Tewksbury Motel Owner Fights Move By Government To Seize Property

On Nov. 9, owner Russ Caswell stands outside his Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. (Winslow Townson/AP)

On Nov. 9, owner Russ Caswell stands outside his Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. (Winslow Townson/AP)

TEWKSBURY, Mass. — When the government arrests drug dealers, it often seeks to confiscate their property. But what happens when the government claims that the facilitator of the drug crimes is not a person but a property?

That’s the situation of the Motel Caswell in Tewksbury. The office of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is trying to confiscate the property from the motel owner and sell it off, even though he hasn’t committed any crime.

A ‘Dangerous Property’

“The Motel Caswell isn’t the Ritz,” its lawyer gravely told a federal courtroom last week. It was one of few assertions that went unchallenged in the civil trial. For $57 per night, you can get the cheapest room in town. Annette Funicello and the Mouseketeers spent a night here a half a century ago. But it doesn’t get guests like the Mouseketeers anymore.

“I have never been arrested in my entire life and I have absolutely no record at all,” owner Russ Caswell explained. “I’ve never even been questioned about any crimes, never mind charged with any.”

No, the crimes here have been committed by some of its paid “guests.”

“The Motel Caswell is a place people go to distribute, buy and use illegal drugs,” federal prosecutor Sonya Rao told a judge. It is a “dangerous property.”

Those guests from hell have given the government grounds for seeking to confiscate the family-owned property. It’s worth about $1.5 million.

Russ Caswell calls that “un-American.”

“I’ve found, which is kind of hard to believe, but I’m responsible for the action of people I don’t even know, I’ve never even met, and for the most part I have no control over them,” Caswell said. “And yet I have to rent them a room unless I have a real good reason not to or I get accused of discrimination and that kind of thing.

“And when they do something wrong, the government wants to steal my property for the actions of those people, which to me makes absolutely no sense. It’s more like we’re in Russia or Venezuela or something.”

A couple of years ago, the 69-year-old motel owner got blindsided by a letter from the government that announced it was coming after his property. The town of Tewksbury had never denied Caswell any permits and the police had never given him any warnings.

The DEA set the U.S. attorney into motion. It has a special agent here in Boston who seeks out targets for forfeiture.

Civil Forfeiture

“As he describes his job, he looks through the newspapers and looks at the Internet, looking for news stories of properties that might be forfeitable and brings them to the attention of the U.S. attorney,” Caswell’s attorney, Larry Salzman, said.

According to the agent’s sworn testimony, he then goes to the Registry of Deeds to determine the value of the targeted property. The DEA rejects anything with less than $50,000 equity.

In the case of the Caswell, the agent saw its worth close to $1.5 million with no mortgage. That made it a fat target for the U.S. attorney, says another of Caswell’s lawyers, Scott Bullock.

“We view civil forfeiture as one of the greatest assaults on private property rights in the nation today,” Bullock said.

Bullock and Salzman work for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. They entered this case without charge after Caswell had gone through $100,000 he borrowed to defend himself.

“They figure it was a little ma and pa operation and they can just come in and bully us around. They’re not used to people fighting back, and I wouldn’t have been able to fight back,” Caswell said. “Financially, you can’t afford to fight it.”

At the civil trial last week, the federal prosecutor laid out 15 drug crimes that occurred at the motel between 1994 and 2008: a heroin overdose in room 227, a methamphetamine lab in 225, heroin in 209, crack in 237.

“There was one constant,” prosecutor Veronica Lei told the judge, “the Motel Caswell.”

“Because certain people that stayed at his motel over the course of a 20-year period were involved in drug crimes,” committed behind closed doors, added Bullock, “the government’s position is that is enough to take away everything that this man has worked for. That is an outrageous abuse of forfeiture laws and we’re trying to put a stop to it.”

Fifteen crimes in 14 years. Caswell insists that’s a minimal rate. He says he rents 14,000 rooms a year. But the government argues that Caswell must have known and was “willingly blind” to the drug crimes or that he did nothing to stop them from reoccurring.

Sending A Message

As the prosecutor emphasized to the judge, the burden in this trial is on Caswell to prove he’s an innocent owner.

“This is the exact opposite of the criminal standard where the government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty,” Bullock said. “In civil forfeiture laws you have to prove your innocence. And that’s one of the main reasons that civil forfeiture laws simply should not exist.”

Is there any way Caswell couldn’t have known what was going on?

“I don’t know how I can see through the doors,” Caswell said.

On the stand, Caswell testified he called police whenever he saw suspicious activity. And the Tewksbury Police testified they never communicated with Caswell about what he could do to reduce drug crimes.

U.S. Attorney Ortiz said through a spokeswoman last week that the government wanted to send a message by going after the motel. But just up the street from the Caswell, the Motel 6, Walmart and Home Depot have all experienced a similar rate of drug crimes on their properties over the years, according to Caswell’s attorneys.

And attorney Salzman says there’s one good reason Ortiz didn’t go after them.

“Mr. Caswell is a small business,” Salzman said. “A single family owned this property, didn’t have the resources to defend himself, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, looking to make an example, picked on the smallest kid on the block.”

A kid without deep pockets and an army of corporate lawyers.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney said Tuesday the government is not put off by “big companies” and “deep pockets,” and referred to previous statements about the warning to businesses who turn a blind eye.

Should the government win its case, it will sell off Caswell’s property and give the Tewksbury Police 80 percent of the take.

At the conclusion of closing arguments, Magistrate Judge Judith Dein said she will look over additional material before announcing her verdict.

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  • Eddie

    Bih Brother has arrived and he is going to protect us from drugs.

    What happened to due process of law?

    This case as described is so outrageous

    Let’s end the war on drugs, declare a victory, dismantle the DEA and empty the prisons of the thousands of people whose only crime had been possession.

  • Eddie

    That should be Big Brother

  • Tina

    What price does the US Attorney pay for the property?

    • Oliver Wendell Holmes

       They don’t pay for it-it’s forfeited

      • neroden

        This is the unconstitutional part of the “forfeiture” law.

  • Lapplady

    Is there a fund where we can contribute to Mr. Caswell’s legal expenses?

  • Phoenicksma

    Another great piece of investigative reporting by David Boeri. Regardless your political leanings, this case is illustrative of how important groups like the Institute for Justice are to protecting those who have limited resources.  
    It is undeniable that the US Attorneys Office is the bully in this case and appears to be unapologetic about its shameless actions.
    Thanks to Scott Bullock & Larry Saltzman of the Instititute for Justice for taking on this case.  Kudo’s to Boeri for  shining a light on the excesses of our justice system.

  • yingyangyou

    Excellent story about what is really going on locally. This also exposes the Libertarian (Institute for Justice) agenda for what it is:  A bid for antisocial anarchy. This property owner’s denial of responsibility for the havoc being hatched in his motel is ludicrous and hardly credible. In any case, he has profited from ill-gotten (heroin/meth) gains. I think it is reasonable to concur he is incapable of running a safe and socially responsible operation at this motel. I would wonder how the high-minded Libertarian commentators here who rail against Big Brother would feel if their son or daughter scored heroin or meth at a motel down the street from their houses. How else can the government address these issues effectively? An example needs to be made here.

    • Phoenicksma

       Highly doubtful you would feel the same way if your family owned the motel.

      • yingyangyou

        I disagree. I believe I would be appalled and ashamed if my family’s prosperity came from housing criminal activity which corrodes the health and well being of society. Believe it or not, some of us place ethics above money and property.

        • Phoenicksma

           One,  you must be talking about someone else because the owner doesn’t appear to be that propsperous… Two, he doesn’t choose who rents the rooms. 

          You & the other fo_ls who believe the problem is the motel owner & he should have his livelihood stripped from him by the US Gov are a scary lot.  Put the same energy into capturing the drug dealers.   Methinks you might live a pretty insulated life, and are quick to criticize others. 

          • yingyangyou

            The motel owner doesn’t ‘appear’ prosperous? Who has the insulated life here? I think anyone who can own and operate a motel for years should be quite prosperous. It’s not a soup kitchen or a charity. It’s a hospitality business. And, if the owner did not report criminal activity, mightn’t he have profited from it discreetly without getting caught?

            The motel owner is expected to practice some discretion in renting his rooms. I have owned rental property and have evicted drug users because they were a nuisance to me and the neighbors. Owning a motel doesn’t give anyone immunity from community responsibility. Yes, he cannot discriminate against paying and lawful customers on the basis of race, ethnicity, etc.. But drug dealing, prostitution and drug production have telltale signs for any vigilant and responsible property owner to observe and act upon. Police can be called to deal with these behaviors ASAP.

            How can anyone capture drug dealers when people like this motel owner provide them with safe harbors in which to conduct their criminal enterprises? Methinks you may be involved in drug culture yourself. I feel free to criticize antisocial behavior when I see it. I also feel free to applaud law enforcement when they actually do their job, as they are doing in this case by setting a powerful example.

          • Phoenicksma

            By  insulated I didn’t mean wealthy or prosperous.  You sound as though you are “socially insulated” and closed off or choose not to associate with those who have opinions that differ from your own…  you intimate I might be involved in the drug culture??  where does that come from??  just proves my point, close-minded  people attack those who have different opinions than their own.   Again,  a scary lot.  
            Peace out YingYang!
            BTW it’s Yin- Yang 

          • yingyangyou

            This will be my last reply, since you are obviously someone who needs to have the last word. You are welcome to it.

            If my name was Polly, you’d probably insist I spell it Pollie. Control issues much? Who has problems tolerating individuality? But this thread wasn’t about individual opinions. It was about the law and social legal responsibility.

            I am far from and have never been socially insulated. My career was in human services. I daresay I probably have had as diverse a human experience as anyone. I have devoted my life to helping others personally and professionally. Never made much money at it, but that wasn’t the point.

            I come from a family of law enforcement personnel. I have also worked extensively with criminals and addicts. I again daresay your comments belie a naivete about the real world of drugs and crime which may be either sincere or affected. Somehow I suspect the latter to be the case. I say, “suspect”…this is not name calling, just speculation based on informed intuition. That’s “where that came from”.

            I hope you realize your values and have the opprtunity to associate with and perhaps live next to a property owner like the man in Tewksbury. It sounds like you may enjoy it.

          • 3FootSmurf

            you are one of the biggest examples of what is wrong with society mr/mrs/ms. if you could actually read and comprehend what is going on here you would see that this owner has done ALL that was in his power to stop any drug problems. there is a difference in short term renting like this and long term Rental properties you claim to rent. you can not just say you look like you use drugs so i can not rent to you. 15 crimes in 14 years is actually a really good record for a motel. if you run a business like a motel you have to insulate yourself against discrimination suits. Just like this owner stated in the court room “It’s not like I can see through doors” and you can not just go into a rented room that is also against the law. Being from a “Law Enforcement family” (explains the profiling and intimidation tactics for sure) you should realize that some drugs have no immediate signs of use. Its called high functioning addicts in the mental health field they blend in to normal society. also there are those who have health problems that can resemble drug problems like skin psoriasis that causes sores that can resemble sore a meth picker gets as well as calcium deficiencies that cause tooth rot that only a dentist could tell the difference. if you deny someone like that a room you open yourself to all sorts of discrimination charges as a MOTEL.

      • Lawrence

        He is trying to make a living with his motel. Years ago before the low life crowd ruined Tewksbury, it was a nice hotel, serving nice people.

        Now, the sleaze, low life’s and welfare gang have found Tewksbury and of course that’s all that’s left to serve.

        How can he tell who is selling drugs and who is not. For most of Tewksbury, they all look the same.

        With the welfare crowd, uneducated people, and illegal aliens, the whole country will go the way of Tewksbury.,

  • Shava Nerad

    I just want to see them go after the Tewksbury Wal*Mart next. Prove that they are serious and nondisciminatory.


    Seizures like this have always been about profit and intimidation, even when they are rationalized around legitimate criminal behavior — which in this case, it sure seems like scant evidence. They piss on the Constitution, as a lack of due process and as takings.

  • Ltm1101

    Motel Caswell is an eyesore in tewksbury! The only people who rent from there are junkies, prostitutes, and section 8 abusers! Good riddance!

    • Scott

       I never understand this argument. Have you seen most of Main Street? Half the strip is an eyesore. Because something looks tacky it should be stolen by your local government?

    • Phoenicksma

      Why hasn’t the town ( police, inspectional services, health) enforced any existing violations? The report states the police did not offer any assistance to the owner to help reduce drug activity.
      Hardly seems a reasonable solution  for the US Attorney to take the property with no compensation to the owner.  The Motel ( and Tewksbury)  needs a new owner or better management.   Meanwhile the town watches from the sidelines awaiting it’s 80% cut of the deal…

  • V Greany

    amazed at what the government can get away with.

  • Watching the show

    The only messeage I’m getting here is government’s abuse of power.  Let’s hear from yingyangyou and Ltm1101 about how they’d feel if $1.5million of their assets were getting taken away against their will.

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes

     Very alarming case.
    Thank you for covering this.
    Where is the globe, and TV media?
    What’s truly scary is that there are creeps that our tax dollars pay for, that lurk behind closed doors, who arbitrarily go after the “low lying fruit”-the independent small business person, instead of a corporate hotel chain, because they easier to subdue.

    Prohibition didn’t work and it was eventually repealed.
    The public has seen the terrible results, and corruption resulting from  the war on drugs, and the excess of abuse this case showcases, will hopefully hasten it’s demise as well.


  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PAMPYGNGHQEAQ3UF7DYYS3YVBQ BillN

    This action by the government is outrageous and disgusting. The judge would do well to rebuke such an egregious abuse of power. What really puzzles me why the ACLU has not come to the aid of this business owner, because surely his civil rights are being violated. If an action like this is allowed to stand, our society is in peril.

  • Frank Schapfel

    If the “government” were truly interested in curtailing crime at the motel – why not post a police car across the street from the motel.  Seizing the innocent owner’s property is overreach – and close to the tactics of Nazis and Soviets.  If there is drug dealing in a public park – does a federal prosecuter file an injunction against the municipality and declare the park “federal” property to reduce/eliminate crime? 
    Very, very scary thoughts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Isaac-Hillman/1260422182 Isaac Hillman

      thank senator john ashcroft (R) and his USAPATRIOT act

  • Bill

    Really? Since when do property owners have police powers? You think the owner could break down the door and throw the tenants belongings on the street? The police can’t evict tenants either, but they could arrest immediately the landlord for harrassment/assault for even knocking too hard on the tenants door! 

  • tax payer

    I live in the town the place is a dump , low life everywhere .    flatten the building , dont want all the trouble in town !! If the cops did there jobs this would’nt even be an issue now !!  Unless some ones gettin some side $$$$$$$$$$$

    • Elbrabantjr

      I grew up in Tewksbury. Caswell was never the Ritza like the article says. But just because someone deals drugs from a reneted room is no reason to steal their property. Perhaps one day they will come for your property. I think then your attitude will change.

  • kilroywashere

    What if the prosecutor applied equal justice and went after a public housing unit?  Would the average section 8 housing pass the litmus test of 15 drug crimes in 14 years?  Would it be fair to close down and sell off  the assets of such an establishment?  The Motel Caswell is a business which pays taxes to the community, which in turn is responsible for providing adequate police services.  Having an affordable motel serves the community.  Civil forfeiture laws are unjust.

    • Lawrence

      Exactly. It is so corrupt.

    • rockhauler

      in response to your slamming section 8 housing, may i tell you that those budgets typically include some degree of security monitoring. there is a huge difference between a residence and a motel. if the landlord has reason to believe there are drug crimes going on and does nothing to stop it, then s/he is knowingly allowing it to happen and perhaps thereby contributing to it, and the feds have the right to padlock or take the building, i believe. however, with a motel, where guests are one-nighters, it seems impractical to ascribe responsibility or negligence to the owner, unless the “guests” are long-term occupiers of the units. now – if you know of any crimes being committed on public housing or privately-owned section 8 property, do your civic duty and call the management company, while reporting it to the police. and please stop with the opportunistic slamming of low-income people who need support, not condemnation. there’s just as much drug-dealing in the burbs and “nice” neighborhoods.

    • rockhauler

      and, oh, section 8 properties are usually privately owned and pay taxes to the town.

  • Paulmvanecko

    The motel is like an open wound, untreated & simple not dealt with….if somethings not actualy done, the “infection” can only get worse.

  • John_smith

    If a landlord or business owner is knowingly providing a safe haven for criminals to break the law at a profit to himself then he needs to be accountable for that, whether it be through fines or criminal charges. He needs to be accountable for the consequences that the community pays because of his actions or his informed inaction. That being said, the seizing of property seems like outrageous unless he was complicit in the illegal activity and profiting from them as part of an ongoing conspiracy. 

  • Kevinks

    Thousands of rooms rented a year and there is an average of one crime a year? Sounds like Mr. Caswell is not doing anything wrong at all.

    You can complain that having affordable hotel rooms in Tewksbury lowers property values or “attracts the wrong kind of people” but that’s a social issue, not a criminal one. At least use something like eminent domain and pay the guy if you are going to steal his livelihood.

  • David Boeri

    During the trial, Magistrate Judge Judith Dein asked the prosecutor Sonya Rao if it was the government’s assertion that if a drug transaction takes place in the parking lot of McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts, and the employees are aware of this and do nothing about it, could those businesses be subject to forfeiture?
    The answer from the prosecutor:  “The test is knowledge and reasonable steps to curb drug activity.” The prosecutor had answered in the affirmative.

    The answer from the judge: “If there was a magic way to end drug crime everyone would have done it.” Some saw this as one sign the judge has problems with the government’s case.

    Up the street at the Motel Six and in the parking lots of Home Depot and Walmart, similar crimes have been committed, in what the attorneys with Institute for Justice say are similar rates. 

    Under the “open wound” theory that Paul mentions, I’m wondering if we’ll see any civil forfeiture actions taken against the big businesses as well.

  • Jef StP

    I agree fines should be in order but going after the Man property is another thing. this whole thing sounds like a third world tactic. Pick on the little guy – fly under the radar. Go after a big guy like  Home Depot and end up on the 6 Oclock news.

  • Gadsden54

    Fines should be in order.  Another idiot.  If he does not rent to these people, he risks a law suit, as he said, for discrimination.  Love our government.  Is this how we are going to pay down our debt.  If I read that guys job right.  I can go rent a garage and sell out of the garage and they won’t confiscate it, because, well shit, it isn’t worth anything.

  • wogga

    Mr Boeri and ‘BUR: Thank you for airing this story, which I found to be shocking.  Although I am a left leaning centrist, I don’t think this is a left/right political issue…it’s an American issue.  Even if the motel in question should be shut down/is a den of crime, certain aspects are very troubling, particularly the inequal treatment of the ‘little guy’ motel vs the large chains.  I contacted Tewksbury’s current congressperson’s office (Tsongas) and hope they will look into this.  After Jan the rep. changes to Rep. Tierney, btw.

    • wogaga

      Did I really write ‘inequal’…geez…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/IVTVREASYVOT33LLCUTAP46H6A Libertarian

    The federal government is a bunch of goddamn jack-booted thugs…

  • Rwolf

    Police Asset Forfeiture Squads Out of Control!

    Like a spreading plague, media reports of Police using Civil Asset Forfeiture to
    seize property from innocent owners is frightening off buyers of motels, bars,
    restaurants; residential rental property. Investors and property owners increasingly believe they are sitting ducks for police to confiscate their property. Ivestors have noted the publicized civil asset forfeiture of Motel Caswell by Federal & Local Law Enforcement Agencies from the Caswell family that owned and operated the motel for two generations. The Caswells cooperated with police to abate infrequent drug problems at their motel caused by guests. This family Motel was free and clear and provided police a target for asset forfeiture. See: “United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass.”

    Bars, restaurant and rental property owners increasingly fear police; strongly believe police can make it a point—to shut down or seize any bar, restaurant, motel or residential rental property by arresting a customer or tenant unbeknownst to the owner—possessing or distributing drugs; or by undercover police / informants steering drug sales or buys onto private property to forfeit it. Some owners of bars, restaurants and rental property have become police informants, report on their customers—in the erroneous belief police won’t target their business or property. There are more than 350 laws and violations that can subject property to government asset forfeiture. Government civil asset forfeiture requires only a civil preponderance of evidence for police to forfeit property, little more than hearsay. No one need be charged with a crime. Corrupt Police can create hearsay. If police civil forfeiture abuse is not brought under control it is foreseeable many Americans will be afraid to own real and personal property that comes in contact with the public.

    It is understandable more business and rental property owners fear police. Almost
    every week, national news reports police, including high-ranking police and sheriffs being arrested for selling drugs, robbing, extorting or protecting drug dealers, planting evidence; and perjury to send innocent persons to prison.

    • Lawrence

      Very informative and true. But what to do about it. It really is like the Nazis, as someone wrote above.

  • concord

    “Ortiz, who had previously been named the Globe’s Bostonian of the Year for her pursuit of corruption and white-collar crime, is now under fire, with Globe columnist Kevin Cullen writing that her prosecution “failed miserably” when judged on proportionality and humanity” in her part of the Aaron Swartz prosecution – please sign the Whitehouse petition


    Its support from dbags like yingyangyou that allows situations like this to happen. They so blinded by their totalitarian law and order mentality that they can’t see the injustice in this case. Its like we’ve entered the bizarro world and have made thievery legal for those who are supposed to protect us from it.
    Its obvious to me that the DEA and Fed prosecutors are pathetically bad at their jobs of interdicting the flow of drugs into this country and make people like this motel owner scapegoats for their ineptitude. I can’t believe they actually have someone scouring newspapers for forfeiture targets. Why isn’t this guy out actually busting the drug dealers instead of essentially stealing property.

    Is it the motel owner’s problem that the municipal government let that neighborhood go to seed and thus dictate that lower end clientele would be the only ones patronizing this motel.

    If the government wants to actually shut down the place, pay the man the 1.5 mill instead of trumping up this bs and trying to steal it from him.

  • http://profiles.google.com/twogunchuck Chuck Crane

    Probability theory predicts that for any given expected frequency of drug events in cheap motels (of a given room rental volume in similarly slimy areas), some will have many events, some few, and most cluster around the mean. Just because a motel has many events means absolutely nothing. With thousands of such motels, it is inevitable that some will have surprisingly high rates of such incidents. Ignorant fools (which includes all DEA agents and most attorneys) think probability theory predicts that all motels will be close to the mean, and radical deviation from the mean signifies something sinister. It does not. The retarded slobs in the DEA, the district attorney’s office, and the federal judiciary should educate themselves. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poisson_distribution

  • http://petegrif.tumblr.com/ Pete Griffiths


  • DavyDev

    Isn’t Carmen Ortiz roots from Venezuela. Probably undercover for Chavez to destroy Americans live. All Mafia!

  • PAUL Miller

    Ortiz is a activist prosecutor who has lost her way, she needs to be fired. Really, she needs to be arrested and made to stand trial. Caswell should sue her for millions of dollars for bringing false charges and abuse of the civil forfeiture statutes. The only message this sends is that laws are being abused by activist prosecutors seeking to only make a name for themselves.

  • Alan

    This is not how a free country operates. These forfeitures are such an obvious abuse. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

  • neroden

    Civil forfeiture laws are violations of the “takings clause” in the US Constitution.

  • EastGhostCom

    Seems to me, NONE of the few existing, struggling, money-earning businesses (per the AGENDA 21 / Socialist goals of the One World, and therefore the current US gov), should be attacked or hounded for any reason. If there is some problem, there are things called police, stakeout, video cameras.

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