Scott County Sheriff's Department Detective Randy Lewallen consoles a distraught resident who is being evicted from the Oneida Family Motel on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. (Ben Garrett/IH)

An electronic sign outside the office of the Oneida Family Motel flashed “Open” at around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.

In reality, the former Tobe’s Motel was anything but. By that point, the beleaguered motel was closed — the result of a temporary injunction issued by Scott County Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton on Tuesday and served by Oneida Police Department on Wednesday.

The injunction came after a petition was filed by 8th Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler, seeking the court to intervene under Tennessee’s nuisance abatement legislation. Effler, who was on hand with local and state law enforcement officers at the motel Wednesday morning, filed the petition with the court on Tuesday.

A team of law enforcement officers from Oneida Police Department, the Scott County Sheriff’s Department and Tennessee Highway Patrol descended on the motel around 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, armed with the court order to shut down the motel and evict its residents. Officers made their way from room to room, knocking on doors and telling the residents of the motel that they had to remove their belongings and vacate the premises.

8th Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler chats with Assistant D.A. Matt McClung outside the Oneida Family Motel on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. On either side are Oneida Police Department's William Angel and Bill Miller. (Ben Garrett/IH)

‘A Long Time Coming’

“This has been a long time coming,” Oneida Chief of Police Darryl Laxton said.

Laxton and his team of law enforcement officers have been building a case against the motel for months. Once an esteemed lodging establishment that was even featured on postcards purchased by tourists, the former Tobe’s Motel had become a haven for criminal activity. An Independent Herald investigation in February 2017 found that law enforcement officers from the city had been summoned to the motel more than 170 times in 2016 alone. There, they encountered a number of criminal offenses — most of them drug-related, but also including everything from sexual assaults to truancy.

Commenting to the Independent Herald at the time of that story, Laxton made mention of the state’s nuisance law. TCA 29-3-101 provides a means for courts to order closed business establishments where criminal or nuisance activities are occurring unabated.

As he watched his officers clear the motel on Wednesday, Laxton said there was no single straw that broke the camel’s back, but enough was enough.

“I hoped the talk of a nuisance abatement would cause the owner to make some changes, but it was clear that things weren’t going to change,” he said.

The case against the motel is substantial. Laxton said the business has violated numerous city ordinances in addition to the criminal activity that had become common among its tenants. The Independent Herald has learned that, at one point in 2017, an OPD officer discovered raw sewage being pumped from a holding tank at the motel into the city’s storm drain. On Wednesday, a pile of used and discarded mattresses stood nearly 10 feet tall behind the motel.

In his petition to the court, Effler cited numerous examples of police intervention at the motel, saying that OPD’s investigation “has shown an open atmosphere for illegal activity that puts the community in danger as a result of the Oneida Family Hotel’s existence.”

Further, Effler wrote, “the Oneida Family Hotel is a business that thrives on allowing and encouraging drug activity and facilitates the illegal distribution of narcotics in Scott County. Furthermore, the Oneida Family Hotel fosters an environment of fighting, disturbance of the peace, lewd sexual activity, and public drunkenness.”

A Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper assists a resident of the Oneida Family Motel as a pile of children's toys can be seen in the foreground outside the tenant's room. (Ben Garrett/IH)

Displaced Residents

Outside the Oneida Family Motel Wednesday morning, the wails of one distraught resident could be heard as she and other members of her family removed their belongings from their room, piling them on the grassy lawn outside. Up and down the sprawling one-story motel, other residents were doing the same. Still others sat idly in chairs outside their room, some appearing mildly curious, others with the blank looks of displaced residents with nowhere to go. A couple of small children milled about.

“Fortunately, there aren’t many kids here right now,” Laxton said. “I imagine there were more that got on the bus to go to school this morning.”

Laxton said he feels for the residents whose lives were disrupted by Wednesday’s abrupt closure of the facility.

“In reality, I don’t think the long-term residents here are the ones causing the problems,” he said. “It’s the fly-by-night guys that run up a big bill and then leave. I think these people here,” he added, motioning at the residents who were still busily removing their belongings from the rooms, “are the victims in this, just like the community as a whole is a victim in this.”

Oneida Police Department had made contact with the Scott County Homeless Shelter, Laxton said, and the shelter was ready to take in as many of the residents as it could — so long as they could pass a drug test and were not sexual offenders.

But the homeless shelter’s space is limited; it could only accept a small number of residents. No one had an exact count on how many residents were being displaced Wednesday, but most of the hotel’s 40-plus rooms were occupied.

“Most of them have been contacting family and friends and getting places to stay,” said Scott County Sheriff Ronnie Phillips, who was also on the scene Wednesday, along with a team of his deputies. “Hopefully, they’ll all have somewhere to go.”

In their haste to clear the rooms, there were no boxes, suitcases or other packing materials being used by residents, many of whom rented rooms at the motel by the week or by the month. Instead, clothing, electronics and other items were being placed in unorganized piles outside.

Outside one of the rooms, Detective Randy Lewallen attempted to console one of the distraught residents who was being evicted.

Laxton, whose department has been taxed by the frequent 911 calls from the motel, did not mince words.

“He just wanted to make money off these people,” Laxton said of the motel’s owner, Chris Yousif. “He didn’t care, as long as he could make money.”

What Next?

Yousif, who purchased the motel in 2012, had not arrived at the motel Wednesday morning and was not immediately available for comment, although he was en route from Knoxville after learning of the court’s injunction.

In granting the temporary injunction, Judge Sexton scheduled a hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday. State law requires that the court grant business owners a hearing within five days under such circumstances.

Meanwhile, a Town of Oneida maintenance crew was standing by, ready to board up the windows and padlock the doors.

No one is quite sure what the future will hold for the Oneida Family Motel. It’s the subject of the first nuisance abatement in Scott County’s history. Prior to 2017, there had never been a nuisance abatement in the 8th Judicial District. That changed several months ago, when Assistant District Attorney Matt McClung successfully sought an injunction to close a motel in Tazewell, Tenn. McClung was also on the scene Wednesday, along with his boss, Effler.

In the Tazewell case, the motel is still closed, about six months later, as its owners contest the matter in court. Laxton said Wednesday that the courts provide a pathway for businesses to reopen, but certain concessions must be made. In essence, the business’s owners must prove that the nuisance will cease.

The Oneida Family Motel has a D+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. Multiple court affidavits filed by law enforcement have spoken of general filth inside the motel’s rooms. A May 2016 filing with the BBB complained of a lice outbreak in seven of the motel’s rooms, as well as “mold all over the place.” The unidentified complainant claimed to have photos of bedbugs that infested more than 10 rooms, along with photos of bites on multiple tenants.

This is a developing story. For more details, see the April 26, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.