Three Portage hotels garner 1,200 police calls in 18 months

Karen Webster, manager at the Days Inn in Portage, said she and the hotel staff do what they can to discourage illegal activity at the hotel.

“We do walk-throughs. We walk through the hallways and if we smell anything, we knock on the door, talk to them, charge them $250 and say goodbye,” said Webster. “It’s been getting ridiculous.”

Webster is a longtime manager at the hotel, 6161 Melton Road, working there for 12 years until 2006 and returning in 2013. During that time, she said illegal behavior has gotten worse, including the marijuana use that produces a noticeable odor in the hallways.

“We make a list of do not rents. If we find out there’s been weed in there or other drugs, we will put them on a do not rent list,” she said.

She’s called the police about alleged drug deals in the hotel’s parking lot and that of a nearby chain restaurant but those involved are gone by the time the police arrive.

“That’s frustrating. How can you stop it? That’s the million dollar question,” Webster said.

Portage police and city officials are working to answer that question as well. Three of the city’s hotels, including the Days Inn, generated almost 1,200 police calls for service during a recent 18-month period. The city’s other eight hotels had fewer than 500 calls for the same time period.

From Jan. 1, 2021, through June 13 of this year, the Days Inn had 350 police calls; the Portage Inn had 369 calls; and the Travel Inn logged 445 calls, for a total of 1,164 calls for service. The city’s remaining eight hotels had a total of 471 calls during that time.

Dan Whitten, Portage’s city attorney, said he intends to put the respective hotel owners on notice that the city is cracking down on allegations of illegal activity by all means necessary.

“The arrests speak for themselves,” he said of the statistics compiled by Portage Police Chief Michael Candiano.

The majority of the people arrested are not from Portage, Whitten said, and city officials will be going after the problem from multiple angles.

“We’re just not going to tolerate it,” he said. “Portage is not going to be a safe haven for criminal activity.”

The three hotels, Candiano said, seem to be attracting region residents, including those who rent hotel rooms for parties and then aren’t present.

Police put out saturation patrols and unmarked vehicles in the hotel parking lots to look for suspicious activity.

“We were having some pretty good success,” Candiano said, making arrests for narcotics and firearms offenses.

With the summer came a greater call volume for police, fewer officers on the streets because of vacations and less opportunity for special blitzes at the hotels, Candiano said, adding he reached out to the county’s narcotics unit for assistance and will continue working with them.

“Whenever we send extra people up there, we come away with something,” he said.

Police have developed a good working relationship with the Portage Inn, formerly Rodeway Inn, at 6142 Melton Road, because of an investigation into criminal allegations against several former employees who took payment for customers’ rooms and then issued refunds to themselves or their associates, according to Det. Anthony Dandurand, who investigated the case.

The allegations took place from August to October of last year, Dandurand said, and tallied a $65,000 loss of revenue for the hotel’s owner. Six of the seven former employees have been arrested.

“It was pretty easy to track,” Dandurand said.

Nima Patel, whose husband owns the Portage Inn, said she has continued to cooperate with Dandurand beyond the investigation into the former employees to limit crime at the hotel, including sending him the hotel’s guest list two or three times a week.

“When a person walks in, you never know who they are,” she said, adding if the hotel has had problems with a previous guest, they can’t get a room again.

The hotel also installed surveillance cameras in the parking lot and common areas and tells guests to leave if the staff observes illegal activity.

“The thing is, nobody wants it but our rates are such that we’re going to attract these people because we’re not a high-end hotel,” Patel said.

The Portage Inn charges $60 to $65 per night. An internet search of rates at the Days Inn and Travel Inn showed comparable or slightly lower room rates.

“We have to keep it at such a rate, and this is one of the downfalls,” Patel said.

To charge a higher rate, say $150 or $200 a night, Patel said, the hotel would have to offer higher quality rooms, which they can’t afford.

“It’s such a circle. You can’t get out of it,” she added.

If there’s a delineating feature for the three hotels with the most police calls, said Sgt. Rob Maynard, public information officer for the Portage Police Department, it would be their affordability compared to the other hotels in the city.

“It’s the perfect storm when you charge low rates, don’t get quality employees and don’t have stringent business practices. People take advantage of it,” Maynard said.

The Portage Inn’s efforts are decreasing police calls, Patel said, adding “it’s helping tremendously,” but at the same time, occupancy at the 50-room hotel, usually full for the summer, is also down to around 30 rooms.

A representative from the Travel Inn, 6101 Melton Road, did not return a request for comment.

The Travel Inn was the site of a June 21 police response after two teenage girls were found walking barefoot along US 20 in the early morning. Police said they found several teenagers in various stages of undress, an assortment of marijuana-related products, alcohol, carbon dioxide cartridges, prescription medication and two weapons.

Brendan Richardson-Willis, 19, with addresses in Schererville and Little Rock, Arkansas, was taken into custody on 14 felony and misdemeanor charges, including injury to a law enforcement officer, disarming an officer and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Police also arrested minors from Crown Point, Gary, Griffith and Valparaiso.

More recently, Michael Gleim, 38, of Griffith, was arrested on July 15 for four felony charges of neglect of a dependent after police said he left his children unattended for much of the day at the Portage Inn.

The calls to the three hotels include auto theft; battery; disturbances; narcotics and overdoses; prostitution; sexual assault; suicide; vandalism; warrants; and weapons, Candiano said.

Narcotics often go hand in hand with sexual assaults, he said, adding the three hotels make for around 68 police calls a month.

The goal of publicizing the figures is to make people realize how taxing the calls are to the police department, which has four patrol zones. Each call to a hotel brings multiple officers, diverting attention from the rest of the city, Candiano said.

Calls to all of the hotels are to be expected because of the number of people coming and going, Candiano said, but what police found “is how skewed these are” to the Days Inn, Portage Inn and Travel Inn.

Police representatives in nearby communities with heavy hotel traffic said the key to tamping down crime at hotels is creating and sustaining a good relationship with hotel owners and managers so when there are problems, they know they can reach out to the police for assistance.

Hobart has three hotels on Mississippi Street near the interchange between US 30 and Interstate 65. Lt. Nicholas Wardrip with the police department there said officers have a good relationship with the management at all three businesses and frequent patrols in the area.

“The main thing is the relationship with management. They don’t want to be the problem,” he said.

Typical calls are for disturbances, drugs and warrant arrests, Wardrip said, as well as “party rooms,” although the hotels have been the site of two homicides over the years, in 2000 and 2018. He, too, said the lower-budget hotels generate more calls.

In Merrillville, Det. Sean Buck said hotels generate “a decent number and volume of calls.” Police there do regular patrols and saturation patrols if necessary and also have a good working relationship with hotel officials.

“They are quick to notify us and we are quick to respond,” Buck said, adding the calls are similar to those in any area with concentrated housing “because it is housing, albeit temporary.”

Indiana law allows businesses the right to refuse service, he added, so if a hotel had a customer who trashed a hotel room, they can deny them a room the next time.

Police also encourage hotels and other businesses to install surveillance cameras.

“They’re relatively inexpensive compared to what you’re protecting,” Buck said.

alavalley@chicagotribune.com

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