From the outside, Hallmark Inn looks like a typical motel. But by mid-June, what was inside was anything from ordinary.
At one point last month, as many as 16 registered sex offenders were living at the motel, with the Indiana Department of Correction using a federal grant to pay for many, if not all, of their rooms by way of a program prison officials dub DOC Assist.
At the same time, a private club called Jus 4 Now opened on the motels premises. The club is owned and operated by the same company that ran the now-closed Club Utopia, a local swingers club that was at the Harvester building on the south side of town.
A few weeks ago, a sign at Club Utopia told members the club had moved to the Hallmark Inn. Jus 4 Now and Club Utopia have identical websites.
This concerned DOC officials, whose program is designed to help sex offenders recently released from prison get back on their feet. So even though nothing in the law keeps them from living near a swingers club, state officials moved the sex offenders from Hallmark Inn to another motel down the street.
We thought that made the most sense, DOC spokesman Doug Garrison said.
The move was completed last week, according to a sex offender who lived at Hallmark Inn and an employee there. But as of Friday, there were six offenders who still registered their home address with the Allen County Sheriffs Department as the Hallmark Inn.
The local part of the Indiana Violent and Sex Offender Registry is updated daily, according to the sheriffs department, but sex offenders have 72 hours to register any new addresses. The registry can be found online at www.icrimewatch.net/indiana.php.
While prison officials decided to move the sex offenders, the club Jus 4 Now came under some scrutiny from officials with the city.
In recent weeks, city officials said they were investigating what type of business was going on in the club and whether it had – or even needed – certain zoning permits to operate.
Sexually oriented businesses need special zoning permits within Fort Wayne city limits.
Kim Bowman, director of the joint city-county planning department, said in an e-mail that she and another city official have met with the owner of Jus 4 Now.
We explained the zoning ordinance permitting requirements and discussed the definition of a sexually oriented business, Bowman said in the e-mail. Staff provided paperwork for the permits required by the Fort Wayne Zoning Ordinance and expect to have those submitted in the next couple of weeks.
The owner of Jus 4 Now did not respond to initial calls or e-mails from The Journal Gazette last month. But last week, the owner sent an e-mail saying that no sex offenders were living on the property.
The club requires a membership application to join, according to its website. It does not provide alcohol – members have to bring their own – but does have play rooms, a locker room, a bar, couches and a merchandise boutique, the website said.
Once accepted, a member is given a tour by club staff so as not to allow any sneak peeks, according to the website.