‘I just want to move on with my life’: Veteran suing DA Wamp after East Ridge motel eviction allowed to collect belongings

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Officers make their way into the Budgetel on Nov. 16. After being told to leave the building by early that morning, many residents of the Budgetel in East Ridge begin packing their belongings. The building was shut down due to high crime.

A veteran evicted from the Budgetel Inn in East Ridge was allowed to collect his belongings from his room Wednesday, on the day before Thanksgiving.

"I'm just looking to resume my life and get back to the norm," Charles Burkhalter said in a telephone interview Wednesday after collecting his few belongings from his room.

Burkhalter said he felt lost when law enforcement knocked on his door at 7 a.m. on Nov. 16 and told him to leave as the hotel was closed by the District Attorney's Office over concerns about crime.

"I lost it," Burkhalter said. "I didn't know where I was going. They didn't warn me about nothing."

Burkhalter, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, was ousted with as many as 700 others, according to a lawsuit filed by his attorney, Robin Flores, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Those displaced included families with small children.

Burkhalter was only "allowed to leave with his clothes" the day of the removal, the lawsuit says.

The shutdown was the subject of a 130-page nuisance abatement petition presented to the court by Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp in an effort to eradicate reported high levels crime at the motel. The order was approved by Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson.

According to the petition, signed Nov. 14 by Wamp, the Budgetel Inn has "been a haven for drug use, drug overdoses, drug distribution, used as a hideout for out-of-state wanted fugitives, aggravated assaults, domestic assaults, simple assaults and used as a residence by registered and known sex offenders, with children living on the premises, disorderly conduct and other criminal activities."

Burkhalter and other residents were given four hours to leave the motel. Burkhalter, who is disabled, was told by law enforcement officers that he could not have anyone help him, according to the lawsuit, which claims forcing him out of the motel without his belongings and medications -- including insulin -- was a violation of Burkhalter's 14th Amendment rights to due process.

"He's been without his medication for a week," Flores said in a phone interview. "He's better off out of there. It's just the manner in which this all went down."

On Wednesday, the officers who escorted Burkhart into the motel to retrieve his things were helpful, Flores said. Burkhalter was able to collect his medications, pots, pans, utensils, toaster oven and a few nonperishable food items.

"The officers that met us were very, very polite and very helpful," Flores said.

Burkhalter, who moved from Dayton, Tennessee, to be closer to the Chattanooga Veterans Affairs Clinic, had already paid $980 for his motel room for Sept. 30 to Nov. 29.

When Burkhalter returned Nov. 17 to get a refund for the remainder of the month -- so he could pay for other accommodations -- he was met with a fence and a "no trespass" notice, according to the lawsuit. Burkhalter has yet to reach motel management to get a refund.

"That remains for a suit for damages," Flores said about trying to get the money back for his client. "As far as we're concerned, Burkhalter v. Wamp is settled."

Burkhalter, who makes a little over $2,000 a month on his veteran and Social Security income, had to pay $330 for a four-day stay at the Stay Express Inn across the street from the Budgetel.

"I've been having a hard time," Burkhalter said.

Burkhalter, who said he really appreciates Flores' help, will try to find more permanent housing in Chattanooga. As for the holiday, he said he plans to spend it with his partner.

"I'm looking to get an apartment, or a small house, and resume my life," Burkhalter said. "I'm going to my girlfriend's house."

Other hotel guests will have a chance to argue to get their belongings back at a hearing set for Dec. 5 before Patterson, following up on Wamp's nuisance abatement petition.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.