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VOL. 123 | NO. 31 | Thursday, February 14, 2008

Daily News Investigation Results in Crackdown At Four Motels

By Rosalind Guy

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POSTED AND PADLOCKED: The Bellevue Inn was one of four motels closed by court order Tuesday as a public nuisance. A month-long prostitution investigation by The Daily News prompted the police probe that led to Tuesday's action. -- Photo By Bill Dries

The Bellevue Inn, a South Memphis motel featured in an Aug. 24 Daily News story about prostitution, was closed as a public nuisance Tuesday by the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office.

The motel at 1250 S. Bellevue Blvd. was shut down for "drug trafficking and prostitution," said Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. The owner and manager of the motel, Bhagwati Patel, also was arrested for promoting prostitution.

The police began monitoring the motel after The Daily News story first published, said George Buzard, owner of Gates Lumber, which is directly across the street from the motel. Buzard was a source in The Daily News' investigation.

Other motels closed under court orders citing the same reasons - repeated arrests on the property for drug- and prostitution-related offenses - were the Lamplighter Inn at Bellevue and Lamar Avenue and the Garden Inn and Royal Inn on American Way.

The owners of all four properties are due to appear in General Sessions Civil Court Friday before Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter.

The prosecutor's office will take the position that the Bellevue Inn should not be allowed to reopen because this is the second time the motel has been closed as a public nuisance, Gibbons said after supervising the "Operation Heartbreak Hotel" closing of all four motels Tuesday afternoon.

The show goes on

Reached by phone shortly after the Blue Crush Organized Crime Unit and other police officers were at the motel to shut it down, Buzard said he was glad to finally see some action taken against the motel owners. He also said before they left, one of the officers visited to let him know what was going on and even left him with a souvenir: a duplicate flyer like the ones posted on the motel announcing its closure.

Buzard said he began working in cooperation with police officials shortly after The Daily News article published.

"I think it's fantastic," he said of the closures, adding how determined illegal workers seemed to carry on their business across the street from him. "It's kind of interesting, but after police left, hookers were still working out of the place. I can't believe this woman was standing out there in the rain under an umbrella."

High crimes and misdemeanors

During undercover investigations by both the Memphis Police Department and the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, dating back to Nov. 7, undercover officers posed as prostitutes and clients and rented rooms on an hourly basis at the Bellevue Inn.

Also, at the Garden Inn & Suites at 3419 American Way, a Memphis police officer was shot Jan. 25 while executing a search warrant. A woman who was used as a shield by 35-year-old Albert Taylor, the man charged in the shooting, also was shot during the attack.

Since Jan. 26, 2007, Memphis police responded to more than 89 complaints of criminal activity at the Garden Inn, including robberies, shootings, underage prostitution and drug sales.

Buzard expressed his hope that this would be a permanent closure for all the properties, especially the two near his business at 1253 S. Bellevue Blvd.

"You know these things are a nuisance," Buzard said. "You have kids walking up and down the street coming from Hamilton High School; it's just not a healthy environment. And, of course, it's against the law."

Lt. Chris Moffatt, who attended a press conference Tuesday afternoon announcing the motel closures, also expressed a hope that the closures would be made permanent after Friday's court hearing.

"I think this will have a greater impact than arresting the same prostitutes three times a week," he said. "I really hope we will be able to keep these closed."

In most nuisance cases, the businesses are closed temporarily. They are allowed to reopen after owners agree to take specific measures to curb crime.

"We're not interested in any consent order to reopen the property," Gibbons told about 200 members of the Apartment Association of Greater Memphis Tuesday afternoon.

Gibbons came to the luncheon directly from supervising the closing of the Bellevue Inn and the three other motels.

"They were already under a consent order as a result of illegal activities a couple of years ago," he said. "We feel they've had their one free bite at the apple. At this point, they don't need another one."

Power of the press

The Daily News conducted a month-long investigation of prostitution last summer.

Prostitution arrests along Bellevue, including at the Bellevue Inn, accounted for about 20 percent of the 729 prostitution-related arrests Memphis police had made to that point in 2007.

In The Daily News' August story, Buzard told of seeing women lift their skirts to entice people driving down the street.

"I can see this going on, so I know what they're doing," he said. "And the motel (owners) know what they're doing and they're not doing anything about it."

The nuisance statute is a state law that usually results in businesses being allowed to reopen once they have agreed to take specific steps to curb crime on and around their properties. Gibbons has used it against motels, bars and even the Pepper Tree apartment complex in Whitehaven as a way of addressing quality-of-life issues.

Senior reporter Bill Dries contributed to this story.

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