City Paper is not for tourists
It’s easy to be anonymous at the Valencia Motel. Just ask the people who live near Room 343.
Sunday, Sept. 23. Toris Proctor, 22, is sitting outside Room 342 at the Valencia Motel off Route 1 in Laurel, Md., with his two uncles. A couple of empty cans of Natural Ice beer sit at their feet. In the parking space by their door, someone has put out some plants to give them more sun. A child’s tricycle and miniature basketball hoop sit on the curb before them.
Proctor and four other family members have called the Valencia home for the past 10 months. Their one-bedroom, two-room unit sits in a row across the street from the main part of the motel, a set of shabby-looking, two-story beige buildings with reddish-brown shutters and brown-shingled roofs.
The $40-per-night Valencia is a home of last resort for people like Proctor and his family, who are staying here until they can afford to move someplace else. It’s also a home of convenience for truck drivers, construction workers, and other itinerant laborers, says owner Rakesh Shah.
And, it turns out, it’s an ideal home for terrorists.
In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, FBI investigators discovered that the five men who hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles Airport and crashed it into the Pentagon stayed at the Valencia Motel from Aug. 23 to Sept. 11. Two of Flight 77’s hijackers picked up their tickets at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI), which is about a 20-minute drive from the motel. Authorities don’t know why the terrorists chose to stay in Laurel, but some speculate they were attracted by the presence of Moataz Al-Hallak, a Muslim cleric who works at a local Islamic school and whom federal prosecutors have accused of having ties to Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Hallak has denied any involvement with bin Laden.
As Proctor and his two uncles sit by their door, they gaze out at a long, white-fenced driveway that leads to a massive parking lot behind Laurel Park racetrack. Every few minutes, a car goes by, or a man on a bicycle, or two on foot, all headed to the track.
All in all, it’s an ordinary lazy Sunday afternoonuntil a spanking white Grand Cherokee Laredo with New Jersey plates pulls up and three burly white men in oxford shirts and jeans jump out. One of Proctor’s uncles, seeing the men unloading a television camera, ducks inside, muttering, “I don’t want to be on TV.” One of the visitors, David Robinson, approaches Proctor, stopping a few feet short of his perch.
“Hi. I’m from Australia,” he says. “Mind if we take some pictures?”
Robinson explains that he works for a show called Today Tonight. “It’s sort of like Dateline,” he explains. Robinson and his crew were just in New York, but things are starting to slow up there, he says, so “we thought we might come down to Washington, where all the big decisions are going to be made.”
Behind Robinson, his crew has set up a camera and begun taking shots of the door next to Proctor’s, Room 343. A maintenance man happens to be cleaning it. The Australians grab a quick pan of the interior of the two-room unit and then move on. They’re gone as quickly as they came.
And so it has been for the past week, ever since a Chevy Suburban and two sedans pulled up in front of Proctor’s door and disgorged a team of FBI agents. He says the agents showed his sister eight pictures, and she identified the men in three of them. (“We thought they were gay, five men living together,” says Proctor. “Then we find out they were trying to kill us.”) The agents stayed for a couple of hours, Proctor says, taking photographs and fingerprints. They returned over the next several days but didn’t seem interested in talking to residents.
But the dozens of reporters who came after them definitely were. While many of his fellow residents, including his family, grew sick of the television cameras after the initial onslaught and retreated to their rooms, Proctor chose to stay on the air. “I’m trying to help my country out,” he explains.
As a result, the unemployed Proctor has nearly drowned in the deluge. He says that when he opened his front door at 9 a.m. on Sept. 16, all he saw was a line of television trucks behind the white fence of the racetrack driveway. “All of a sudden,” he says, “[the reporters] pop up, and it’s lights, camera, action.”
He interviewed until it was time to go to bed, then did the same the next day. “It was like a job you don’t get paid for,” he says. For several days afterward, he found notes on his door from reporters, cameras and microphones pointed in his face, and a cameraman he’d never met sitting in his chair outside his door who greeted him with a hearty “Hey, Toris, I’ve been waiting for you!”
“Channel 2, 4, 7, 11, CNN, London,” he says, rattling off the television stations that came knocking. “I talked to reporters from places I’ve only dreamed of going to.”
But as soon as the crush of media descended on the Valencia Motel, the backlash began, too. “All my family and friends say, ‘Why you talk so much?’ They don’t care for the fact that I’m speaking up,” Proctor says. “People say, ‘You better stop talking. You know some of [the terrorists’ associates] may still be around here. They’re going to kill you.’”
Proctor himself is beginning to regret talking. His family is nervous when strange cars pull up. His mother hasn’t slept through the night since she learned that terrorists had been living next door. And the other day, as he was walking up the street, Proctor says, strangers came up to him, saying they had seen him on TV. “It makes me scared that people can recognize me….What if [associates of the terrorists] come back through here? Don’t nobody know who did it. The police don’t patrol this area no more. We’re sitting ducks.”
Outside the motel lobby, on an island of green shrubbery in the middle of the parking lot, a faded American flag with tattered edges hangs limply at half-staff. Above, you can see and hear planes descending into BWI.
Knowing that some of the terrorists stayed here gives eerie new meanings to the most mundane things, such as the rack of tourist brochures in the lobby. There are brochures for Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and the Shenandoah Caverns. There are several for tours of the Washington monuments.
From behind the front desk, a clerk watches MSNBC on a television by the window. He says he’s been watching the coverage ever since Sept. 11, but he looks bored as images of Attorney General John Ashcroft touring Ground Zero in New York flash by. The only time he reacts is when he sees that the Dow is down 136.52 points. “Oh my god!” he gasps. After the update on the markets, MSNBC cuts to a reporter at a desk in front of a huge screen that reads, “Tracking the Terrorists.”
Shah, the owner and managing partner of the Valencia for the past two years, calls in about 20 minutes later. He says that before the FBI agents arrived, they called him on Sept. 14 and instructed him not to rent Room 343, where the hijackers lived for two weeks “up to the horror.” He wasn’t able to tell the FBI much about the men. “I cannot match a name to a face,” he says. If it hadn’t been for news reports, Shah might not even have known their names. The agents took the men’s registration cards and credit card receipts.
Shah says that the 80-unit motel is usually nearly full, but business has dropped off 20 percent since the word got out that the hijackers had stayed here. His residents have been complaining about the media circus. “Everyone is tired. I’m tired. It’s not our choice that this happened,” he says. “We don’t have control looking at someone’s face [to know] if they are good or bad. We don’t rent rooms without a photo ID. The ID must match the credit card. We don’t just rent to anybody.”
He says at least one of his former employees has exploited the situation. A woman who worked at the Valencia as a housekeeper has told newspaper reporters that she worked at the motel while the terrorists were staying there and that they wouldn’t let her in their room, choosing to exchange their towels for clean ones through a cracked-open door. “She quit before Aug. 23,” says Shah. “It’s all stories, just to get on news TV.”
Most of Proctor’s neighbors seem to live here on a semipermanent basis. (Two-room units go for $346.50 per week.) On weekdays, school buses drop off kids at the motel. Boys play football. On a Friday night, residents drink and chat with one another in the parking lot. Yet, as neighborly as it appears, it’s still a place where it’s easy to remain anonymous. No one poses a lot of questions, especially of guests like Jim Clark, who, if you ask, is “just passing through.”
Clark’s hands are brown from the sun and dirty from work. His beard is full and fuzzy, almost the length of his hair, which falls to the nape of his neck. A baseball cap covers a bald spot. The bed he is sitting on is missing its headboard, but it still takes up almost all of his small, dark room, just across from the motel’s front office. The only thing in the room that doesn’t look old and dingy is the new air conditioner rattling in the window. Clark’s pack of Marlboros sits underneath it, on a dirty white radiator. Even though there is a small, old refrigerator, Clark keeps his two liters of Pepsi and a bottle of Sambuca on the floor by his bed.
“That’s probably a bug and I touched it,” he says, leaning down to crush a piece of lint with his finger. “I see baby bugs around here.”
Clark says he works in Beltsville for a rigging and hauling company. He checked into the Valencia on Sept. 15 after he realized the woman he’d been renting a room from was charging him more for the room than the rent for her entire home. He says he’s checking out tomorrow to move into his company’s truckers’ lounge.
Clark says he recently suffered a small stroke, and ever since, he can’t think straight. His bosses have relegated him to working in the company office. That’s where he was when he saw the sign for the Valencia Motel flash on a television screen. “I thought they were advertising it. Then I hear Yogi Berra or whatever they call [the terrorists] was staying here. I says, ‘Really? That’s the damn place I’m stayin’! Can’t I go nowhere and get some peace?’”
“That’s the story of my life,” he adds. “Wrong place, wrong time.”
Proctor’s mother has pasted paper flags in every window of the family’s motel room and two on the front door. On one of the flags, someone has written: “Pray. Pray. Pray. Sept. 11. We will not 4Get!”
Proctor says that even though they are scared, he and his family probably won’t move, for the simple reason that they can’t afford to. “We have no choice but to be here. There’s no telling how long we’ll stay.”
Proctor says he grew up in the District. Until a year ago, he and his family were living near Benning Road and 46th Place NE. They stayed briefly in Cheverly, Md., before checking into the Valencia.
“I don’t like it out here one bit,” he says of his suburban surroundings. “I don’t know what it is, but I can’t adapt to it.” Proctor doesn’t have a car, and he says the long commute by public transportation forced him to lose jobs in Forestville and Capitol Heights, Md., helping repair cars. His mother is out of work right now, too, living off money she collected after being in an accident. Her boyfriend is helping out with the bills, Proctor says. To get groceries, Proctor has to walk more than a mile to the nearest Giant.
Then there were the frequent visits by the policeat least before Sept. 11. “You can’t be outside without someone calling the police,” he complains. “Everybody here gets along. Sometimes, we accumulate into a crowd. Nobody is shooting anybody. Nobody is selling drugs. It’s just some kids playing football, socializing. Then the police come. They say, ‘This is our neighborhood now. You’ve got to go to your room now.’”
In the daytime, Proctor says, the cops might approach them politely, but if at night, they might come out with guns drawn. Since the FBI search, however, the police have rarely come by, Proctor says.
The irony of police coming by regularly to harass kids playing in the parking lot while terrorists were plotting to kill scores of people just a few yards away is not lost on Proctor. “The whole nation heard about [the terrorists here], and the police don’t even come around anymore, but a bunch of 4- and 5-year-olds start fighting and the whole squad comes.”
Proctor worries that his family will suffer the consequences of shoddy police work.The FBI “wasn’t here as long as they should’ve been,” he says. “All I ask from this government is to protect my family. Reporters act more concerned than the FBI. [The government’s] attitude is ‘You was next door to them. So what?’”
As Proctor talks, the residents hanging out in the parking lot gradually disappear into their rooms. Eventually, his little brother and his uncle Chris go inside, too. “When I’m talking to reporters, my family say, ‘Why you still talking?’ Right there, that hurt me when they walk off.
“I just wish [the authorities] would show appreciation, send us condolences,” he continues. “We could’ve suffered a tragedy. What if we got too nosy? They could’ve killed us. I wish I’d never said anything. I realized now no one cares….All anyone cares about is making their paycheck fatter, their headline better.” CP