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Inside Federal Way's motels: Crime and transient life on Pac Highway
Three motels along a short stretch of Pacific Highway mark the Main Street of transient life in Federal Way.
The motels house the homeless and people who are down on their luck. They attract illegal activities like prostitution and drug dealing, or perhaps serve as a haven for fugitives — including accomplices in the 2009 murders of four Lakewood police officers.
“When we first started the police department in ‘96, we were in and out of those three hotels and others constantly,” said Officer Chris Norman. “They were a huge thorn in our sides.”
Norman recalls a Craigslist prostitution sting at one of the motels, in which undercover female officers “offered services” to potential johns trolling the Internet. “People were coming in from all over Puget Sound to meet our girls,” he said, noting that drug and prostitution activity “has gone down dramatically over the years” because of targeted enforcement. “There’s been a steady decline in crime. That’s no accident.”
Although some motels have undergone remodeling, such as the New Horizon Motel, their overall quality differs drastically from the corporate hotels near the freeway.
Inside one room at the Stevenson Motel, the armpit-like stench is overpowering. A few bugs crawl on the grimy walls, and the air feels thick and stale. On the outside, the motel is decaying. Old TVs, phone books and generic trash are woven into the landscape. Some vehicles in the parking lot look as though they were left for dead years ago.
The motels on Pacific Highway in Federal Way are often the last stop before living in a car or on the streets. Some people spend months or years at the motels, which act like homes for the homeless.
Since 1986, one couple has been living at the Stevenson Motel, paying $800 a month. That price includes a $150 charge for the couple’s cat. They rely on Social Security and disability checks to survive. Married for 30 years, they met while living in the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle. The couple is at odds with motel management over lack of guest services such as restocked toiletries. Aside from calling police over random incidents outside their room, they have never been hurt or accosted at the motel.
Long-term tenants rarely stay more than a few weeks, said a manager at the Eastwind Motel. Construction workers rent rooms for a couple of months, she said. Typical customers are single and homeless men, but occasionally, people rent a room just for a place to party.
At the New Horizon Motel, a woman and her five children have been living in a cramped room for more than a year. A motel manager said the mother recently gave birth in the room, leaving quite a mess.
Another woman with five kids lives on the other side, with two of her grade-school boys playing in the parking lot without jackets on a chilly post-Christmas morning.
Many tenants pay with vouchers or assistance from social service agencies.
A woman with a knapsack slung across her shoulder approached this reporter in the Eastwind Motel parking lot. The courteous woman had tired eyes, weathered cheeks and missing front teeth.
Though the words are never uttered, a tension in the air suggests that she’s testing the waters for some sort of opportunity, whatever that means. She says she moved into the Eastwind a few weeks ago, following several months at the Daffodil Motel in Fife.
When asked how long she was planning to stay, she shrugged and said, “As long as I can.”
Crime at the motels has decreased significantly over the past decade. It all started when Federal Way police assigned officers to specifically patrol that stretch of Pacific Highway between S. 330th St. and S. 336th St.
Between 1999 and 2005, Officer Chris Walker focused on the motels and apartments. In that time, the police department generated 3,210 case reports. From January 2006 to the present, the area generated 1,798 cases — a decrease of 56 percent, according to the department.
Walker credits the decrease in crime to a continual police presence, along with support from the surrounding community. These two factors helped the department maintain this success, Walker said. Police persuaded motel landlords to turn away potential problem-causing customers and stop renting rooms by the hour. Federal Way also passed an ordinance that allowed police to arrest chronic prostitution offenders who entered the high-risk area.
“Motels are transient by nature. We can’t just hit it and leave,” he said, noting that longtime residents stay out of trouble. “Most people who’ve lived there an extended period of time are not involved in criminal activities.”
Curtis Tucker was the first Federal Way police officer assigned to the Pacific Highway emphasis unit, working the area in 1998-1999 with help from a grant. He described the area at the time as “the hub of all evil” — a place where crack dealers and prostitutes blatantly did their business.
“It was still the wild west when we got there,” Tucker said of the motels. “It was a matter of trying to figure out what was going on.”
The emphasis unit yielded positive results. In the area from 324th to 336th streets, within 1,000 feet of either side of the highway, police averaged one and half arrests per day for the first year.
Tucker recalls the pivotal arrest of a drug dealer who rented two rooms: one with dogs guarding the dope, and the other room for transactions.
“He ended up going to jail and no one took his place,” he said, noting that the extra police presence sent a message to local criminals. “They started to know we weren’t screwing around.”
‘I’m trying to keep this place clean’
When dealing with shady guests and criminal activity, it is difficult to gauge how often the motel managers will look the other way in order to make money.
“A lot of times, they have to make the decision — which is more important, paying for this room or what’s right? What’s right tends to be a little blurred,” Tucker said, “especially if their place is empty.”
As far as crime, the Stevenson Motel is fairly low key, according to officers who have patrolled the area. Stevenson manager Lisa Huang, who lives at the motel, said that in the past 30 years, she personally experienced only one incident of violence in which a fleeing thug hopped the fence and punched her in the face.
At the Eastwind Motel, a manager said most incidents involve couples who are fighting, and that other tenants are just as quick to call police.
New Horizon has seen more dramatic results as far as less crime. The motel has undergone renovations in recent years, and management is more willing to refuse service or remove troublemakers.
“I’m trying to keep this place clean,” said Dave Brown, a day manager at New Horizon, which has 50 rooms. Security cameras dot the building and help Brown and fellow managers monitor who belongs on the premises — and who doesn’t belong.
“I’ll say, ‘You got a room here? Then get the hell off the property,’” said Brown, who once lived on the streets. He and his wife have managed the motel for four years. “We have very decent, very good people here.”
People in the adjacent Habitat apartment complex may disagree. Apartment resident Nick Hasbrook is frustrated by the clientele that the motel attracts, along with what he sees as a lack of action by law enforcement. Hasbrook’s truck was burglarized Dec. 24 and again the morning of Dec. 31. The second time around, an alarm sounded. He bolted out of bed and joined a fellow resident in chasing a man who disappeared into a room at the New Horizon.
Hasbrook claims the man broke several windows in the apartment complex and has been spotted before.
“This guy keeps doing what he wants and nobody’s doing anything about it,” said the longtime Federal Way resident. “That hotel needs to go to the ground.”