My Life Story (6): Fire-Part 1

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Preface …

Professor Huberman, for whom I had worked for five years at MIT, came to visit us with his family from the East Coast several years ago. Before leaving, he hugged me and pleaded, “Alice, promise me you won’t let any more bad things happen to you. Maybe you can take it, but I can’t. Please!” I will never forget the tone and the concern he showed. Why did he make such a plea? It all started with a phone call.

A telephone call …

Ring, ring! The telephone suddenly rang. It was very, very late, after midnight. Who would call at this hour? “Sister, the motel is on fire…” Then I lost him. It was my younger brother who was managing our motel in Dallas. We were in Mobile, Alabama at the time. What in the world had happened? Why was there a fire? Any casualties? Were my brothers OK? How bad was it? Was it a total loss? Oh, God, my head was filled with millions of questions. I knew it was going to be a long, hard night.

It all started …

When my husband Ming got a letter of appointment from USC-affiliated Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, we moved to sunny Southern California. We were lucky to get there in time to capture the coming appreciation of the housing market, which gave me a great return on a real estate investment. I thought that by using this windfall to purchase a motel I could help my brothers. They were moving from Taiwan and needed jobs and a place to live, and I could meet these needs if I owned a motel.

Wrong beginning …

Since the price of motels had climbed a lot in the Los Angeles area, we decided to buy one in Dallas, where the price was more affordable. A friend of my brother’s recommended a local realtor to me. We were strangers in that city, so we were totally reliant on the agent. She used her team, including an attorney and a title company, for the hotel transaction. Later, we realized it was a mistake to use the realtor’s team, which was looking out for her interests rather than ours. In fact “our” attorney, Frank, a member of her team, was also her boyfriend as I was told. But by then it was too late.

When we went with the realtor to meet the motel owner, a man named Charles, we felt uneasy. He looked tough and came across as demanding. We saw a gun in his drawer. The realtor told us he had a military background, so perhaps that was why he seemed different from most people. She further praised him for having been the subject of a magazine article that had been written as a result of his success in managing his motel.

But the truth was that the police in Houston had forced him out of that city with the proviso that he not return. He was a gangster, a career criminal. He belonged to what was popularly known in the Southeast in the 1960s and 70s as the “Dixie Mafia.” After he had been kicked out of Houston, he went to Dallas and bought this motel. We asked the realtor again and again about his background. She repeatedly assured us he was just a simple, successful motel owner. We not only took her word for it that it would be OK to go ahead with the purchase, but we also agreed to let Charles – who would hold our mortgage (another big mistake!) – remain on the premises for half a year after the close of escrow. Later, it became evident that Charles never intended to leave.

Truth: The true colors of the motel owner …

I never expected that buying this motel would have such an impact on our lives. It was also a big event in Dallas. As you can see from the clip below, our motel fire was the subject of a Dallas Morning News headline – “Motel arson fires police fascination.” We hadn’t known the seller’s true colors until we read this article. It explained his background and history in considerable detail. Along with other law enforcement agencies, the FBI also took an interest in this fire. They tried to uncover the motive for what had evidently been arson. As a matter of fact, the FBI had already investigated Charles right after he bought the motel four or five years earlier. But they didn’t manage to plant an informant in his group because he kept tight control of his organization. So the FBI couldn’t gather enough evidence to put him away.

They searched through the ashes, but couldn’t find any records that would incriminate him. They were certain he had made sure those records would be burned because he would not be foolish enough to leave any trace of his illegal activity where it might be found.



Truth: Behind the scenes of the motel fire …

Rushing from Mobile to Dallas to see the motel, I was shocked to face FBI investigators. But they only questioned me for about five minutes because they knew we had no motive to burn the building down. They knew the person they had to deal with was the previous owner and current mortgage holder, Charles. Just as it said in the newspaper, he had lost money gambling, so he sold us the motel as part of an evil plan to make good his losses. He saw the greed of the realtor who only wanted to make a commission and the trust we had in her because, like us, she was from Taiwan. He knew that we were from out of state and unfamiliar with his background. He planned to use us to get out of debt.

Charles also tried to make sure the motel was fully insured before the sale closed. My attorney, Frank, repeatedly lied both to him and to me, saying that the motel was fully covered. What I did not realize at the time was that although the motel’s title had been transferred to me, Charles was still listed as the beneficiary on the insurance policy, inadequate though it was. Sixty days after we purchased the motel, Charles followed through on his plot; he had someone set the fire. He helped this person run away to Boston and then sent another guy to kill him.

Man proposes but God disposes …

Many strange things happened after the fire. According to Charles’ careful scheme, the firefighters would arrive within five minutes. Once they got there, they should have had plenty of time to cut down the wooden bridge that connected the restaurant and office at the front with the motel rooms in the back. If they removed this connection, the motel rooms would be saved. Then, after he repossessed the motel – because we had no insurance and would be unable to continue making mortgage payments – he could still rent the undamaged rooms without any disruption to the business. What a clever plot!

Who was to know that something unusual would happen? The attorney I later hired to sue the realtor and her team – her attorney friend Frank and the title company – showed me an article about an unexpected coincidence. It said that the firemen rushing to the blaze at our motel came across an accident. They had no choice but to help provide first aid to the injured. So, they were delayed 15 minutes, and when they got to the motel, it was already beyond repair.

As Charles and his gang walked out of the motel restaurant when the fire started, they were calm and confident that the motel would be returned to him. He probably had that “mission accomplished” feeling. And yes, the motel did go back to him because we were unable to pay the mortgage since the insurance was not in my name. But Charles was unable to pay HIS mortgage either, because the insurance was inadequate and all the rooms had burned down. Unexpectedly, the fire started a chain of ownership changes. As I think back, all I can say is – man proposes, but God disposes.

To be continued …


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