last year, the city has been working with motel owners, Cox said. Whenever there is a drug-related arrest at a motel, Cox sends a letter to management notifying them of the arrest and the laws that would allow the city to take further action if the problem persists.

"It’s an incentive for them to work with us," she said.

The motel owners say they have been cooperating with police.

Sunny Ghag, whose family owns the Waits Motel, says police officers regularly check the register at the motel and warn him of guests who are wanted or known drug dealers or prostitutes. He also receives a list of people ordered to stay out prostitution areas.

"Right now there are no problems," Ghag said. "I live here 24 hours a day. There is no drug problem here."

Sunny Randhawa, who manages the Everett Motel for his family, said he frequently speaks with the manager at the Topper Motel about possible drug trafficking between the two motels.

"I’m trying my best. It takes time to know those people," Randhawa said. "I think it’s 110 percent better than last year."

A recent sweep at the north end motels by the Everett police painted a less rosy picture.

Officers from the Anti-Crime Team recently checked the motel registers and found that about 30 people registered that night were known drug users, drug dealers, prostitutes or had warrants for their arrest.

In less than an hour police arrested three men at the Topper Motel for outstanding warrants. One of the men had drug paraphernalia. Police also arrested a woman at the Everett Motel for an outstanding warrant.

Also during the sweep a prostitute approached an undercover officer. A second hooker was on her way over before the officer drove off.

Officer Bruce Bosman said police saw an immediate decrease in drug activity at the motels after the raids but drugs creep back unless there is constant pressure.

"This is where the business is for them," Bosman said, explaining that north Everett has a large transient population and is a main thoroughfare from north to south.

Police can’t fix north Broadway’s problems solely by arresting hookers and raiding motels looking for drug dealers, Police Chief Jim Scharf said.

"It’s going to take a change in investment in the area," he said.

Everett planning director Paul Roberts said city officials believe the north Broadway area will change for the better, it is just a matter of time.

Two large institutions in the area — Everett Community College, and Providence General Medical Center — have talked with the city about their options for expanding. The city also is exploring alternatives for locating a new transit center in the area.

Those projects could spark a revitalization, Roberts said.

"We are beginning to say, ‘How can we use these pieces to make sense of an improved north Broadway corridor?’ " Roberts said.

The city is in the early stages of developing a plan for the area that would move north Broadway away from an aging commercial strip and toward a more active, pedestrian-friendly area that would mix business and residential development, including condominiums, Roberts said.

A similar plan worked for the downtown corridor. Police kept the pressure on, the bus station moved and businesses invested money in the area.

"We hoped with the arena coming and north Everett being the gateway to the city, our city officials would see what kind of greeting they were presenting," Larsen said.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com. Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or north@heraldnet.com.

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