It was a big motel, two stories. But the simple way to find out who was selling cocaine or sex was to walk into the office and ask the man at the front desk, “Who’s working tonight?”
“How much you want?” 42-year-old desk clerk Chris Saroya told one man who asked the question one night last summer.
“Hundred dollars’ worth,” the man said, the words buzzing over his wire to the agents outside.
Saroya, who ran the Travelers Choice motel with his brother, called a room and a dealer appeared in the lobby. The dealer had 11 felony convictions on his record, working on his 12th. At this motel and two others, the Great Bear Motor Inn and the Boulevard Motel, just short walks apart along the Highway 99 strip south of Seattle in Tukwila, were at least four experienced dealers to choose from—with 44 felony convictions en masse. Experienced women were available as well. One turned up to 40 tricks a day, making $3,000. With four hours’ sleep, that’s two tricks an hour.
The wired man and the dealer walked to room 118, and the buyer got his rock and left. Outside, officers were waiting with a cocaine test kit.
Two days later, the man came back.
“What’s up?” Saroya asked.
“Same thing,” the man said. He went to a room, got the rock, and left. Five days later, he returned. “Who’s working tonight?” This time, Saroya was sorry. His man had moved to the Great Bear, which he and his brother also owned. Go there, he said.
But there was already a wired undercover buy going on at the Bear that day, August 1. There were also uniformed police over at the Boulevard, investigating the discovery of a body, an apparent drug overdose—one of several at the Boulevard in recent years, with three others at the Travelers.
After repeated undercover buys over the next few weeks, law-enforcement officers arrived in force at the three motels on the morning of August 31. One news report pegged the invasion at 400 federal and local officers. It was live on television: A SWAT tank stood by as agents swarmed the motel ramparts, herding people downstairs. The 34 adults and 11 children who lived in the motels were moved elsewhere. Officers boarded up the buildings, surrounding them with barbed-wire fences, as the feds seized the three properties as criminal enterprises.
Neighbors, tired of picking up condoms and needles, applauded. The motels had been deemed public nuisances, responsible for almost one out of every six Tukwila police calls, including deaths, rapes, assaults, and robberies. In a one-year period, police responded to 223 calls at the 27-room Boulevard alone.
But the confiscations and the arrests of the three operators and three dealers, among others, seemed destined for a long slog through criminal and civil courts, with complicated story lines about ownership and money laundered through bank accounts over the years. A year-long probe into the explicit crimes—drugs and prostitution—revolved around the testimony of informants, whose reliability would be questioned.
But two months after the takedown, it’s suddenly over, bringing the government a windfall—more than $4.5 million in forfeited currency and property. In the past two weeks, all three motel operators cut plea deals with U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan: Kulwinder “Chris” Saroya; his brother, Jaspal Singh, 37; and Lakhvir “Larry” Pawar, 41, the operator of the Boulevard Motel, owned by his father. All have pleaded guilty to drug-conspiracy charges. And Tukwila’s International Boulevard neighborhood has taken on new life. As Police Chief Mike Villa told his city council, officers were actually “having a hard time” finding criminal activity in the area.
Saroya, Singh, and Pawar’s father have agreed to give up a fortune in land, buildings, cash, and cars. The forfeited properties include the three motels, together assessed at roughly $3.6 million, according to county records. Sayora and Singh will also forfeit their $680,000 six-bedroom custom home in SeaTac, a 2007 Mercedes, and $236,275 in cash. Pawar forfeits $91,000 along with a 2008 Acura.
In return, federal prosecutors will recommend prison time of one year and a day. The three Indian Americans, who face up to 20-year terms, will be sentenced in February. Of the three main dealers busted, two—Jacob Day and Maurice Gardner—have pleaded guilty and await sentencing. The third, Thai Van Thanh, who has 16 felony convictions, is awaiting trial.
Prosecutors say the three motel operators did almost 60 percent of their business in cash, much of which was washed through personal accounts. Sayora explained most of his customers weren’t credit-card types. He told investigators he was stuck with currency-carrying drug dealers and prostitutes. “Normal people,” he said, didn’t choose the Travelers Choice.