Local 2 Investigates: Southwest Inn's troubled past

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

Local 2 Investigates has uncovered new information in the deadly motel fire that claimed the lives of four Houston firefighters including details on the long list of crimes associated with  that motel.

Houston fire officials say it may take up to a month to determine exactly what caused this fire. In the meantime, we've been looking into this motel's long history, since it was called the Roadrunner Inn.

Heavy equipment has been carefully peeling away the charred layers of the Southwest Inn as investigators try to get closer to the heart of the fire. Nearly 50 city, state and federal investigators are searching for a cause to the fire that killed four Houston firefighters.

Fire officials say all four died when a wall collapsed 12 minutes after the first engine arrived.

"It could take a month to recreate where everybody was, what they were doing that caused tragedy," said Capt. Ruy Lozano with the Houston Fire Department.

Local 2 Investigates has also been digging into this motel's history. It is owned by a California-based company called Criterium Systems, Incorporated. Copies of fire inspection reports obtained by Local 2 show since 2009 the motel and restaurant had been cited for problems for expired permits , obstruction of exits, problems with fire suppression systems, non working smoke detectors in several rooms and the motel's overall fire alarm system. By March of 2011, the Houston Fire Department's database of inspections noted "property in compliance." Then in 2012, HFD's database showed the motel received more citations, but it was unclear from HFD records the nature of those citations. HFD records also show in May of 2012, inspectors received a complaint the motel's fire suppression system needed to be recharged. However, the most recent inspection found in HFD's database was on May 8 of this year and showed "no action required." 

The adjoining restaurant has also faced several health code violations. City records show that from July of last year through May of this year the restaurant was cited for a lack of cleanliness, including cleaning of  the vent hoods over cooking areas, a damaged ceiling in the kitchen and not routinely cleaning outside grease traps.

The motel has also seen its share of crime. As far back as 2003, when it was owned by a different company, Local 2 Investigates exposed a motel frequented by prostitutes. Before that, it was the scene of the murder of Houston police officer Troy Blando.

More recently, Houston police records show that since the beginning of the year, officers have been called to the motel 25 times for possible peeping toms, reports of burglaries, thefts, assaults, prostitution, drug use and suspicious people.

Still, Mayor Annise Parker says so far nothing nefarious appears to have been behind Friday's deadly fire.

"We have no evidence or information this was a set fire," the mayor said.

We were able to speak with the man listed in state records as the president of the California-based company that owns this motel. Roger Chen says he is in Houston, but could not make any comments at this time.

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