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.

Though several lawsuits have sought to overturn the NAB's actions and its legal authority, none has been successful. Then came the Camelot case, a messy ordeal unlike anything the board had handled before. Some in the community are convinced the NAB's management of the matter has blunted its effectiveness, and perhaps rendered it impotent. Regardless, as the old war over Biscayne Boulevard continues to rage, no one believes that last month's ruling will be the last word on what board chairman Robert L. Valledor calls the "bad karma motel."

Most people still refer to the Camelot by the name it bore for the past decade, the Metro Motel. Before that it was called the Miamian. Since October 31, 1974 A Halloween A interrupted only by two brief changes of ownership, the three-story Art Deco building at 7126 Biscayne Blvd. has been the property of Orlando and Manuela Mesa, Cuban immigrants now in their seventies. These days the Camelot, a boxy structure painted in shades of terra cotta with purple trim, has a large For Sale sign in a front window. The Mesas, who also own several rental properties, as well as the Miami Quilting Center in the Design District, are asking $300,000 for the property, but they say they've had only one inquiry by phone. Though saturated with the grime that seeps into old buildings, the Thirties-era motel's twenty tattered rooms are brightened somewhat by the stained-glass hues of bedspreads sewn at the Quilting Center.

They've sold the place twice, but the Mesas have never quite managed to get rid of it; when the buyers defaulted, they retook possession because they held the mortgage. In the fall of 1992, when the motel was owned by a man named Charles Dagher, the Metro was shut down for eight months by the NAB, which cited it as a location for drug sales and prostitution. (According to the attorney who handled the subsequent foreclosure, Dagher left the country with several hundred thousand dollars in insurance money he'd collected to refurbish the structure after Hurricane Andrew.)

Manuela Mesa wanted to rename the motel because she and her husband both loved the romance and beauty associated with the mythical kingdom of Camelot. "My wife, she is always inventing Camelots," says Orlando Mesa, a thin man with a snow-white pompadour and parchment skin that covers a craggy countenance. "That's her dream, to change the face of the motel."

This past November, just before the rechristening, the Mesas received a letter from the NAB advising them that during a summertime undercover investigation, police had documented seven drug buys in the motel's back parking lot and in two rooms. Evidence of the illicit activity was scheduled to be reviewed by the board at its November 22, 1994, hearing, after which members would vote on whether to deem the motel a public nuisance and penalize the owners accordingly. Three other boulevard motels, the Seven Seas, the Shalimar, and the Economy Inn, received similar letters.

The Mesas admit their motel hosted some unsavory guests last summer. Neighbors, including the proprietor of the King Motel next door, had complained regularly that the Mesas' place was a magnet for trouble. A phone booth outside the front door was a hangout of sorts until an altercation resulted in a shooting one night and Orlando Mesa had the phone moved into the lobby. He also fenced in his parking lot and installed security cameras. In late September he fired his manager, who, he had discovered, had been getting a piece of the action on the third floor, the preferred address of dealers and prostitutes.

"When [that manager] was here, I knew something was wrong," Mesa recalls in his lilting, Spanish-accented voice. "He used to use a phrase I'll never forget: 'This [motel] is a church.' But we knew something was cooking behind it. One night my wife parked across the street and we see prostitutes walking in and out. So we tell them to leave. Two days later, the same thing; we throw out two more. So I tell him, 'I left your church without parishioners.'" After that Mesa asked one of the motel's residents, a woman named Sandy who lived in Room 12 with a half-dozen cats and two dogs, to take over as manager in exchange for the $140-per-week rent.

The owner and his new manager made an effort to report problems to the police. They met with neighborhood homeowners, who were happy to see the changes Mesa made but remained convinced the improvements weren't enough to keep undesirables away permanently. As boulevard business operators are encouraged to do, the Mesas also consulted with the department's neighborhood resource officers (NROs), who work out of the Upper Eastside Neighborhood Enhancement Team office at Biscayne and 66th Street. The Mesas' relationship was so good with one of those cops, Darrell Nichols, that in October they took on the officer and his family as tenants, leasing them a house in the area.

When the Mesas learned their motel would come under the NAB's scrutiny, they were indignant, believing past problems had been resolved. Officer Nichols, too, felt the Mesas should be given credit for the improvements they had made, and he lobbied for leniency with local residents and with David Forestier, the assistant city attorney who argues cases in front of the NAB. Aware of Nichols's off-duty connection to the Mesas, however, community leaders were uneasy and at least one person complained to Nichols's superiors.

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