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Tarpon Springs police, city leaders and residents partner to stop crime at two motels near Spring Bayou

TARPON SPRINGS — At the end of the work day, when Todd Unbehagen locks up his office on West Tarpon Avenue, he carries two things with him.

"I have my keys in one hand and a Glock 23 in the other," he said earlier this week to a room of about 100 people gathered to talk about the decade-long crime problem at two motels on the street, just steps from Spring Bayou.

The longtime Tarpon resident's business is two doors down from one of them, Sunbay Motel at 57 W Tarpon Ave., where an argument between what police called two well-known drug dealers ended in a man being shot to death last month. The murder was just one of hundreds of times in the last year officers have responded to criminal incidents at Sunbay Motel and across the street at Tarpon Inn, 110 W Tarpon Ave.

Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen said the department plans to partner with city leaders and residents to figure out a solution to the problem that he says also involves an apartment building at 199 Grand Blvd., where Officer Charles Kondek was shot and killed in 2014.

"We put on our uniforms every day and when we go to these places we are at risk," he said. "We can't arrest our way out of this. … It is going to take everyone's help."

Many residents suggest the city should step in to either shut the motels down or offer to buy them out. But both owners argue the crime there isn't their fault.

"If I sell the place, do you think the problem will be solved? No, the problem will persist," said Sunbay Motel owner Peter Fanoudis, 70. "This is not a problem of the motel, it is a problem of the city. People with no money can come to this area and live with cheap rent whether it is at my motel or somewhere else."

Fanoudis has owned the 12-room motel for 30 years and says about 50 percent of the rooms are taken up by long-term residents who stay for weeks, months and sometimes years. A room there runs about $60 per day and $300 per week.

Chloe Wampler, 25, lives in room No. 2 of the rundown blue building. She says she moved to there from Clearwater about five months ago because it was the cheapest place she could find for herself, her boyfriend and their two pit bulls, Cama Dixie and Rebel Bambam.

"It's a good deal here … and most places wouldn't even accept me with my dogs," she said. "This is a good place, and the reputation that it has is just untrue."

Wampler said she watched the murder happen in the parking lot last month, and the man who was killed was her best friend.

"The same things that happen here happen everywhere," she said. "But the drug dealers left after the murder because they know the place is hot now."

Fanoudis said he makes every renter sign a form promising not to participate in illegal activities on the property, but that's all he can do.

"They promise, but there is no way to make them do it. … They will still smoke and do what they want," he said. "I try to do my best, but people are people. I cannot refuse any renter if I do not know for sure what they are doing in their room — that is discrimination."

Tarpon Inn owner Chetan Shah says he runs his business differently than Sunbay Motel. He has stricter rules, like pet fees, non-smoking rooms and fees for extra guests and vehicles per room. Longterm residents must pass a background check, and tenants who have been arrested on the property before are blacklisted from staying at the motel again.

Shah, 50, said he knew the area had crime problems when he bought his motel in March 2014, but says he has spent about $500,000 to clean it up. His rooms — listed between $50 and $129 a night, depending on the time of year — have new beds, flooring, AC units and paint, and work has been done around the parking lot, pool and walkways. This week, he installed 48 cameras that will allow live surveillance to be seen from the police department.

"We have turned this place around completely," he said. "We went through with a fine-tooth comb, and every nook and cranny has been updated. A lot of work has been done to try to make it better."

Records show most police presence at the motels has been for regular area checks, patrolling and traffic stops, but there have been more serious calls, too, for things like battery, disturbance and drugs. Both properties were part of the police department's Operation Room Service drug bust in June 2015, when 21 people were arrested for selling narcotics to undercover detectives.

Since then, officers have visited Sunbay Motel 236 times, Tarpon Inn 167 times and the apartments at 199 Grand Blvd. 41 times.

The chief plans to give the motels a chance to bounce back and get better, but says the community can't wait forever. He said the department, city leaders, residents and motel owners will all work together over the next six months to devise a plan, but during that time, he hopes to see crime numbers drop dramatically.

"Residents are fed up, and we are fed up," Kochen said. "We are laying down an ultimatum. … These places both need to clean up their act."

"Talk is cheap, so we have to see action. We have to see a noticeable change at these motels."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.

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