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How sex workers helped with the biggest motel bust in state history

Everything had to work perfectly.

More than 400 law enforcement were ready. Moving trucks were rented, driven into a church parking lot. The operation would start early in the morning, and all those people would need breakfast.

The mayor at the time, Jim Haggerton, could hardly stand the wait. “The people at the city kept pulling me back, 'Jim, don’t get in too big a hurry, don’t get in too big a hurry, because there’s more going on,'” he recalled.

Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney at the time — now Seattle's mayor — was building a case against the motel owners. The Tukwila police wanted more time. But public pressure to do something had grown too strong.

Those motels had been dragging Tukwila down since the 1980s when the Green River Killer picked up young sex workers to murder. Residents of Tukwila had grown tired of waiting and started electing people into office who promised to clean up the boulevard.

Tukwila responded with the largest pre-planned law enforcement event in Washington state history.

“A lot of people at the city didn’t have any idea this was going to happen until the 99th hour,” said Haggerton. Even he wasn't allowed to see all the details.

The raid

At 3:30 a.m. on an August morning, police officers disguised as road workers closed off a highway lane. At 6:00, a caravan of moving trucks and police cars snaked along the road and pulled up in front of three separate motels: the Boulevard Motel, the Traveler's Choice Motel and the Great Bear Motor Inn.

Tukwila police officer Zack Anderson remembers what it looked like when the truck doors opened: “The sheer amount of people flooding out of the backs of those box trucks. It was like a tactical clown car, with cops after cops after cops coming out of the back of these trucks,” he said.

Officers methodically knocked on every door, gathering evidence and serving warrants.

“There was no place for them to go because those motels were one way in, one way out. So they would have had to have waded through about 50 police officers if they were going to try and leave,” said Doug Johnson, one of the cops who organized the raid.

They let the sex workers go because they were after the management. Twenty-two people were arrested, including the motel owners, whose meticulous records of criminal activities were seized in the raid.

"You know, that was emotional for me," said Haggerton, referring to the raid. "It was just the fact that it was so long overdue – and all of the stress that those businesses had put onto people.”

Green River Killer

Beyond the spectacle of the raid were countless hours of undercover work and a shift in police tactics that launched Tukwila out of its crime-ridden past and into the future.

To understand what changed, let’s recall this stretch of highway during the days of Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. Ridgeway was in his second decade of killing young women and teens in the 1990s, when Doug Johnson first enlisted with Tukwila Police as a young cop.

Johnson says violence was just a part of life on that strip.

“When you’re a young officer, maybe that’s, 'Gosh, I work a tough area,'" said Johnson. "After you’ve been there about 10 years, and you’re still going to a lot of high volume dangerous crimes, you’re like, ‘Hmm, I don’t seem to be making an impact.’”

Johnson and other cops were often called to the three motels. They didn’t realize then that the motel owners were using them.

Somali refugee Mohammed Jama ran a store right next to the motels. Hear how the raid changed his life on KUOW.

Here’s how it worked: The motel owners protected the drug dealers and sex workers from the police. When cops came knocking, the motel owners misdirected them. In return, the motels expected protection money.

Those who couldn’t pay went deep into debt to the motel. “They treated the prostitutes essentially like indentured servants,” Johnson said.

When the women couldn’t pay, the motel reported them to the police. The police would cart her off, and the motel owners would then raid her room, steal her money and belongings. Later, they’d ransom her stuff back to her.

“Essentially, they were trying to turn law enforcement into an enforcement arm for a criminal organization," said Johnson. It was a twist on the classic protection racket. "It took us years to uncover what they were doing there,” he said. But the police didn’t figure it out until they went undercover.

Sex workers, who hated the motel owners, collaborated with police.

“When this started, we were looking at one motel," said Johnson. "Through investigation, we learned they were doing this behavior at numerous properties and they were all inter-related. This ownership group was creating an environment for crime to thrive.”

Understanding this was a turning point for how the Tukwila Police Department treated low-level criminals.

“There’s people behind crime," Johnson said. "To do something proactively about crime, you have to start engaging those people, Sometimes that’s help, sometimes that’s enforcement. But you have to reintroduce the humanitarian aspect of that.”

Because low-level criminals are often also victims.

What the raid did for Tukwila

Three motels were seized in the raid by U.S. Marshalls and sold to the City of Tukwila. That marked the beginning of the end for old motels on this particular strip of highway.

Over the last five years, the remaining motel owners have been selling their properties. Hari Ghadia just sold the Knights Inn to Forterra, which is selling it to the mosque across the street. Ghadia knew the motel owners who got caught.

"I indirectly warned some of those people, because they are from India, and I’m from India too," he said. "I tried to warn them: If you choose certain path, you know your destiny. Stay away from that kind of crowd.

"Sometimes people listen, sometimes don’t.”

With Forterra's help, Tukwila's Abu Bakr Islamic Center plans to turn the Knight's Inn Motel into affordable housing and affordable retail space. Hear about that project next week on KUOW.

Tukwila tore the other motels down to the ground, leaving only grassy fields on the side of the highway. Recently, City Councilmember De'Sean Quinn stood in one those fields. He pulled a hotel key out of his pocket, a key that once opened one of the doors at The Spruce motel.

“That room, that door, will never be opened again. There’s no building there. It’s gone.”

Quinn says he was elected on the promise to clean up the highway. The motel key is his most prized possession.

“People cheered the day that those places got boarded up and closed," said Quinn, "and they cheered again when they got bulldozed. And they’ll cheer again, once we have a develop that comes in that allows us to use Tukwila International Boulevard like it should be.”

Today, development is slowly reclaiming the territory once ruled by those motels. A new health clinic, and hundreds of apartments for seniors mark the north end of an urban renewal area that stretches off toward the light rail station about a mile away.

There’s still prostitution in front of a strip club, but the city has plans to get rid of that too. They're going to put a new police station right on top of it.

Correction: This story has been updated to add detail regarding the sale of motel properties in Tukwila.

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