FBI seize crack hotel in New York

A filthy, rundown Manhattan hotel, where Dashiell Hammett wrote part of The Maltese Falcon and Nathanael West was once a night manager gathering characters for his famous novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, has been seized by the FBI who say drug dealers used it to operate a 'virtual supermarket for crack cocaine'. It was the largest seizure of property under a little-used 1984 law that allows the federal authorities to take over buildings being used for the sale of narcotics.

The 620-room Kenmore Hotel is owned by Tran Dinh Truong, who came to New York from Vietnam at the end of the war in 1975. He was a shipowner in Saigon who made a fortune hauling cargo for the Pentagon. He spent almost nothing on the hotel.

The police have made 122 drug-related arrests there since 1991, and residents have been robbed and sometimes killed for a few dollars, but Mr Tran was not charged with any crime.

The hotel was almost entirely single, shabby rooms and 20 per cent of them were occupied by long-term residents on welfare. Drug dealers and prostitutes plied their trade in the hallways that were 'permeated with violence', according to a law official, Mary Jo White.

In court papers relating to the seizure, Ms White said that security guards at the hotel had been arrested for selling drugs. Last week a guard told a police informant that he had collected dollars 200 ( pounds 133) that day from visitors who were buying drugs.

A local policeman, Officer Scott Kimmins, who patrols East 23rd Street where the hotel is located in a mostly middle-class area, said the old people living in the hotel were terrified to come out. 'They live in tiny rooms, like in their own prisons. Today's a great day. The Marines came in.'

Apparently, the hotel staff deliberately left some of the rooms unlocked to allow the drug dealers and prostitute to operate. One such room was known as the 'pigeon room' because it had a broken window allowing birds to fly in. 'Embedded in the excrement on the floor are dozens of crack vials,' according to court documents.

Built in 1928 the hotel was never a watering-hole of the elite, and became more of a glorified boarding-house but even so it was a literary meeting place. When Hammett was finishing The Maltese Falcon, he was broke and West arranged for him to stay in the hotel under the assumed name of T Vitrola Blueberry.

The deal, according to a local history, was that when Hammett had finished his work he could leave town 'like some skip artist who just blew the joint'.

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