Prostitution, human trafficking in East Lyme motels?

If I were pressed against a wall and made to come up with some of the most pressing crime problems in the region, I'm not sure I ever would have thought to list human trafficking and prostitution in East Lyme motels.

Until Wednesday morning, when I heard newly christened East Lyme police Chief Michael Finkelstein talking about it on the radio, I don't think it ever would have occurred to me that there could be human trafficking rings running prostitutes in East Lyme motels. The casinos, maybe, but at the Motel 6 in Niantic?

Call me naive.

Indeed, when I heard the chief tell a caller to Lee Elci's popular morning talk show on radio station FM 94.9 that they were "taking a long, hard look" at prostitution at the Motel 6, involving "our federal partners" and conducting surveillance, I had to pull over the car to the side of the road, if only to take some notes.

In my many years of reporting, I have come to understand well police reluctance to admit to any crime at all, unless they have already solved it and made some arrests. One notable exception to this rule is when they are looking for help to find someone on the run.

They also will admit to what is inescapable — a bleeding body on a street corner, for instance.

I can't help but think that if someone from The Day newsroom called East Lyme police this week to ask about prostitution at the Motel 6, they would have gotten a big fat "no comment," unless an arrest had been made.

So imagine my surprise when I heard Finkelstein respond to a radio caller, Mark from Groton, whose friend staying at Motel 6 observed "Asian massage sexual trafficking" going on in the two rooms next door. Police know all about it, the chief told the caller, that it was being fully investigated, including surveillance, and they were determined to "root it out" at that location and pursue prosecutions.

"We are doing surveillance of the location. It's something that's underway," the chief said.

Finkelstein also reported that police have been working with Motel 6 managers, to enlist their help in identifying and stopping trafficking.

I can only imagine the shock for any East Lyme chamber of commerce types tuned in at the time. I'm sure they like to think of the biggest crime challenges in town to be speeding and shoplifting. That's certainly the only kind of crime they want to hear being talked about on the radio.

Elci, ever skilled at keeping the program rolling merrily along, never missed a beat in suggesting, in response to the police chief's revelations, that Motel 6 might have a new slogan: "We'll keep the red light on for you."

When I reached Finkelstein by phone later in the day Wednesday, he was quite a bit more circumspect about talking about an investigation into human trafficking at the Motel 6, when I started asking specific questions.

He suggested, in fact, that the surveillance and lookout for trafficking related to prostitution wasn't limited to Motel 6 but was rather a broader outreach to all the motels in town.

The chief said police have met with management at all the hotels to help them learn about telltale signs they should look for and when to alert police about suspicious activity.

He did say generally there have been more police calls to the Motel 6 than other motels in town on a range of issues, like unruly behavior and loud noise. There have been no prostitution arrests, he said.

A corporate spokesperson for the company that owns the Niantic Motel 6 was pretty subdued when I asked about the police chief's revelations of the human trafficking investigation at the motel.

But then again I got quite a few hits for stories from around the country when I Googled prostitution and Motel 6.

"Motel 6 takes these allegations very seriously," the company said in a statement they released in response to my questions. "We have and will continue to fully cooperate with the local authorities in Niantic, Conn., supporting crime prevention programs that provide a safe and secure environment to our guests and employees."

Apparently, there were no hard feelings about being called out on the radio by the chief, since the statement went on to refer additional questions to him.

As much as I was startled by Finkelstein's on-air revelations about a pretty serious crime watch in his town, I would have to applaud his candor.

Indeed, I would volunteer him to teach some seminars for other Connecticut police departments on transparency and community dialogue, along with community policing.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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