CHURCH HILL — Tennessee’s safest city became safer thanks to the court-ordered shutdown of the notorious Church Hill Inn, where more than 50 arrests have taken place since 2015.

A petition for abatement of nuisance filed by Third Judicial District Attorney General Dan Armstrong was signed Thursday by Circuit Judge Thomas Wright and served on Church Hill Inn owners and guests by the Church Hill Police Department Friday morning.

The CHPD evicted owners Kalpeshkumar Patel and Pinalben Patel, 1142 Volunteer Blvd., who had 20 rooms occupied by guests. All guests were evicted without warning as well.

During the eviction process, four of the guests were arrested on outstanding warrants: one for being a fugitive from justice in Virginia on felony drug trafficking charges; one for violation of community corrections; one for a Sullivan County arrest warrant on drug charges; and one for a probation violation.

The owners were ordered to appear in Hawkins County Circuit Court Wednesday at 9 a.m. to show cause why the shutdown order shouldn’t be permanent.

Stabbing and drive-by shooting in April

Last week, a home security website proclaimed Church Hill to be Tennessee’s safest city for the second year in a row based on FBI crime data from 2018. If the city had an Achilles heel jeopardizing that streak, it was probably the Church Hill Inn, which has been the location of dozens of drug and violent crimes over the past two decades.

In April alone, the CHPD made an arrest on felony charges related to a drive-by shooting in the motel parking lot as well as an unrelated stabbing in a room which resulted in an attempted murder warrant. The suspect is still at large.

In August of last year, two Kingsport residents were charged with child abuse and drug possession after heroin and meth were allegedly found in their motel room while their children were locked outside.

“It’s just a haven for criminal activity”

Armstrong told the Times News Friday that if there is sufficient criminal activity at a location, and there have been complaints about danger or drug use, he has the power under Tennessee Code Annotated to ask a court to shut that location down.

“In this particular case, I’ve gotten calls from the community, and I’ve met with several individuals in law enforcement who have responded to that site on numerous occasions,” Armstrong said. “The petition details numerous times that criminal activity has gone on there resulting in charges in Criminal Court. We thought it was time to take action to close the place down.”

Armstrong added, “I get constant complaints from people who live up there, neighbors who live close, that something needs to be done. Law enforcement has continually said it’s just a haven for criminal activity, so that’s why we decided to take action.”

CHPD Chief Chad Mosley said the order was the result of an ongoing investigation alleging that the motel poses a substantial risk to the community.

Mosley said the investigation stems from constant complaints, numerous official reports, and repetitive arrests for incidents including illegal drug use, illegal drug trafficking, drug overdoses, overdose deaths, child abuse, child neglect, burglaries, illegal gun possession, theft, armed robbery, kidnapping, public indecency, domestic violence, aggravated assault, attempted first-degree murder, gun violence, harboring of fugitives, vandalism, assault on police officers, public intoxication and disorderly conduct.

“The calls have gotten more serious”

Among the specific cases outlined in the petition are a child overdosing on methadone in 2015; an adult overdosing on Opana in 2015; a man treated for overdosing on Ecstasy in 2017; the knife attack this past April; and the drive-by shooting this past April.

The most notorious case involving the Church Hill Inn, according to Mosley, is probably Jonathon D. Watkins’ kidnapping and rape case. He was initially charged in 1993, and in 2003 he pleaded guilty in Hawkins County Criminal Court to aggravated kidnapping and four counts of aggravated rape in exchange for a 25-year sentence and $15,000 in fines and fees.

“We’ve had a little bit of every type of call down there,” Mosley told the Times News Friday. “It just seems in the last little bit the calls have gotten more serious. We’ve had a robbery, a stabbing, the shooting incident a couple of weeks ago. It just seems to be getting worse. It’s near a school. It’s near a residential neighborhood. It’s time.”