One of the first motels that tourists from the Northeast encounter as they come into Washington is the 200-room Diplomat Motor Hotel alongside New York Avenue NE. The Diplomat's owners say they cater to middle class tourists seeking moderate prices.
But law enforcement officials, former Diplomat employees and two women who say they were raped there last year - and are now suing the motel - paint another picture. In court testimony this week, former employees described the Diplomat as a motel knowingly catering to pimps, prostitutes and other persons likely to prey on unsuspecting tourists.
According to police records entered as evidence in the women's court case, city police received reports of 400 crimes allegedly committed at the Diplomat between January, 1972, and July, 1976. One federal official says privately that the FBI once had an unofficial policy of immediately sending an agent to the Diplomat to search for suspects after any downtown bank robbery.
"The Diplomat? Sure, it's a problem area for us," said one high-ranking police department official in a telephone interview yesterday. "Prostitutes and pimps who work the 14th Street area live there and bring back some of their customers to top off a night's work."
Former employees of the motel have testified in court that the motel had a word-of-mouth policy to put "prostitutes and blacks" in the side of the motel facing a fast-food outlet, instead of in the better rooms along the pool. The motel's policy, said another employee, also included leaving the prostitutes and pimps alone unless they interfered with paying guests.
The motel's owners, officials of Kirby and Wren Associates, have vehemently denied the accusations. Two of the owners say they have not heard of any serious crimes being committed there, and the manager described the crime problem as "very minor."
The rape victims were two Brazilian women who had driven into Washington from New York around 10 p.m. on July 17, 1976, so that one of them could keep an appointment two days later with the Brazilian ambassador here to discuss a possible job.
"We first stopped at the Diplomat Hotel because, I don't know, the word 'Diplomat' means a lot to me," one of the women testified.
After deciding to spend the night there, they went to Room 137. There, they found the only working light was in the bathroom, according to court testimony.
When they went back to their car to get their luggage, they said, they left the door open so the bathroom light would shine into the dark hallway. Two men with guns jumped them when they returned and forced them back into the room, they said.
The women, who are 32 and 33 years old, testified that they were raped, beaten and sodomized. They said they were forced to submit to repeated sexual attacks and are now having difficulty coping with the lasting psychological effects.
They said their attackers kept asking for their money and kept referring to them as "hookers," a word for prostitutes, that one of the women testified she had not heard before last night.
After the attack, they testified they attempted to get help by calling the motel's front desk. One of the victims said she told the man who answered the phone that there was an emergency and she wanted to reach the Brazilian Embassy.
"Someone said, 'Did you pay your $2 to have your phone connected'," the woman testified. "He hung up on me.
"I called again, I said 'It's an emergency.' He said, 'Ha, Ha, Ha,' and hung up on me," she continued. Motel officials on duty said they do not remember such a call.
The women testified they panicked because they thought the motel desk might know the attackers, and so they got in their car and drove down New York Avenue to search for a police station.
No arrests have been made in the case.
Attorney Peter J. Messitte has presented evidence on behalf of the women that the motel's security force actually amounted to two part-time maintenance men who occasionally patrolled the grounds. Although the women said there was a sign at the motel desk that the facility was protected by closed circuit television, the only such television focuses only on the desk clerk's area, Messitte added.
The city police department's computer printout of crimes introduced by Messitte at the trial shows that reports of crimes at the Diplomat during the 4 1/2 years before the women's attacks, included allegations of 17 rapes or attempted rapes, 13 assaults, 27 armed robberies and two homicides.
A security expert who testified for the plaintiffs said that, in his opinion, the security at the hotel was "grossly neglected."
Attorneys for the motel argue that the facility uses "reasonable measures to protect guests from crimes," and that before the attacks the firm had installed an expensive combination lock system for use in the room doors instead of keys. They also claim the women contributed to the attacks by leaving the door to their room open while they went to get their luggage.
The Kirby and Wren firm operates at least four other motels in the Baltimore and Washington area.