For two years, Russ Caswell has been back on his heels, defending himself against allegations by the Department of Justice that, for years, he knowingly allowed drug trafficking to go on at the Motel Caswell.
Now he’s fighting back.
Backed by new lawyers, who have launched an aggressive public relations campaign, Caswell is denying any wrongdoing and claiming that the government is stepping well beyond its authority in trying to take his motel under Federal Civil Forfeiture Laws.
“I may sell (the motel) eventually, but the government doesn’t have the right to take it,” said Caswell. “It’s not right.”
In September 2009, the Department of Justice filed a claim in U.S. District Court, seeking to seize the Motel Caswell and the land it sits on at 434 Main St. because of what it claimed was a continuing pattern of criminal activity, primarily drug trafficking, on site (see attached document "original Department of Justice Complaint").
In its claim, the government cited an affidavit by Detective Sergeant (now Lieutenant) Thomas Casey of the Tewksbury Police Department, in which Casey mentions more than 100 narcotics investigations relating to the motel since 1994. A second affidavit, submitted by Special Agent Vincent Kelley of the Drug Enforcement Administration, describes the history of DEA investigations relating to the motel.
The government claims that as a private landlord, Caswell, who lives in a home next door to the motel, had knowledge of the ongoing activity and did nothing to stop it.
Caswell said the reality is quite the opposite. He said he and his employees have been extremely cooperative with law enforcement over the years. He said clerks will often call the Police Department if they suspect some type of wrongdoing going on in one of the rooms. Clerks are also instructed to make the guest registry available to police for inspection at any time.
“But it’s been one-sided cooperation,” said Caswell. “If they make an arrest, they don’t tell me or let me know what it was for. There’s no communication.”
Caswell said that outside of one meeting with the Police Department and representatives from all of the town’s motels and hotels, the TPD and the town have never approached him or offered to work with him on ways to reduce criminal activities at Motel Caswell, he said.
“I’ve had absolutely no contact with any town official,” said Caswell, adding that his permit to operate the motel has been renewed every year without any discussion, except for required visits by the Health Department.
Caswell said he does everything he can to prevent problems at the motel. He says there is a “Do Not Rent” list at the clerk’s desk and he has now installed surveillance cameras in the lobby and parking lot areas.
Two town officials respond
Town officials were reluctant to discuss the details of the case, as it is an ongoing litigation. Police Chief Timothy Sheehan, Town Manager Richard Montuori, Board of Selectman Chairman Todd Johnson and Town Counsel Charles Zaroulis all declined comment. Zaroulis pointed out that he is representing members of the Tewksbury Police Department during their depositions, as part of the case.
Selectmen David Gay and Scott Wilson were willing to issue statements regarding the case.
“For the twenty-one years that I have lived in Tewksbury, the Motel Caswell has had a negative reputation due to serious crime issues on its property,” said Gay. “I am not at all surprised by the federal government’s actions.”
“As a family and residents in Tewksbury, I feel for the situation that the Caswells are in,” said Wilson. “I realize that they feel they are unfairly being targeted and are concerned about losing their life savings. I would hope that they can figure out a way to work things out with the Feds.”
Motel Caswell's history
The Motel Caswell was opened back in 1955 by Caswell’s father, Russ Caswell Sr. Russ Jr. took over operations around 1983. Today, Russ’ wife Patricia and their son and daughter help to run the place. It stands as one of the few family-owned and operated motels left in Massachusetts.
And that fact seems to have left the Caswell open to government action. Caswell doesn’t deny that guests of the motel have committed criminal actions over the years. There have been sexual and domestic assaults, drug offenses and even a mini-meth lab set up in a bathtub. But Caswell is left to wonder why his motel has been targeted for seizure and not the Motel 6, which is also a frequent location for various police calls.
According to a Department of Justice source, speaking on condition of anonymity, the issue has to do with proximity of ownership. In the case of Motel 6, the actual owners are not on site and, therefore are not held as responsible for what goes on. In addition, according to the source, Motel 6 has taken aggressive measures to cut down on crime, including hiring detail police officers.
Another motel case
While property seizure cases most often involve single-family homes and apartment buildings, this is not the first time the Department of Justice has gone after a motel. In 2007, the DOJ went after Mario’s Motor Inn, located in Peabody. Eventually, the case was settled for $70,000. Coincidentally, the lead investigator from the DEA on that case was also Special Agent Vincent Kelley.
One major difference in that case was that the Department of Justice alleged that the owner of the motor inn had direct involvement with individuals accused of drug dealing and that she took actions to protect them.
No such allegations are being made against Caswell. In fact, in sworn depositions, both Casey and Kelley acknowledged that they had no evidence indicating that Caswell had knowledge of criminal activity going on at the motel while it was going on.
Similar to the Peabody case, the DOJ engaged in negotiations with Caswell and his attorneys over the summer and, according to a document filed in U.S. District Court by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Sonya Rao and Anton Giedt, a settlement was all but completed. Rao and Giedt claim Caswell suddenly abandoned the settlement and expressed a desire to go to trial (see attached document "DOJ Opposition to Caswell Motion").
This was around the same time that Caswell got a major boost when his lead attorney, George Skogstrom Jr., connected him with lawyers from the Institute for Justice.
Institute for Justice
On its website, the Institute for Justice describes itself as “the nation's only libertarian, civil liberties, public interest law firm.”
In court documents, Institute For Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock said there was no settlement and that negotiations broke down (see attached document "Caswell Motion").
Not only has the Institute for Justice taken on Caswell’s case pro bono, it has launched a massive public relations campaign including a YouTube Video and Op-Ed pieces in Boston publications.
In a press release, Bullock took aim at the Department of Justice, Federal Civil Forfeiture laws and the “Equitable Sharing” program, which he claims allows local and state authorities to seize property under federal forfeiture laws that likely wouldn’t be allowed under state law (see attached document "Caswell Answer to DOJ Complaint").
“Civil forfeiture creates a perverse incentive for police to target innocent owners and their assets rather than seek justice and public safety,” said Bullock. “No one in the United States should lose his or her property without being convicted of a crime, let alone never even being charged with a crime. Yet that is exactly what is happening with the Caswells. This case shows that fair and impartial law enforcement cannot exist as long as we allow policing for profit.”
On its website, the Institute for Justice claims that approximately $1.6 billion has been collected in civil forfeitures and settlements since 1986, and that some of that money has been returned to state and local law enforcement through the “Equitable Sharing” program. According to the IJ, “Equitable Sharing” funds sent from the DOJ to state and local law enforcement agencies jumped from $200 million in 2000 to $400 million in 2008.
According to Caswell and his attorneys, the Department of Justice is using the threat of civil forfeiture to force a settlement similar to the Mario’s Motor Inn case in Peabody.
But Christina Sterling, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, said that claim is completely false.
“This is not about money. That is absolutely not true,” said Sterling. “This case is a law enforcement issue, completely a law enforcement issue.”
Case in its early stages
According to Sterling, the case is in its early stages and that a trial, if it comes to that, is still a long way off. Court records indicate that depositions still need to be taken from certain Tewksbury Police personnel, as well as Patricia Caswell.
For now, Caswell said he will keep doing what he has been doing – running the motel as best he can, something he admits has become more of a challenge over the last year.
“This past year my water bill was $80,000,” he said, adding that the huge water rate hike has forced him to increase his nightly room rates by 33 percent from a year ago. “I’m just trying to keep up with my bills.”
Despite the struggles, Caswell said he is unwilling to concede and give up his motel or pay a settlement to the government when he believes he has done nothing wrong.