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$40,000 deal ends motel's bias case

The Perry motel's ex-owner was accused of telling black guests that "coloreds" were not allowed in the pool.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 7, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Crystal Parker just wanted to cool off in the motel swimming pool with her uncle and some kids. But she said the motel's owner had another idea: "no coloreds."

"I felt very unwanted," said Parker, 16, a sophomore at Taylor County High School.

That was two years ago at the Southern Inn, a faded two-story motel on U.S. 19 in Perry, where owner Raj Patel displayed a large American flag in the lobby window. The state said he also displayed contempt for black patrons by pouring chemicals into the pool to chase them off and by assigning them shabbier rooms.

Patel has agreed to pay the state $40,000 to resolve three separate complaints of racial discrimination, Attorney General Charlie Crist said Tuesday. It's the first case brought by the state since the Legislature broadened the state civil rights law two years ago to allow lawsuits for patterns of discrimination.

"It breaks your heart when you hear about this type of thing," Crist said. "Florida is open for business, but we're not open for discrimination."

The victims of discriminatory acts involving the inn's swimming pool in 1999 and 2003 will receive $1,000 each. The state is accepting written claims for the next 60 days from other black guests, who can receive up to $250 if they can prove they were guests during the period of the incidents.

To be eligible, they must prove they stayed at the Southern Inn between June 1, 2000, and June 30, 2004. Forms are on the attorney general's Web site, www.myfloridalegal.com Questions should be directed to Crist's office of civil rights at 954 712-4607. The state said Patel's employees, both black and white, provided critical information.

Under the settlement, Patel, 54, can never again operate a place of lodging in the United States. He has sold the Southern Inn in Taylor County and returned to his native India, attorney John Weed said Tuesday, declining to comment further.

"He's instructed me not to speak," Weed said.

Two years ago, Patel told the St. Petersburg Times that he had told patrons the pool was for registered guests only. "I don't discriminate against anyone," he said then.

Crystal Parker is among those eligible for $1,000. She recalled in an interview the summer day in 1999 when she was at the Southern Inn for a family reunion. She said Patel ordered black patrons out of the pool after one youth went to retrieve clean towels from the hotel office.

"The owner came back and said, "You're not supposed to be in the pool. There's no lifeguard on duty,' " Parker said. "Finally, he said, "No coloreds are allowed in the pool.' Then he changed it to, "No visitors in the pool.' "

Parker said her uncle received a refund of his motel bill after he complained about the way he was treated, but the experience has stayed with her.

Patrick Sneed of Maryland was staying at the Southern Inn for a family reunion when Patel told his family not to use the pool. His sons were in it when Patel dumped chemicals into it to force them out.

Sneed complained in writing to Crist's office and praised the attorney general for taking action.

"Rather than discount the issue, he addressed it. I applaud that. I'm shocked and excited that he decided that not only was our issue a valid one, but one that he wasn't going to perpetuate by looking away," said Sneed. "He's a righteous man, and God bless him."

The Southern Inn case was handled by a senior assistant attorney general, John Newton. It surfaced as Perry was trying to overcome the stigma of an unrelated case in which a black man said he was refused service at a bar in 2001.

Daryll Gunter, a sixth-generation Taylor County resident, real estate agent and member of the County Commission, said the two cases are not a reflection of life in his hometown.

"I don't think either case reflects the community as a whole," Gunter said. "I think people need to move here and find out what a great small town this is."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified September 7, 2005, 01:01:15]


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