The Bad Karma Motel

The owner just wants out. The informant's cover has been blown. The defense lawyer is always on the offensive. In the war to spiff up Biscayne Boulevard's low-rent motels, the case of the Camelot Inn is the strangest battle yet.

Life has been more complicated than usual lately for Miami Police Department Confidential Informant Number Eleven, ever since her identity became known to just about all of Biscayne Boulevard. She doesn't own a gun or any other deadly weapon, so when she goes out she stashes the next best thing in an inside pocket of her blue nylon vest: a jackknife with a dull two-inch blade. Nothing that would make a drug dealer think twice about doing whatever he thought she deserved. But CI Number Eleven doesn't go out on the boulevard much any more. Work has dried up.

"Get yer police ass outta here!" yells a prostitute standing unsteadily outside a market on Biscayne and 74th Street. A sliver of moon shows in the just-darkened Saturday sky, and the storefront and people and sidewalk all blend together in the moments before the night turns black and the boulevard lights begin to buzz. Sandy, the informant, exits the store toting a quart bottle of The Bull in a paper sack. She gets her police ass off that corner and keeps moving south, until she gets to 71st Street, where she stops to chat with the manager of the Camelot Inn.

Sandy is unwelcome at the Camelot, and even while letting her guest in the front door, the manager is calling the owners on a cellular phone. Ten minutes later, Orlando and Manuela Mesa drive up and tell Sandy to get her police ass out of there. This is where Sandy's cover was blown after she made seven undercover drug buys during a two-day period last summer, transactions documented by City of Miami police. In late February the city's Nuisance Abatement Board ordered the Mesas to pay a $250 fine, to close the Camelot for a 30-day period beginning this week, and to reimburse the city for its investigative expenses, the exact costs of which have not yet been computed but which are said by city attorneys to exceed $7000. The order has been appealed in state court.

Biscayne Boulevard is both a dividing line and a meeting point for extremes of society. Bankers and businessmen, longtime Miamians and newly arrived tourists can't help but come face to face with pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Once a palm-lined entryway to downtown that abounded with modern motor lodges and clean restaurants, the boulevard has been ravaged by years of neglect, its travel-brochure good looks supplanted by seediness and boarded-up buildings.

Those motels still in operation have long since shuttered their restaurants and most now protect their wary desk clerks in cages fortified with bulletproof glass. Tourists aren't the staple clients any more. Caribbean business travelers and cruise ship employees still book rooms at some of the establishments, and social-service agencies contract with others to shelter homeless clients, AIDS patients, and the handicapped and mentally ill. But there are also the omnipresent outlaws, who always manage to set up shop for days at a time in one motel or another, moving from place to place as police scrutiny dictates.

Residents who live along the increasingly gentrified, tree-shaded streets to the east of Biscayne, in the area known as Miami's Upper Eastside, tell of open drug dealing, brazen hookers baring their private parts and propositioning preteens, assaults by youth gangs, and robberies. All agree the incidents are far less common now than they were five years ago A "Back in the Eighties, you could be stopped at a light with your wife sitting next to you in the car and a prostitute would come up to your window and quote a price," one local businessman recalls A but they remain an affront. Local property owners got so sick of the climate of crime that they took the lead in creating the City of Miami's Nuisance Abatement Board (NAB), whose members are appointed by the city commission and convene monthly. Leaving the pursuit of the perpetrators to the police, the quasi-judicial board has the power to punish businesses that cater, either actively or passively, to vice merchants. If deemed a public nuisance by the board, any business within the city limits can be fined or temporarily shut down for up to a year, or both. Since its formation in late 1991, the five-member board has sanctioned more than 50 properties throughout the city. Perhaps its most celebrated case was the crime-infested DuBari Apartments in Allapattah, which were closed in 1993 amid public controversy and recently have been renovated and reopened. To date, eight Biscayne Boulevard motels have been penalized for allowing drug sales and/or prostitution on their premises. Two have been cited two different times: the Seven Seas and the Camelot, which was disciplined in 1992 while under different ownership.

Upper Eastside residents have persistently badgered police, politicians, and the Dade State Attorney's Office to pay more attention to the area, and they consider the NAB an important weapon in their war against neighborhood degradation. But others contend the board is a sword that cuts too close to the rights of legitimate business operators who stand to lose many thousands of dollars as a result of illegal acts they didn't personally commit.

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