WINCHESTER — When city police were called on Nov. 21, 2015, to reports of a man in cardiac arrest and possibly suffering from a drug overdose at the Winchester Inn at 1347 Berryville Ave., the address wasn’t unfamiliar.

Joshua Lee Sweeton, 34, would later die at Winchester Medical Center from a heroin overdose, becoming one of 30 people in the region to succumb to overdose last year.

The heroin that killed him, police said, he allegedly bought from another guest at the 100-room motel.

In 2015, authorities responded to the Winchester Inn 358 times, according to Winchester police reports. Of those calls, 38 were for emergency services and 66 were specifically for the police.

According to numbers provided by the police, the Winchester Inn averaged 3.58 law enforcement-related calls per room that year.

In 2016, that ratio grew to 4.65 calls per room, and since 2013 authorities have responded to 11 overdoses at the Winchester Inn.

Similar budget-type motels, where it’s possible to get a room for as low as $29 a night, have seen similar activity. The Relax Inn, at 2645 Valley Ave., averaged 5.57 calls per room in 2016, police reported.

But what causes criminal and drug activity at some of the city’s smaller budget motels?

Winchester Police Officer Daniel Mowery, a member of the city’s Crisis Intervention Team, said the correlation between high numbers of calls for service at such motels isn’t a clear-cut issue.

Mowery’s job is to report various violations to the city, including zoning issues related to motel guests staying well beyond what the law allows. Motels not designated as extended-stay lodging — which requires such extras as equipment to safely prepare meals — are not legally permitted to allow more than 10 percent of their units to house guests staying more than 30 consecutive days, according to the city zoning ordinance.

Mowery estimates there are 12 or 13 small budget motels in the city, though not all of them have problems. Police have increased patrols at the properties that have a history of criminal and drug activity.

“The thing about hotels and motels is that it’s transient, so I can go there and leave,” Mowery said. “But I could go to the George Washington Hotel and have an overdose or go on a binge, so it’s hard to say they’re related to the actual business.”

Vetting a guest who seeks to rent is extremely difficult, Mowery said. It’s also hard to keep track of what’s going on behind closed doors.

“If you rent a room, for example, and invite me over, I don’t know how you can control that,” Mowery explained. “The bottom line is, they’re in the business to rent rooms.”

DOJ study: Disorder at budget motels

According to a study published in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, budget motels can be prime sites for crimes such as prostitution and drug sales since the illicit activity can be undertaken with less risk than at private residences. Guests at a motel have less motivation to report crimes because they have no long-term stake there.

Such may be the case with the overdose death of Sweeton.

As medics from the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department attended to Sweeton in his room at the Winchester Inn, police launched an investigation to determine exactly what had happened.

In Sweeton’s room they discovered a foil packet containing a white powder that later tested positive for heroin, according to court records. A witness also said he had overheard a $10 heroin sale between Sweeton and a man down the hall nicknamed “Lightfoot.”

“Lightfoot” was later identified as Tavon O’Neil Andrade, now 20, who also had been living at the motel.

For his role in Sweeton’s death, a Winchester grand jury indicted Andrade for felony homicide, distribution of heroin and possession of heroin with intent to distribute.

He is scheduled to face a jury in the case on March 14.

Mowery said other than room price, it’s not always easy to determine why people such as Andrade or Sweeton choose one motel over another, but sometimes it can be linked to the crowd they associate with.

“If you have an addiction, whether it be alcohol or whatever, you want to go where you and your buddies can support that addiction, whether that’s residential or a motel room,” he said.

The DOJ study also indicated that it isn’t unusual to find that 80 percent or more of the guests at budget motels with crime and disorder problems live nearby. At a typical hotel or motel, 80 percent of guests are tourists, business travelers, or meeting or convention attendees.

Regardless of their motivation for frequenting motels, the study concluded, guests and visitors who live within 30 miles of a motel tend to be higher risk and have more issues than tourists or business travelers.

A revamped image

Although the Winchester Inn has had its share of issues, things may be improving for the motel.

On Dec. 20, the city Planning Commission recommended City Council approve a conditional-use permit for extended-stay lodging at the motel, a request made by prospective buyer Jay Patel on behalf of Bapa Hospitality LLC.

The commission said one reason for its approval was Patel’s plan to bring the Winchester Inn under the banner of Studio 6, a chain of extended-stay hotels owned by parent company Motel 6.

A backing from a national chain also can contribute to fewer police calls and less criminal activity, Mowery said.

“There are standards that have to be met,” he said. “That’s not a defining factor, but with a franchise there is some corporate oversight that they’re meeting those standards.”

Marie DiLorenzo, a broker at OakCrest Properties who is working with Patel, said that Patel would be finalizing the sale of the property in coming months.

DiLorenzo also said Patel intends to begin renovations to the property this summer — with a $750,000 to $900,000 price tag — that will include new appliances, floors and even granite countertops. Plans also include restricted access to the motel, which would limit walk-in traffic.

The goal, DiLorenzo said, is for the property to appeal to professionals.

The Planning Commission also recommended at the same Dec. 20 meeting that City Council deny a similar conditional-use permit for the 21-room Relax Inn, owned by Ateethi Services LLC.

City Zoning and Inspections Director Aaron Grisdale told the commission at the meeting he was concerned with the amount of police activity at the 1940s-era building. He also believed management had failed to stay current with building and fire codes.

“Council is aware of the demand for public safety services that are often generated by extended-stay lodging establishments and its impact on the city budget,” City Council President John Willingham said via email Thursday. “During the December 2016 council retreat, council began discussions on the role of extended-stay motels within the city, which we anticipate will continue over the coming months.”

Winchester resident Vicki Micheals, 59, whose family has lived in the area since 1928, said during a Friday phone interview she feels the city has ignored issues of criminal activity along Berryville Avenue for years, including at the Winchester Inn.

The close proximity of the motel to the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center and Salvation Army on Fort Collier Road, along with homeless encampments, also have contributed to problems at the motel, Micheals said.

“I don’t know if I see the Winchester Inn becoming a better place than it already is,” Micheals said of Patel’s planned renovations to the property.

Mowery said, however, that although some motels in the area have a bad reputation, it does not mean other properties aren’t trying to make things safe for their guests and for the community.

“The thing I always stress is that there’s always a few in a group that bring all the attention on the others,” Mowery said. “But in reality, it’s not representative of the whole thing.”

— Contact Christopher Earley at cearley@winchesterstar.com

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