Derrick Maples and his girlfriend, Annisha Thomas, booked a four-day stay at the Harding Inn because it was cheap.
Tucked into a corner at 350 Harding Place near Interstate 24, the 220-unit motel formerly known as the Knights Inn is surrounded by trees to one side, office buildings to the rear, and a YMCA and the East Buffet Restaurant to the east.
By last Wednesday morning, following a yearlong investigation and nearly 300 police responses to the motel, law enforcement officials said they decided the Harding Inn’s run as a haven for drugs and a house of prostitution had come to a stop.
Around 8 a.m. Wednesday, Maples, 27, and Thomas, 26, got the knock at their room door. Police brought a message: There was a new checkout time — judge’s orders.
“Actually, they just like busted in there at 8 o’clock,” Maples said. “They knocked on the door saying, ‘Open up,’ and we didn’t know what was going on.”
The day before, District Attorney General Torry Johnson filed a temporary injunction — later signed by Judge Steve Dozier — in Davidson Country Criminal Court declaring the Harding Inn a public nuisance. The injunction ordered that the motel be temporarily closed and padlocked and its assets forfeited pending a trial regarding a permanent injunction.
Metro police swarmed the motel, rounding up employees and guests from 25 rooms rented out at the time. Police herded Maples, Thomas and other guests into the motel lobby, where they were processed for outstanding warrants and then allowed to leave if all checked out OK.
Police arrested five people that morning — one on drug charges, most for outstanding warrants. But during the investigation leading up to the lockdown, police responded to 276 calls of illegal activity from May 1, 2009, to May 25, 2010. They made arrests for shootings, stabbings, fights, disorderly conduct, prostitution, and possession and sale of drugs. The most calls any other nearby business had in that period was 77 at the Thrifty Inn across the street.
According to an affidavit signed by Sgt. James Jones, detectives worked “dozens” of prostitution busts at the Harding Inn after perusing the classifieds website Backpage.com for “escorts” working “in-calls” out of the motel rooms.
Police found one woman on a Web ad after her mother told them she was being pimped out of the motel and not allowed to leave. After an anonymous tip and further investigation, police learned a pimp named “C-Who” worked her and another 20 or so women out of the Harding Inn.
But police investigations were often thwarted by makeshift “counter-surveillance” efforts in which lookouts positioned in front of the motel and in its lobby called others at the motel whenever “strange cars,” which they assumed to be police, drove up together or soon after each other.
Police contend the owners and managers knew what went on at the motel but looked the other way, even after police brought the illegal activity to their attention. For instance, when an officer asked a motel employee where someone under investigation was, the employee might refer to the person as “ ‘the prostitute in’ Room xxx,” according to the affidavit.
They knew about the drugs, too.
Detectives arrested two motel managers, Keith Smith and Adrian Slaton, in the parking lot with a car trunk loaded with 27 pounds of marijuana. Another man arrested at the hotel on drug charges told police he bought them “from a black male who hangs out at the pool and sells drugs all day.”
The injunction ordered owners John and Susie Yoon, as well as Smith, Slaton and Chris Howard, to a hearing that was scheduled for last Friday regarding the complaints against the motel — including codes and health violations, which must be resolved before the motel would be allowed to reopen.
Johnson said the use of a state nuisance statute to enact this type of legal injunction is rare — this one being the fifth imposed by Metro since 1997. But the effect on the surrounding community, the drain on police resources and the refusal of the owners to act after being confronted by police made the action necessary, he said.
“Many of these things are worked out by people making changes or trying to do better. Occasionally, if that’s not possible, then [police] typically come and talk to us … to do what we did today,” Johnson said.
Over the past year, neighboring businesses lodged numerous complaints with police regarding panhandlers, vandalism, drug use and other illegal activity that seemed to be emanating from the Harding Inn. It became apparent to District 28 Councilman Duane Dominy that frequent calls for police assistance at the motel drained the department’s resources from the rest of the community.
“I’m glad we’re stopping this, because it’s an ongoing issue. It’s been a problem for businesses around here for a long time,” Dominy said. “I’ve seen prostitutes coming out of the parking lot of Sam’s Club, which brings a whole new meaning to ‘discount club.’ ”