The FBI, Oakland Police Department (OPD) and Oakland City Attorney’s Office are working together in an effort to shut down the Mills Motel, which the agencies claim is a center for human trafficking and other criminal activity. A joint raid by the OPD and FBI of the MacArthur Boulevard motel on June 10 uncovered a kilo of cocaine and a pound of methamphetamine, resulting in two arrests, according to the agencies. In addition, the City Attorney’s Neighborhood Block Corps unit filed a lawsuit on June 30, alleging “that the Mills is maintained and operated in a manner that allows drug- and prostitution- related crimes to thrive.”
Under California’s Red Light Abatement Law, motel owners are responsible for any crime that occurs on their property and must enact preventative measures against it. By targeting Oakland’s motels, the joint task force hopes to strengthen the city’s other anti-trafficking initiatives by disrupting traffickers’ sites of operations and deterring other motels from hosting criminal activity. “We have been contacted by other motel owners to see what they can do proactively,” said Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker. “It’s provided an incentive for people.”
The Mills Motel is “certainly one of the hotspots” for underage sex trafficking in Oakland, said FBI Special Agent Martha “Marty” Parker, who was assigned to the Mills case and has investigated child exploitation in the Bay Area for the past 16 years. The agency conducted a six-month joint investigation with the city that led to at least six arrests and included undercover operations, according to the city’s press release.
“In this particular case we believe that some of the people involved in human trafficking were also involved in drugs,” said the FBI’s Parker. Though some of the suspected traffickers at the Mills appeared to be individual actors, she said, she noted that she’s seen increased gang involvement in sex trafficking, as criminal networks recognize prostitution as a “renewable resource” with “wider market” appeal.
“When you are a pimp and you are selling sixteen year olds,” she continued, “the girl comes back to you and you sell them again.”
According to the city’s lawsuit, the Mills Motel, located at 4550 MacArthur Boulevard, had been the subject of more than 144 police calls since 2010. Complaints include but are not limited to “rape, drugs, prostitution, domestic violence, robbery, burglary, unexplained death, and illegal possession of firearms,” according to the city’s lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Mills Motel owner Kiran K. Solanki and co-managers Manek Lal Gajjar and Aruna Gajjar were aware that prostitution took place there, stating that they “provided the rental of pornographic digital video discs” and “distributed and/or sell condoms from the manager’s office.”
Through their attorney, Solanki and the Gajjars have denied these allegations, and the motel remains in operation. Frank Alan Weiser, the Los Angeles attorney who represents the owner and co-managers, filed a cross-complaint on August 25 claiming that the City Attorney’s actions are part of a systematic effort to drive the Mills Motel’s low-income, minority tenants out of the community and “transfer the motel to a private developer.”
The Mills Motel owners deny that any crimes occurred on the premises, Weiser said in a phone interview last week. “They claim they are renting the rooms out to long-term residents who are using the motel as a residence of last resort,” he said.
Weiser also said on behalf of his clients that the city’s lawsuit against them is racially motivated, and that the joint task force violated their constitutional and civil rights through the course of their investigation. The cross-complaint states that representatives from the city of Oakland “have continuously come onto the motel without a properly executed warrant, and beyond its scope, or consent [of the Mills Motel], to inspect the motel and enter areas of the motel not open to the public.”
The motel owners suspect that the City of Oakland wants to develop property in the area, said Weiser, who is also representing the Starlite Motel in the Elmhurst neighborhood in a similar lawsuit. “I do think that there may be something beyond the surface,” he said. “There’s some other motivation than [what] the city is claiming.”
When asked to respond to this allegation, the FBI’s Agent Parker replied, “All I can say is that I do not see any basis for that argument whatsoever.” Both she and City Attorney Parker denied that a third party developer influenced the decision to investigate the Mills Motel, and said that the police were operating legally when entering the property in response to service calls.
Weiser said he visited the motel recently he found it to be conscientiously run and well maintained. “I was impressed—it looked like he [Solanki] had put money into this. It is not a run-down motel,” said Weiser.
The lawsuit filed by the City Attorney’s Office in June is part of a wider crackdown on sex trafficking at motels on MacArthur and International Boulevards. “What has been so disturbing about Oakland and this so-called ‘strip’ is that it appeared [that] it was just open and accepted,” said the city attorney, referring to the area near these streets where sex workers are known to meet their clients. “If you were from out of town, this is the place where you would come.”
“We want businesses in Oakland, but we want law-abiding businesses,” she continued. “This [lawsuit] comes after repeated offenses of owners or managers. It’s a last resort approach.”
If the city wins the suit, the Mills Motel will be forced to close for a year under the Red Light Abatement Act. A city-appointed receiver will control the property during its period of closure and make any necessary reforms to prevent blight and further criminal activity, said the city attorney.
Her office has filed lawsuits against at least four other motels in the last three years, including against the Starlite Motel last March. The National Lodge, located on International Boulevard, was sold in July 2013, after Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte ruled that the property’s owners had violated state law. Harbin-Forte also ruled to close the Economy Inn in June 2012 following a city lawsuit filed in December, 2010, which claimed that both motels were hubs for human trafficking. The National Lodge went out of business, while the Economy Inn, now America’s Best Value Inn, reopened under new ownership last year.
Case management conferences for the separate lawsuits regarding both the Mills Motel and the Starlite Motel are scheduled for November 2, 2015, in a court in Hayward, California.