The Rebirth of the Henry Hotel

How an icon of San Francisco's worst crime and corruption got cleaned up.

The Henry Hotel (Jessica Christian)

A hotel worker had swirled the streaks of blood around the Henry Hotel lobby until they had blended with the dirt caked into the white tiles. But the trail of blood outside — the one that led to the body around the corner — remained. Less than an hour before, in the dark early morning of July 22, 2014, Daniel Beltran, 18, had been fatally injured and bled out as he fled from the building on Sixth and Mission streets.

Beltran had come to the single-room-occupancy hotel, or SRO, with his cousin and some girls for one last bump of cocaine to cap off a long night of partying.

Hours earlier, the group’s car had spun in giant, arcing donuts across Sixth Street’s double yellow lines, and he and his cousin Roger Alarcon were deposited on the sidewalk. The pair sauntered up to the Henry, past a group of men mulling outside and were stopped by the SRO’s doorman, who demanded the regular $10 fee for entry. But Beltran and Alarcon were having none of it, and they argued with the big man at the desk behind the metal grate.

That is when the night turned. Two men — one armed with an extended-clip .40-caliber pistol — came down to the lobby to deal with the disturbance. The next few minutes passed quickly, but the events were recorded by the hotel’s ubiquitous cameras.

Darius York, 36, a resident of the hotel who wore a black T-shirt with a gold chain, waved the pistol around once he made it to the lobby. One of the building’s managers at the time, Joseph Young, also came, and then the group of men in the lobby began to beat, kick, and punch Beltran and Alarcon. Young dragged Beltran outside to the sidewalk as Alarcon tried to defend himself inside the lobby. At some point after the fighting began, York casually lifted up the pistol and opened fire, breaking the front entrance’s glass facade and striking Beltran once. After the rounds were fired, Beltran stumbled for a moment, almost as if he didn’t know what exactly had just happened. Then he took off, running past the car of waiting friends and down lonely Minna Street, where he finally fell. Bloodied and on the lobby floor, Alarcon ran as well, following the same path as his now-dead cousin.

The killing was no anomaly at the Henry Hotel. Only hours after Beltran’s body had been taken away, another man was shot and killed in front of the hotel. Marc-Anthony Salumbides, 25, of Pacifica was gunned down just after 11 p.m., a few feet away from the lobby.

The Beltran killing also wasn’t the first time the security cameras had captured illegal dealings. Several years before, video recorded a group of cops illegally searching the place. The subsequent federal investigation — which led to a number of convictions — exposed the goings-on at the Henry Hotel. The video depicted a morally gray world of cops, criminals, informants, and victims that the place somehow sucked into its vortex and spat out far worse for wear.

The footage created a chain reaction still riling San Francisco law enforcement. It led in part to the convictions of a group of corrupt cops, revelations about a series of racist text messages, the resignation of former chief Greg Suhr, and a federal review of the department.

Ask anyone in San Francisco’s criminal justice system about the Henry Hotel, and you will get a confused but colorful story: It’s been a honeypot for cops looking for easy busts, a flophouse for criminals looking for marks, and an emporium for addicts looking for a hit. If there was a center of sin and vice, a fulcrum to San Francisco’s dark heart, it may just have been the Henry Hotel in its heyday, which was not so long ago. Murders, rapes, drugs, prostitution, police corruption — the Henry Hotel had it all. And while not the only seedy SRO where bad things happen in rich, liberal San Francisco’s underbelly, it has come to represent, in all its ignoble glory, this city’s worst tendencies. Crime was not its only problem. As far back as 1999, the city listed the hotel as one of San Francisco’s 10 worst SROs, with a long list of needed repairs, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

At the the trial of the men charged in Beltran’s killing, a prosecutor said: “Where’s the only place in the city you can get cocaine and anything else you want? The Henry Hotel.”

 

A HISTORIC EDIFICE

The seven-story building is more than a century old and, with its 121 rooms, is one of the city’s largest SROs. The hotels, which provide single-room residences with shared bathrooms and no kitchens, are the cheapest places for the poor to live in San Francisco. In all, there are 530 SROs with about 19,000 residents, mostly in the Tenderloin and SoMa where drug addicts and drunks often wander into traffic, and needles litter the area’s alleys.

It’s listed as a notable historic building. Built in 1912, the hotel was one of many catering to a population of unmarried workers.

“Initially, they were for white-collar workers, primarily single people,” Katie Conry, the Tenderloin Museum’s program director, says.

From the start, the area and its denizens represented all kinds of transgression from feminine independence at the turn of the century to illegal drug use today.

“Women actually had jobs and were supporting themselves,” Conry says of the years before World War II. But reaction to the area’s transgressive streak has always been present as well. Solo females at dance halls and restaurants created moral panic and city officials closed many such establishments.

Still, the area’s SRO residents remained at the center of the Bay Area’s nightlife, where gambling and vice attracted rather than repelled many people. Then in the 1950s, under Mayor George Christopher, came the next crackdown, and such practices were stopped.

By the World War II boom years, which had attracted a huge number of blue-collar workers, including merchant seamen and truckers, the population changed again. In the ’60s, the area attracted a gay population who filled some of the SROs, says Conry, adding that it became known as the “Gay Ghetto.”

The growth of homelessness and the overall social decline in the ’80s has in many ways shaped the area’s SROs and our image of them today.

“Now they’re generally a place where poor people live,” she says, because most of the city’s services for poor people are located in the Tenderloin and SoMa.

 

‘SKID ROW INDOORS’

Like many other SROs in the city, the Henry is now run by a nonprofit funded by city and federal dollars. A year ago, the place was operated by Naranjibhai ‘Nick’ Patel and Indiraben Patel, and until recently, it represented some of the worst residential hotels in San Francisco. The Patels could not be reached for comment.

“As far as the Henry Hotel, it’s symptomatic and certainly replicates all of the SROs,” says Police Capt. Mike Connolly, who worked the area as a uniformed officer about eight years ago. “It’s one complete step away from complete poverty, so it’s just a half a step off the streets. It’s Skid Row indoors.”

When Connolly worked his beat, cops knew the population well.

“We knew there were people in there who were victims, but amongst those victims is a class of criminal who preys on them,” he says.

The Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods aren’t that way by accident. There is a federal halfway house in the Tenderloin, and many inmates, fresh out of prison with nowhere else to go, find rooms in SROs, private investigator Bret Stemme says.

“What I’ve learned in places like that, a lot of people, if it becomes known that they are a snitch, then they kinda get ostracized,” Stemme says. “The only place that they can kinda go to without fear of repercussions is places like Henry and the Tenderloin.”

That combination of people — cons, addicts, gangsters, the elderly, and poor — is a potent mixture.

But Tal Klement, a deputy public defender who has had Henry Hotel clients, says the Henry is by no means the nastiest SRO.

“Horrible shit goes down in other SROs,” Klement says.

Places like the Auburn are far rougher. Stemme says the Seneca, another hotel on Sixth Street, is perhaps the worst: A client told him that drug users once took over a room there for weeks before anyone noticed that it contained a dead body.

The area has so many customers that no one has to fight over them.

Scanvinski Hymes, a county jail inmate who spent time at the Henry Hotel and in the neighborhood before his July 2014 arrest, said the Tenderloin and the SROs just south of Market have always been an open zone for all kinds of illegal activity.

There is such a high demand for drugs and other vices that there’s little territorial conflict on the streets. And that was also the case at the Henry.

 

AT ITS WORST

Before it was cleaned up and handed over to a nonprofit, the Henry was a veritable marketplace for every kind of illicit item.

“There are SROs all over,” Stemme says, “but none have the same magnitude as the Henry Hotel.”

Hymes, who last visited in 2014, said that all you needed to get inside the Henry was a $10 bill slipped to the doorman.

“You could get anything you wanted: girls, drugs, shit, whatever. Hot items,” Hymes says. “GHB, crystal, heroin, crack … If there’s clientele who want to poke a monkey, they could get that, too.”

It was so big you couldn’t really keep track of what was going on in the place, Stemme says. He had first gone to the Henry in 2008 to interview a witness in a murder case, stopping by after dark in hopes of running into the person. He had had the same bar to entrance that Hymes had. “[They’d] just ask for money just to get in because they would assume I was there to buy drugs. They would want anywhere from $5 to $15,” he said. Once inside, he said it felt like an open air drug market with people in the halls. There were dogs roaming around who seemed to have no owners. Dog shit was deposited in the hall.

On one 2008 visit, Stemme came to speak with a witness who was known as “Deuce” — because he had flatlined twice. In his mid-40s, with a shaved head, Deuce was muscular and in shape, having just come out of prison. He had scars on his hands, as if someone had punctured them all the way through. He spoke with a raspy voice and had a twitch in his eye. As Stemme asked him about a killing in Minna Street, people stopped by the room asking for drugs, pipes, and Brillo pads. “Everything just seemed to be operating in the open, nothing seemed to be discreet once you were inside,” he recalls.

While it had plenty of activity, some say the Henry’s reputation exceeded its sins, and it was by no means the city’s worst SRO.

“It has more of a hype than it really is,” Hymes says from jail.

Matt Sotorosen, who represented Darius York — who was charged with murder for the recent killing at the hotel — played down the Henry’s reputation.

“I would not characterize the Henry Hotel as a haven for criminals,” Sotorosen says. “There is crime on Sixth Street, crime in the Tenderloin, and there is crime in and out of various SROs in these neighborhoods. The Henry is not immune to crime nor is it a haven.”

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