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.

And almost before she knew it, the Mesas had hired her as the hotel's manager. Unbeknownst to them, the person they appointed to shoo away the lowlifes and raise their establishment in the cops' esteem was none other than Confidential Informant Number Eleven, who had spent the summer helping the police build a case against them.

Several people, including current Camelot manager Vivian Rolon and former motel resident Lawrence Lewis, allege that Sandy was far from an ideal manager. They accuse her of renting to drug dealers, procuring prostitutes, and stealing, allegations Sandy denies. She does say the job was too taxing for her tastes, what with guests continually banging on her door asking for towels and toilet paper and police officers with warrants coming around looking for prostitutes. She quit after three weeks but stayed on at the motel.

The November 22 NAB meeting, which aired as usual on live cable TV, marked the first time a confidential informant testified before the board. Seated behind a fabric-covered partition, sweating in a black ski mask and a long black vinyl coat with "Miami Police" printed on the back, CI Number Eleven recounted her fourteen drug buys at the Seven Seas and Shalimar motels. To help refresh her memory, she referred to the police reports of each incident. In state court only a week earlier, she had pleaded no contest to seven felony counts of grand theft in an unrelated matter. For that she had received two years' probation, six months' community control, and was ordered to pay restitution.

Now, at the NAB hearing, police investigators testified that the Seven Seas, the Shalimar, the Economy Inn, and the soon-to-be-renamed Metro had been targeted in response to citizens' complaints and police observations. In mid-1994 the police department's Special Investigations Section (SIS) had launched Operation Brothel, an undercover operation to identify Biscayne Boulevard motels where drug dealing and/or prostitution were prevalent. In part, the project was undertaken to appease disgruntled Upper Eastside residents who had complained about a two-year gap since a case involving a Biscayne Boulevard business had been brought before the NAB.

In previous nuisance cases, the police had used informants, including CI Number Eleven, to buy drugs at motels. But Operation Brothel was different, in that it almost totally relied on the work and subsequent testimony of a CI. Of the 29 drug transactions documented during the operation at the four motels, only one was made by an undercover officer. Furthermore, none of the sellers had been arrested; according to police, this was a common-sense measure intended to protect the CI's identity and allow her to continue working.

The results of the November 22 hearing seemed an endorsement of the operation. James Angleton, owner of the Economy Inn, presented a list of improvements in security and management that he had either completed or was working on. Because it was the motel's first appearance before the board, the Economy Inn was placed on six months' probation but allowed to stay open.

Seven Seas proprietor Thomas Lin submitted a long letter apologizing for the problems at his motel. He pledged to fire the night manager, to move in and run the place himself, and to make improvements in security. But the Seven Seas and Lin had already been put on probation once (in 1992), and this time the NAB voted to close down the motel for six months and levy a $500 fine plus $2500 to offset investigative costs.

The owner of the Shalimar, Paul Yang, admitted he knew prostitutes frequented his motel but said he felt sorry for them and had been trying to help them. The board shut down his motel for nine months, levying a $250 fine plus $2500 in investigative costs.

At the request of the Mesas' newly retained lawyer, their case was postponed until the NAB's next meeting, December 28.

The following morning, CI Number Eleven boarded a flight to Tennessee for a Thanksgiving family reunion. According to the city's expense records, her plane ticket was paid for by the City of Miami Police Department because she'd had to remain in Miami to testify at the hearing instead of traveling north by bus.

Orlando and Manuela Mesa discovered the confidential informant's identity in December, when they were shown police videotapes of the buys Sandy had made in their parking lot. Instead of throwing her out, however, they invited her to stay. Their lawyer even offered to write up an unspecified "employment contract" for her.

"She walked into the office and said, 'I'm the CI, I'd like to help you out because I think [the Mesas] are getting a raw deal,'" recalls attorney Jonathan Schwartz, a former assistant public defender in Dade. "I'm thinking to myself, what better way to deal with the enemy than to make friends with the enemy?"

Schwartz and the informant are in agreement about some of what subsequently transpired between them: Sandy admits she told the lawyer that she hoped the NAB would be lenient on the Mesas; like her own parents, they had emigrated from Cuba and worked hard to make it in the U.S. She also confirms that some sort of employment contract was discussed.

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