NEW PORT RICHEY
The Valu-Lodge's emerald sign towers over U.S. 19 and two-story rows of stained stucco walls. The asphalt courtyards smell of cigarettes and the nearby dumpster. It's familiar scenery for police, who call the motel "Grid 1." About 40 of the 118 units are occupied most nights. They come with a bed or two, a kitchen, HBO and air conditioning. Guests often sit around the pool, or on the rusty green staircases, or on coolers outside their rooms. Some smoke cigarettes and drink beer, leaving the empty cans in the few patches of untrimmed grass. You can stay there for $35 a night, but most guests are long-term. A week at the Valu-Lodge requires $180 — and a high tolerance for sirens. Between Jan. 1 and June 30, police responded to the Valu-Lodge 253 times.
On average, that's more than 42 calls a month, nine a week. It's more than four times as many as the closest runner-up: the Travel Inn, just up the road, which had 63 calls in the same period.
Complaints run the gamut: drugs, prostitution, theft, trespassing, suspicious vehicles, sexual battery, aggravated assault. Some of the calls come from out-of-towners who have just checked in and say they can't stay there.
And it's getting worse. In all of 2007, the Valu-Lodge generated 272 calls to police. In 2008, there were 434, but this year's tally is on track to surpass it.
Police, residents, city officials and motel management are uncertain what to do about 6253 U.S. 19, New Port Richey's most dangerous address.
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The property has changed hands several times in the past few years. The current owner and manager, Andy Patel, was not on site during visits by a Times reporter over two weeks and did not return several messages seeking comment.
The front desk supervisor, Jay Patel, said the calls to police may come from the management or from the guests. Sometimes it's to settle disputes with customers who want to walk out, but the motel's policy requires them to pay if they've stayed longer than 10 minutes. Other times, Patel said, he has called police to stop fights in the parking lot.
He said he didn't know why the Valu-Lodge ranked so far ahead of any other address in police calls.
"I have no idea what's going on," said Patel, the owner's nephew.
He said management has tried to keep the place safe and clean it up, and that they have cooperated with law enforcement, even giving officers access to the motel's guest registry.
New Port Richey police Chief Martin Rickus said he doesn't think the motel's management wants to attract crime, but it comes with the clients the motel serves.
"I don't think they like it any more than anyone else," he said. "But they're trapped."
Andy Patel's company, Rushi Hospitality, bought the Valu-Lodge for $3.75 million in June 2007. The property was last appraised at $2 million.
The previous owner, Scott Harrell, who now works at a Super 8 motel in Lake City, said a property like the Valu-Lodge demands "intensive management" — strictly enforcing rules, screening guests before they can register and frequently being on site.
Many of the guests, who are just there for a cheap place to stay, may have no idea that they've entered a criminal hotbed.
"Certainly there are people who are there who are completely law-abiding," said police Capt. Jeff Harrington. "Some of them probably have no knowledge of the underlying problems there."
They are people like Mike Yamonico and Tiffany Armstrong, who have lived in the Valu-Lodge since April. After a string of evictions, they pay $800 a month for the motel room they share with their five children. Yamonico, 40, used to work for the Sheriff's Office and now drives a cab. Armstrong, 32, stays home to watch the kids. She said their newborn twins have a sleep disorder and need constant monitoring.
Armstrong said she hates the idea of raising her children in the midst of drug users and prostitutes, so she appreciates the management's efforts to keep them away — often by calling the police, which she thinks may be why there are so many calls. But she doesn't know what can be done about the crime at the Valu-Lodge, nor what can be done for her family and others like them who have limited options for shelter.
"We'd all love to live in houses or apartments, but none of us can afford first, last (month's rent) and security," she said. "Until that changes, this is what we have to live with."
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City leaders expressed frustration with the situation. City Council member Rob Marlowe said police can round up "undesirable folks,'' but that doesn't solve the problem.
"It's sort of like playing whack-a-mole," he said. "You bang them one place and they pop up somewhere else."
But with such a high volume of calls, officials say something must be done to help police.
"It's eating up a lot of their time," said Jeff Sutton, the interim city manager. "For one business, it's eating up too much of their time."
Mayor Scott McPherson has asked the city attorney to research the city's legal options for making the motel pay for its habitual police presence.
"It's excessive," he said. "It's ridiculous."
(McPherson, an attorney in private practice, is also representing a Holiday couple who is suing the Valu-Lodge for negligence after the husband allegedly slipped and fell on the stairs. McPherson declined to comment on the case, citing attorney-client privilege, but said it was unrelated to police or criminal activity at the motel.)
Meanwhile, police will continue to vigilantly patrol the property, Chief Rickus said.
"We've been pretty aggressive trying to slow it down," he said. "But it seems like the more we go there, the more they come out."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and Times photographer Kainaz Amaria contributed to this report. Isaac Arnsdorf can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6232.