Doin' Time at the Blue Mist

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

Like most roadside lodges, Florence's Blue Mist Motel offers all the accommodations a tourist could ask for--an ice machine, a postcard rack, a color TV with AM/FM radio.

But this landmark an hour southeast of Phoenix offers amenities you won't find at any other motel in the country.

Half the rooms feature panoramic views of the Arizona State Prison across the street, a scenic vista filled with armed guards, uniformed prisoners and razor wire. For reasons that are not immediately apparent, there's currently an ambulance on permanent standby in theparking lot, ready to take off at a moment's notice. And behind the desk in the lobby is one of the owners, an East Indian woman who gets very nervous whenever anyone asks about what really went down in Room 22 way back when.

Despite the trendy pink-and-blue Southwestern decor, Florence's only motel also boasts an in-room je ne sais quoi that will send a tingle down the spine of anyone who's ever seen Psycho, The Grifters or Touch of Evil. Were they to open the nightstand drawer and find a copy of In Cold Blood instead of a Gideons Bible, some guests would not be too surprised.

If the Blue Mist didn't exist, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino would have to invent it. But first, they would have to dream up Florence. Home of a state penitentiary since 1909, the desert hamlet boasts of somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 people. A third of the residents are behind bars, and a large percentage of the rest make a living keeping them there.

The owners of the 22-unit Blue Mist for the past 16 years, Shila and Sam Patel, have made their living by tending to the needs of the town's transitory population. They are hardworking folks with little use for idle chatter; neither sees much future in discussing the motel's past. "We run a nice place, a clean place," says Shila, who quickly puts the kibosh on any further discussion. "We don't know anything about what happened before we got here."

Part of the post-WWII travel boom that engulfed the nation's byways with thousands of independently owned motels, the Blue Mist was built 50 years ago by a local cattle-ranching family. Investors in the project included cowboy star Gene Autry, who frequently stayed at the motel during business trips to Arizona. For the first decade of its operation, the ten-unit motel had no pool and did not even face the prison. Nor was it called the Blue Mist, a mysterious moniker that some assume is a reference to desert haze at the foot of a mountain range, and others relate to fumes wafting through the prison gas chamber.

As it turns out, the name has nothing to do with either mountains' majesty or cyanide clouds. Nearly 30 years after he sold the place, one of the motel's former owners still sounds vaguely disappointed that the meaning behind his rechristening job isn't immediately apparent.

"My wife and I always thought that the Desert Sunshine Lodge just sounded too damn hot, that's all," says Joe O'Betka, a Florence real estate broker who ran the motel for ten years, beginning in the late '50s. "At that time, a lot of people driving through here--most of 'em, actually--didn't have refrigeration in their cars. So my wife and I decided to come up with a name that would make 'em want to stop in, jump in the pool and use our air-conditioned rooms."

Racking their brains for cool imagery, O'Betka and his wife finally came up with the name--and arctic color scheme--that survives to this day.

"We did real well for a small motel," recalls O'Betka, who wound up doubling the motel's original capacity during a late-'50s expansion. "We were charging $6, $7, $8, $9 a day. Nice rooms, too. In Phoenix, you'd have paid $15 to $20 for the same type of room."

While perhaps a bargain by big-city standards, the Blue Mist's rates still were beyond the reach of the more financially challenged wayfarers who showed up in the lobby. According to O'Betka, many of the hardest-up were looking for a place to stay while visiting relatives in prison across the street.

"We'd have people from out of state who maybe had someone locked up in there; they'd usually come in late on Friday and want a room through Sunday," says O'Betka. "Most of them couldn't afford to stay with us, though. So I'd send them over to the old Florence Hotel on Main Street. At that time, you could probably still get a room over there for $3 or $4 a night."

Guests who could afford to spring for a night's lodging included "truckers, families, salesmen, all kinds of people," says O'Betka. His most memorable guest? The mysterious doctor from Laguna Beach who adamantly insisted that his room have a bathtub--not a shower--during his periodic visits to Florence.

Puzzled by the empty cartons of Epsom salts that the medico always left behind, O'Betka asked a local physician what the visiting doctor might be up to.

Says O'Betka, "As near as we could figure out, he was performing [saline] abortions."

If visiting wives, mothers and girlfriends of prison inmates don't actually constitute one of the motel's major market segments, they've certainly done more than their share to romanticize the Blue Mist's image. And so has Motel, a 1989 PBS documentary that features interviews with several stand-by-your-man stalwarts whom filmmaker Christian Blackwood discovered staying at the Blue Mist.

Because of the limited focus of the segment, many viewers came away with theimpression that the place was a sort of Heartbreak Motel catering almost exclusively to prisoners' loved ones. In one interview, a former prison guard tells of falling in love with an inmate half her age. Dismissing the motel as "the cheesiest place I've ever seen," another woman spends her camera time philosophizing about love separated by bars.

Some years back, the Tempe woman we'll call Kelly got to know the Blue Mist during repeated visits to Florence; a young friend was serving time after killing a teenage boy during a gang brawl. Asked about her memories of the Blue Mist, Kelly unwittingly apes the women in the film: She uses the motel as a conversational springboard torecount her relationship with the prisoner--who, of course, had gotten a raw deal.

Pressed for specific memories of the motel, Kelly admits that she partied so much back then that she can't recall much of anything. She now theorizes that's probably how she wound up involved with people who were being sent to prison in the first place.

"I do remember sitting in the car out in the Blue Mist parking lot at dusk one evening," she says. "It was just starting to get dark, and I could see the lights in the cellblock. Then someone at the prison started playing a saxophone or trombone. Very bluesy--just the sort of music you'd use for a soundtrack if that scene was in the movie.

"To me, that moment was the Blue Mist."
Kelly lost touch with her friend shortly afterward, when she left the Valley to attend an out-of-state school. When her friend was finally released some years later, she dodged his efforts to reestablish the friendship. She has not seen the friend or the Blue Mist Motel since.

Armed guards, ambulances, prison romance--overimaginative guests can be forgiven for drifting into True Detective-type daydreams during their Blue Mist sojourns. Florence is not exactly a tourist destination. The motel's literature promises "nearby" cocktail lounges as a top local attraction--and the short list of entertainment possibilities rapidly goes downhill from there. Other suggested activities? Golf and, perhaps tellingly, a visit to Phoenix or Tucson, both only an hour away.

Still, Florence's array of tourist attractions is not quite as limited as the Blue Mist's promotional literature might lead one to believe.

There is, of course, the Prison Outlet store, which opened last August on an otherwise vacant lot cater-cornered from the motel and facing the prison. Housed in a building that resembles a theme-park saloon, the incarceration emporium carries a wide variety of inmate-manufactured goods, ranging from clothing and mattresses to gag tee shirts and a painting of a topless hitchhiker.

Much of the store's merchandise is virtually indistinguishable from what you'd find in a high school crafts fair. But the thrill of owning string art, macrame or greeting cards featuring Peanuts knockoffs made by the very hands that held the gun, wielded the knife or gripped the steering wheel of the getaway car is evidently a big draw for many souvenir hunters. In fact, on a recent afternoon, so many tourists are rummaging through the tiny store that the overworked cashier receives a helping hand from a heavily tattooed "assistant." He's--gasp!--an actual prisoner from across the street.

Afraid the folks back home won't believe you actually shopped 'til you dropped in a prison gift shop? Sorry, but they'll just have to take your word for it. Because of tight security around the prison, Florence is the town that Kodak Moments forgot. Make the mistake of whipping out a camera, and you're sure to be loudly reminded by the occupants of every third pickup or Bronco that passes that shooting pictures of the prison is forbidden.

After stashing gift-shop loot--and cameras--back in their motel rooms, rattled crime buffs can proceed to the Pinal County Historical Society Museum. Aimed at old-line crime aficionados who sniff at the idea of prison gift boutiques, the museum is home to a death-penalty exhibit that's so controversial, it's reportedly off-limits to visitors whenever an execution rolls around.

Highlights of the cavalcade of capital punishment include a series of hangman's nooses mounted on plaques; a picture of the hangee is mounted in the center of each noose. Of particular interest is the horrific plaque in which photos of four Asian men are clustered within one shared noose; as foreigners, the quartet evidently didn't warrant separate nooses.

Also of interest is the loop of hemp that claimed the life of obese murderess Eva Dugan in 1930. Dugan was simultaneously strangled and decapitated as she plunged through the gallows floor, and her grotesque exit helped usher in Arizona's use of the gas chamber.

As a final stop on Florence's crime tour, thrill seekers may be tempted to drop in to the historic county courthouse, the ornate citadel of justice where the fates of more than a few inmates of the state prison have been sealed. The entryway to the old building recently has been transformed into a makeshift visitors center, and the only decision hanging in the balance on a recent afternoon was where a couple of older tourists should eat dinner that night.

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.

Right?
Wrong.
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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