Doin' Time at the Blue Mist

Prison-adjacent motel is Florence's funkiest, bar none

Despite the lack of life-or-death drama, however, the drafty courthouse corridor turns out to be the perfect spot to shoot the breeze about the Blue Mist. And, following a quick recap of local gossip (Florence will finally get a Burger King this year, the town's first foray into franchised fast food), the man behind the information desk makes an interesting observation: The Blue Mist Motel may well be the safest place in the entire state.

"Look at it this way," urges Charles "Steve" Stevens, co-manager of the visitors center. "This is a small town, and everybody knows everybody else. If one of those prisoners busts out, he's not going to hide out in town, because he won't last ten minutes. And if he won't hide out in town, he sure won't go to a motel right across the street from the prison."

Following Stevens' line of reasoning, then, the Blue Mist is indisputably the safest place in the safest city in the entire state.

Twelve years ago, the Blue Mist was the scene of the grisliest crime in Florence history.

A dozen years after the fact, Walter Bassil still becomes agitated while talking about what happened in Room 22 on January 13, 1984.

"I remember [the owner's wife] telling us, 'There's some kind of stink coming from that unit,'" says Bassil, his voice quaking.

Bassil no longer owned the motel when the crime was discovered. But he'd remained friendly with the East Indian couple to whom he'd sold the place some five years earlier, and he lived in an apartment just south of the motel property. He and his wife, therefore, were among the first to learn that a murder had occurred in the room next to the pay phones.

And when all the pieces (as it were) came together, a startled Bassil realized he'd also known the victim, 74-year-old Roberta Moormann. For 11 years, the well-to-do Flagstaff widow had been a steady customer, checking in to the motel once a month while visiting her adopted son Robert, a convicted kidnaper and pederast serving a long prison stretch.

During her last visit to the motel, Moormann shared a room with her son, who was out on a three-day "compassionate furlough." After an argument about money, 35-year-old Robert Moormann bound and gagged his mother, then butchered her on a bed using a knife he'd purchased at a nearby convenience store.

By the time authorities caught up with him, the killer had already disposed of the remains with fiendish glee. The victim's feet were recovered from a trash bin at Foote's Drive-In; her hands were found in the garbage at the Palms Cafe. Apparently running out of local businesses with anatomical references, Robert Moormann scattered the rest of the body around town. Depending on whom you want to believe, he deposited his mother's head in either a trash receptacle behind the Blue Mist or in the motel swimming pool.

Sentenced to death, Moormann continues to cool his heels in prison, which riles Walter Bassil every time he looks across the street.

"Mrs. Moormann, she was a helluva nice lady," says Bassil, whose speech still carries heavy traces of a Yugoslavian upbringing. "She was coming over here to visit this bozo and bring him books. In her, he had his only friend. Now she's dead, and he's alive! This I do not understand."

Practically sputtering, Bassil is temporarily at a loss for words. Then, regaining momentum, he adds, "In any other system in any other country, his head would have been chopped in two weeks!"

Later this year, Florence's mom-and-pop-restaurant scene may be bucking serious competition when the Burger King outlet opens. But most observers agree that it will be a long time before the Blue Mist has to go head to head with a national motel chain.

"If we needed a bigger motel here--and I don't think that we do--we'd already have one," theorizes Joe O'Betka. "Those chains know their market. But if the need ever comes up, they'll be here, believe me."

Until that happens, former owner Walter Bassil gives the current management high marks for breathing new life into the 50year-old landmark.

"The Patels have put a lot of money into the place, and it shows," says Bassil. "You go inside those rooms, and it compares to a Holiday Inn. The Blue Mist is in the best shape it's been in during the past 25 years, better even than when I was there."

But another former owner thinks there's always room for improvement. If he were running the place today, Joe O'Betka says, he would never have rented space to the ambulance company that currently uses one of the Blue Mist's rooms as its office.

"Having that ambulance out in the parking lot all the time looks really bad," says O'Betka. "It looks like they're getting ready to haul another one out of there.

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