Aurora: North Seattle's Street Of Schemes -- Merchants, Police Work To Clean Up Avenue Where Boy Scout Was Killed

Aurora Avenue North is a place where you can buy just about anything, from radiators to refrigerators, discount beauty supplies to rocks of crack cocaine. Where a motel room can go for $30 a night and convenience stores never close.

It's a place with a reputation for prostitution and drug dealing and trouble that surfaces when the sun goes down.

And it's a place that business owners and police have struggled to clean up for more than a decade. Merchants post rules, make regular 911 calls and confront prostitutes on street corners. Motel owners keep lists of troublemakers who have been banned. Such efforts, police say, have made a big difference in the area above North 85th Street.

It was in this place of clashing intentions that 16-year-old Trevor Aurand of Indianola was gunned down last week, moments after leaving a convenience store with four friends.

Seattle Police officer Chris Gough, who has patrolled Aurora for a decade, said that shootings in the area are uncommon and that what happened last week could have happened in any neighborhood. But, he says, certain elements make this six-lane street, once the main highway to Canada, a more likely location for a shooting.

"It's not because Aurora is bad," Gough said, but because the street is a mile-long stretch of heavy traffic, all-night services and motels.

The man charged with Aurand's death, Richard Lee Johnson, 26, was arrested in one of those motels 20 hours after the shooting for allegedly threatening two women with a gun. Moments before, he had fired a shot at a motel across the street during a drug deal gone awry, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors have charged Johnson with first-degree murder for allegedly shooting Aurand after one of the youth's friends yelled an insult out a car window. Johnson also faces two assault charges for the motel incidents.

Despite the shooting, police and Aurora business people say things have improved in recent years. Upscale new businesses have joined neighborhood oldtimers, drawing even more families to movie theaters, grocery stores and restaurants.

"We used to have wall-to-wall hookers and dealers," said Lee Stover, who manages the Klose-In Motel, a rundown one-story strip of rooms built during World War II.

Like many motel owners in the neighborhood, Stover says he has kicked drug dealers out of rooms and broken up more fights than he can remember. Sometimes he sits by his window early in the morning, training binoculars on the edge of his property, waiting to see drug deals go down.

But Stover says he's in control. He requires valid identification from all his guests and doesn't hesitate to kick violators out of their rooms.

"Every once in a while someone will slip through the screen and try to set up a dealing operation," he said, a wanted poster hanging behind his head. "I have to get rid of them."

Motel owners are just one part of the cleanup equation. Another is the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association, a group of nearly 500 businesses between North 85th and North 145th streets.

"We don't do fairs," said Faye Garneau, executive director. "Our primary purpose is the safety of this street."

A decade ago, prostitutes set up shop on street corners in open daylight, Garneau says. Drug deals in the afternoon sun were not uncommon.

Now, according to Gough, drug and prostitution problems are about 20 percent of what they once were.

The association's first target was prostitution. Then, it became drug dealing. Merchants began posting signs along streets reading: "Prostitution and drug watch area: License numbers are being recorded."

Motel owners drafted their own set of rules: no drugs, no parties, no alcohol abuse in rooms. And they instituted a program now used citywide: the Universal Trespassing Program. Motel guests who break the law, fail to pay their bills or otherwise cause disturbances are put on a list. Once on the list, they can't go to any of the motels on the strip for a year.

The program was instituted in 1990 by the Seattle Police. Updated monthly, the list has more than 400 names, birthdates and aliases of people banned from Aurora motels. If caught at a motel, a violator can be arrested for trespassing.

It's for this reason that motel owners check for valid ID's. But many troublemakers bypass the registration desk. Johnson, for instance, was on the list but was visiting people at the motel.

And in the interest of business, some motel operators are less vigilant than others about keeping out prostitutes and drug dealers.

"We discovered that you cannot ever stop monitoring the street," Garneau said. "You cannot ever rest on your laurels. Because the problem never goes away."

Rick Stone, who has managed the Emerald Inn for less than a year, said that from his window he has watched a woman get pistol-whipped, heard gunshots and witnessed drug deals.

"Some nights it's scary out there," said Stone, an East Coast native who sometimes sits at his office window for hours at a time. "But honestly, it's not as bad as some places I've been."

Tom Lee, who manages the Columbus Inn several blocks up Aurora, said he has kept crime under control.

"We screen our people," he said. "If they look shaky, I ask for ID and 99 percent of them don't have ID. Then we won't let them come in."

Lee has lived in Seattle for only a few months, but so far, he says, Aurora isn't so bad.

"I'm from Los Angeles," he said. "I've seen it all. Compared to L.A., this is nothing."