In April of 2014, a 5-year-old girl was playing with her brothers on the grounds of the Econo Lodge in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she was staying with her family, when a man grabbed her, took her into his motel room, hit her, pulled off her clothes, and molested her.
Court records show that the man, Timothy Blazier, 50, was a recently paroled, twice-convicted child-molester. He’d been living at the Econo Lodge for three months when he molested the 5-year-old girl. He’s now back in prison, serving a sixty-year sentence for the attack — his third conviction involving the sexual abuse of a child.
The incident spurred protests from some Terre Haute residents when they learned that the Econo Lodge — part of the Choice Hotels International chain — had been home not just to Blazier, but to 12 other convicted sex offenders who, according to local news reports, had been housed there at state expense because the motel was one of the few locations that lay outside the town’s prohibited zones for sex offenders.
Following the attack, Choice Hotels cut its affiliation with the motel, which closed a few months later. Choice Hotels International has not responded to several emails from NBC5, asking for comment on the 2014 incident.
In a six-month investigation, NBC5 Investigates found 667 sex offenders who reported that they were living at 490 motels and hotels throughout Illinois and nine surrounding states. Though many offenders appear to have checked in to these motels for just a few weeks or months at a time, approximately half of the offenders that we found, reported staying there for at least six months or more — and sometimes for years.
(We used two hotel guides to check all addresses in a 10-state region -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin — and then cross-check those addresses with each state’s sex offender registry, to find sex offenders who listed their home address at motel. We did this twice – once in the fall of 2017, and then again in the 2018, for all 10 states – though it should be noted that, for the most part, Minnesota does not list offender addresses on its registry, so there are very few results from Minnesota.)
With few exceptions in just a handful of towns across the country, it is perfectly legal for any registered sex offender to take up residence at a hotel or motel, as long as it is outside restricted zones. Often these offenders have few other places where they can legally reside, because — depending on where they live — they must keep 1,000, 2,000 or even 3,000 feet or more away from parks, schools and a variety of other places where kids might be — places which dot most residential neighborhoods. Motels and hotels are usually not part of those restrictions.
For their part, motels and hotels are under absolutely no obligation to check the background of any guest — short-term or long-term. They’re also under no obligation to notify visitors about anyone else staying there. And registered sex offenders aren’t required to tell hotels and motels about their criminal histories. Laws vary somewhat from state to state, but in essence sex offenders are mainly obligated to notify local police, any time they move to a new residence or start a new job. It’s then up to the police to decide how or if they want to follow up on that information. So no one — not the motels, not the police, not the offenders — are breaking any laws or rules. In fact it may be that the only way an offender can follow the law is to live at one of these motels along the highway on the outskirts of town.
A total of 314 of the motels we found, where registered sex offenders reported their residences, were mainstream motels with their own websites for online reservations, and most of those were affiliated with well-known chains — places where families and other travellers are likely to stay. We also found that a significant number of the motels were in well-travelled areas — at interstate exchanges (where families often stop overnight on road trips), for example, or in university towns (where families often visit students or attend sporting events).
Increasingly, many law enforcement officials and attorneys argue that this is what society essentially asked for: Because most states and communities have imposed such strict limits on where released sex offenders can live (while still requiring them to live in the town where they committed their offense), often an offender's only legal choice is to live on the margins of towns, often in "clusters" in apartments or motels at highway interchanges — where, ironically, they may be in closer contact than ever to families and children.
“I think we all have a shared interest in safe communities and crime prevention, but residential exclusion zones are nothing other than legislative gimmick,” says Adele Nicholas. She’s a Chicago civil rights attorney who — along with fellow civil rights attorney Mark Weinberg — represents convicted sex offenders who are trying to find legal places to live.
"People are living in these hotels and motels because they're out of options," Nicholas says. “They’re oftentimes pushed to the margins of society and facing potential homelessness, which causes them to have to take up residence — short-term or long-term — in a motel." In other words: The "unintended consequences" of buffer zones.
Nicholas cites several studies that show that residential restriction zones do not reduce crime. She argues that we all need to re-evaluate the conventional wisdom concerning sex offenders and safety: “I think that creating conditions so that people can successfully re-integrate in society — through productive work, through stable housing, through important community connections to their families and loved ones — are good both for someone who committed an offense in the past, and for the safety of society in general.”
In several areas of the 10 states NBC5 Investigates looked at, during the fall of 2017 and/or during the spring of 2018, we found sex offenders who reported living in motels that are just off major interstates and highways — on the margins of the community where they're required to live — but also the exact places a family might pull into, during a road trip.
Take a single interchange in Madison Wisconsin. Last fall — when rooms were at a premium during the University of Wisconsin’s football season — NBC5 Investigates found six separate chain-affiliated motels at that one interchange listed as housing a total of nine sex offenders, convicted for such crimes as sexual assault of a child; aggravated child molestation, child pornography, and rape.
Or take another interchange in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, near Illinois State University. We found five brand-name motels listed as housing a total of six sex offenders over a six-month period between fall of 2017 and spring of 2018 — all of them offenders against teen-aged children. Four of the five motels are clustered at the interchange. And all five motels are listed on the “visitbn.org” website, which ISU links to for suggested hotels for students and their families to stay in while they are visiting the campus. Again, neither ISU nor “visitbn.org” would ever have any obligation to check to see who might be staying in those motels, and no reason to know that some convicted sex offenders may be residents.
These interchanges aren’t unique:
• In Columbus, Ohio (not far from The Ohio State University), we found four motels at a single highway interchange where ten sex offenders said they were living, over the past six months.
• We also found two sex offenders — including one offender against children — who said they were living in two motels listed on the website “visitchampaigncounty.org,” which is the link that the University of Illinois provides for people planning to stay overnight while visiting the Urbana campus. (Once again, neither U of I nor "visitchampaigncounty.org" has any obligation to check on other guests at those motels.)
• NBC5 Investigates also found large clusters of motels at other interchanges where you might likely pull off for a night’s stay, such as one interchange in Merrillville, Indiana (four motels housing nine sex offenders); an interchange in Seymour, Indiana (six motels housing nine sex offenders); and a single interchange in Cleveland, Tennessee (four motels housing four sex offenders).
• Then there’s a single interchange in Murfreesboro, Tennessee: We found residents who reported their addresses at two popular motel chains there. One was listed as the home of six sex offenders, and another was listed as home to fourteen more: Twenty total registered sex offenders in just two name-brand motels at one well-travelled interchange. Add fourteen more sex offenders who list their home at a smaller motel at the same location, and that's a grand total of 34 sex offenders at this single interchange – nearly half of them child sex offenders — all who reported that they lived in this cluster of motels on the edge of town.
Adele Nicholas hopes that these "unintended consequences" of restriction laws might spur the general population to re-evaluate what really might help this admittedly-unpopular group of people. Living in a motel, she says, hampers — not helps — an offender's chance at rehabilitation, "by making it more difficult for them to obtain stable housing; to have the sources of community support that they need, and to have gainful employment and access to transportation -- all things that contribute to people having law-abiding lives."
"And that's not good for anyone," she adds. "Not just someone who committed an offense — but for society in general."