Driving along Interstate 5 in National City, you can see the Rodeway Inn, clearly visible as it sits a few hundred feet from that  busy freeway.  “Make yourself at home in one of their 40 guestrooms,” reads the online ad for the inn.  

Concerns over human trafficking at National City motel

Human rights advocates say a National City motel is a hotbed for human trafficking.

Courtesy of Google Maps

What is not said, but is revealed to us for this story, is the Inn is a “well-known destination for prostitution and trafficking,” claim law enforcement sources and anti-trafficking advocate Marisa Ugarte of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition. The location near I-5 “allows truckers and pimps easy access in and out” of the area, says Ugarte. Jose Tellez, the National City Police Chief, a 32-year veteran of the force, says the area is frequented by traffickers and pimps. 

“That entire area of Roosevelt Avenue has been problematic” for years, he said and added that “the way it is set up, the proximity to the freeway, the proximity to the base, the proximity to San Diego city proper, makes it very convenient for people to engage in this behavior.”

The Rodeway Inn is located along the 600 block of Roosevelt Avenue. It is not unusual to see a line of tractor trailers parked along the curb across the street from the motel, night and day. Law enforcement sources and Ugarte say it is also not uncommon to see women and teens working the area in a “two-block radius” around the motel.  Our law enforcement sources spoke anonymously because they are not authorized to talk on the record with reporters.

Court records and cell phone shots provide insight into a recent incident that took place at the Rodeway Inn.

The ad promises to get “freaky” in National City from a woman calling herself Sarah who offers an “in-call” service in National City.  It’s at the Rodeway.  Something went wrong that December evening. According to the filing by the San Diego District Attorney’s office, the woman called Sarah was attacked by her pimp.  The complaint and witnesses said she was stabbed a dozen times and that he set her motel room on fire and then ran. 

According to the criminal complaint filed against the alleged pimp, motel guests pulled her from the room with scissors protruding from her neck. 

Click on link for full report:

Watch the full story tonight at 5pm on Channel 10 News. Investigator Reporter, Melissa Mecija, with her surprising report on sex trafficking here in our own backyard in National City.

The police eventually arrested him; the prosecutor has been quoted as saying the pimp lit the victim on fire and “left her to die.”  The accused man is from Texas originally, now sitting in a San Diego jail.

Manish Patel is the owner of the motel, operating as Luv-Kush Enterprises. He denies his motel caters to the sex trade. He told us he “cooperates with the police,” and even “offers a room for sting operations,” if asked.  We questioned him about the last time he did this but he said he doesn’t recall. Patel acknowledges there is an “ongoing issue” with prostitution but says his hands are tied. 

“I can’t deny entrance to someone who comes up to the window, that’s discrimination,” he says. If the police would offer him a list of men or women not to rent a room to, the motel owner says he would use it.  Patel insists he wants to “keep my property clean.”

Chief Tellez says he’s spoken to Patel as well as other motel owners in the area about the problem. Nevertheless, sex trafficking and prostitution are active in the city as demonstrated by a recent sting operation run by the National City Police Department and the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force. Thirty men were arrested for soliciting prostitution after they apparently responded to Internet advertisements.  

A young woman we spoke with at length says she has met clients at the Rodeway Inn before. She explains that the activity she has witnessed operates as a cash business: The rooms, she said, are paid for in cash, and the clients pay in cash. The woman is in her early 20s and is a victim of trafficking, currently trying to turn her life around.  We promised not to identify her, and she agreed to explain how she worked the “blade” (the area where prostitutes and pimps ply their trade) and used the Internet for her trade.

She says she was first sold for prostitution at age 15. Her clients are White males for the most part. She describes the motel as “an easy place to use, a lot of people are iffy.” But it’s a “discreet place,” she says. The woman notes that there are always trucks out front of the motel but rarely has she seen police.  She is matter-of-fact when she describes being picked up and taken to the motel by someone in the military: “He had a camouflage uniform in his car,” she says.  She claims she was drugged, tied up, raped and beaten. When she woke up, she was bleeding from being sodomized, she said. The man was gone, and she called her “wifey” to come get her. When asked why she never called the police, she replied, “It was not worth it.”

Our sources in law enforcement tell us that most of the women are not locals but “come from everywhere: Texas, Arizona, Las Vegas, Fresno.” Most are between the ages of 18-25, but there are younger women and older as well.  We are told some solicit sex by the “old school” method of walking in the area of the motel during breakfast, lunch or dinnertime, known as working the blade. Booking “dates” through sex Web sites has become a more popular arrangement for many women and girls.

Social media has made it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor the trade, it’s more hidden, the National City police department points out.  Says Chief Tellez, “What you see on the streets, the prostitutes on the streets is about 25% of the problem versus what’s happening on the Internet.”

Another law enforcement source, who does not have permission to speak to the media on the record, says most of the workers are Black females, though there are some White girls trafficked as well.  They are called “swans” and according to our source, they keep the pimps happy but their competitors beat them up on a regular basis. The pimps stay away from the property for the most part, we are told.  The only time they do appear is to pick up or drop off the women and girls.

Sources for this story say it is a popular spot for military personnel. It’s in close proximity to 32nd Street Naval Station as well as other commands. Ugarte questions, as do other sources for this story, why the Navy hasn’t made the motel or the general area off-limits to their personnel. 

That’s the question we put to Brian O’Rourke, spokesperson for the Navy’s regional command. After checking with the district command, he told us there was no reason to put the motel off-limits because there have been no reports of sailors using the motel to purchase women for sex. He explained there were a number of off-limit locations in the San Diego region, from motels to strip clubs, even certain parking lots.  But to have a location declared off-limits, he said, requires some proof of conditions that “adversely affect the health, safety, welfare and morale” of the troops.  Until the Navy has proof, it can do nothing, he said.  

Chief Tellez says military personnel have not generally been a problem, pointing out that the recent sting by his department and the Human Trafficking Task Force netted only two Navy personnel out of the 30 arrested.

Ugarte says she “doesn’t understand why National City officials don’t shut down this type of motel.” The city has a national reputation as a “hot spot for trafficking and the sex trade,” Ugarte says, yet she and law enforcement sources say attempts to clean up the area have stalled for years.

Tellez points out in the years when the activity was more visible on the street, “we took several actions to minimize that,” but the rise of online activity has made it more difficult to locate pimps and prostitutes.

“So we don’t believe it’s just that area on Roosevelt where this is happening,” he said. “You can set up shop in any reputable hotel across this county, and it will be days, months, weeks before someone knows what’s actually happening, and then after that they move.”

National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis says she is “aware of what is happening” and is “making efforts to improve” the situation.  Her city is not alone, stating that  “trafficking and prostitution are not unique to National City”. 

The mayor, who is in the third year of her term, says the city has begun a series of measures, starting with removing trees and foliage along Roosevlet which provided cover for sex sales.  In addition, they’ve begun a process to ban parking for the tractor trailers that line the road. Sotelo-Solis has been “talking to the Port (District) about having the big rigs moved to port property.  “If they are picking up merchandise at the port, they should be parking over there,” she said.

 Right now, the trade continues. You don’t have to be in law enforcement or an advocate like Ugarte to know something is going on at the Rodeway Inn.  Reading from a TripAdvisor review of the motel, we found this: “The room was smelly,” and “We should have known when we drove up by the appearance that this is clearly a hotel that can be rented by the hour judging by the women that were walking around the complex.”

August, who is media director for BSCC, is a freelance journalist.