No room at the inn for innocence

By Joe Mozingo
Photos by Francine Orr

At a San Bernardino motel, children grow up in the shadows of drugs and despair.

Children play in the parking lot at the Country Inn in San Bernardino. See more scenes from life at the Country Inn »


he children gather at dusk on the pitted motel parking lot, hard against the sound wall of the freeway. They kick a scuffed soccer ball and play with the stray dogs they have rescued. One holds a cockroach he pretends is a pet turtle.

Eddie Martinez, 14, rides his bike among them, happy they are back from school. Since he quit going to class several months before, he spends his days sitting on the breezeway at the top of the stairs waiting for them.

In the dim light and freeway exhaust of San Bernardino’s Country Inn, he has friends and a piece of a normal childhood.

The problem of children growing up without a secure place to call home is growing worse nationwide.

In 2013, an estimated 2.5 million children lived in run-down motels, cars and shelters, on friends’ and relatives’ couches and on the streets, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, a nonprofit research institute. That was up 8% from 2012 and 67% from 2006.

In California, a higher percentage of children are homeless — 5.7% — than all other states but Alabama and Mississippi, according to the National Center. They number more than half a million. Budget motels have become the last resort for those with nowhere else to go.

Clockwise from left: Eddie Martinez, 14, stands outside his room at the Country Inn. A boy plays with a cockroach he pretends is his pet turtle. A young boy retrieves a ball in the empty pool. See more scenes from life at the Country Inn »

The situation is particularly stark in San Bernardino County, where 9% of public school students are identified as homeless, compared with 4.3% in Los Angeles County.

Life at the Country Inn is little different than at similar run-down, midcentury lodgings across the street and in other parts of town.

The children here pay no attention to the meth merchants on the sidewalks. To the emaciated woman who furiously paces the upper deck, naked. To the men in nice cars who drive slowly through their makeshift play area scanning the doorways for prostitutes.

They watch out for one another. And on a warm evening, they glance out to the street. Breanna, a quiet 12-year-old who is Eddie’s girlfriend, kind of, hasn’t come home from school.

Breanna’s mother stands across from the empty swimming pool wailing. “My daughter’s missing!”

In tears, Vanessa Padilla pulls her youngest daughter into their room. Her older daughter Breanna was missing. See more scenes from life at the Country Inn »

Parents and children shuffle after her as she reels around the parking lot.

On his BMX bike, Eddie coasts silently through the cluster of people, a cipher in jeans and a black ball cap that reads: “Parental Advisory: Adult Content.”

He has the slight build of a boy born months too early to a drug-addicted mother and none of the gang-bred pugnaciousness that the rest of his family exudes. He has become so shy he finds it hard to move his lips when people ask him questions.

“Did you see her?” the mother asks him, begging.

Eddie’s eyes dart nervously. He starts to speak, but doesn’t. He is struggling with how to help Breanna. But he too is lost.

His mom, Noreen Gutierrez, was arrested before Christmas, this time for a probation violation. He doesn’t know when she’s getting out of jail and can’t talk to her. He’s left with her 24-year-old boyfriend, who is mostly strung out on the shards of crystal meth he smokes in the bathroom.

“I Wonder if anyone would miss me when I’m Gone,” Eddie posted on Facebook. He got three “likes” but no comments.

The motel is as close to a home as he’s had since his brief stint in the middle class ended when he was 6 and the family lived in Oregon.

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Eddie’s parents drank heavily, Noreen and the kids say, but the family was stable, with steady employment, a rented five-bedroom house and three cars.

Then, one night in a drunken rage, Eddie’s father, Gabriel Martinez, shot a co-worker in the arm at a party and went to prison. Eddie’s mom and her five children moved back to San Bernardino, the city 60 miles east of Los Angeles that they’d left to get away from drugs and gangs. Life there had only gotten worse.

“When he went to prison, we crashed and burned,” Noreen said in an interview at the San Bernardino Central Detention Center.

The family shuttled between apartments and motels as Eddie moved around to different grade schools and Noreen went in and out of jail. They checked into room 219 at the Country Inn last summer. Noreen prefers the motel because she sees the manager, Sam Maharaj, as a decent man. He gives pizza to hungry children, provides maid service to those who want it and keeps a watchful eye on potentially dangerous tenants.

Eddie Martinez, top, spends his days sitting on the breezeway at the top of the stairs. When his mother was in jail, Eddie was left with her 24-year-old boyfriend, bottom, who was mostly strung out on the crystal meth he smoked. See more scenes from life at the Country Inn »

She paid the room bill with her welfare checks, her boyfriend’s sporadic construction work, her occasional housecleaning jobs and recycling. Even the weekly rate of $280 was no bargain. But for Noreen, who couldn’t save $1,400 for the first and last month’s rent for an apartment and pass a credit check, there were few options.

To get into a shelter, she would have to leave her boyfriend and sober up. Instead she holed up in her room, smoking meth, drinking, watching “Cops” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” By then, her older children were over 18 and drifting in and out of her life. Her youngest children, Eddie and his 12-year-old sister Gabrielle, had no one to guide them.

Eddie found bits of advice from the motel manager and from his cousin Jonathan “Whitie” Levario, who lived nearby. Eddie knew Whitie was preparing to go to jail for a gang-related crime and he would have one fewer person to talk to. Then on his last night of freedom, Whitie, 19, went to sleep and didn’t wake up. The coroner’s report said he died of acute heroin and meth toxicity.

Eddie couldn’t stop crying. He clung to his mom like she might disappear. When he sobbed in class, his classmates taunted him. He brought a switchblade the next day, and Noreen pulled him from school until he calmed down.

Eddie and Breanna would lean into each other on the motel stairway’s top step, listening to Green Day and Imagine Dragons on his phone, playing Minecraft.

Breanna’s mom, Vanessa Padilla, called her and her younger siblings "idiots" and slapped them with no warning. Each morning before she left for Juanita Blakely Jones Elementary School, Breanna would dress, bathe and feed her 4-year-old sister and two 7-year-old brothers, as her mom slept. The twins had never been enrolled in school.

Many afternoons when Breanna got home, her mom was drunk, loud and in party mode, sometimes with a new man she had just met at the gas station across the street. The men slept in the room, and when her mom passed out, the kids were alone with them. Eddie started spending the night in their room to make sure the men didn’t hurt them.

In December, Noreen went to jail for the probation violation. Eddie felt adrift in a storm.

Breanna Melendez gets a hug in the motel parking lot after she was found at a nearby park. See more scenes from life at the Country Inn »

In January, when Breanna went missing, Eddie wouldn’t tell anyone whether he knew where she was. He shared the temptation to vanish. He’d recently written a letter to his mom in jail saying he and Breanna were going to run away. They just didn’t know where to go.

The police had been to this motel at least 190 times in the last year. When two police officers finally arrived at the motel this time, Eddie quietly announced that he’d look for her, and rode his bike into the dark.

An hour later, Eddie pedaled up and murmured that he had found Breanna in Seccombe Lake Park, a few blocks away.

A squad car rolled out of the lot and returned with Breanna in the back. After a quick interview on the edge of the crowd, the officers turned the girl over to her mother, dismissing the incident as a family spat.

A few weeks later, as Eddie holed up in the stairwell in tears, Breanna’s mom jealously berated her for texting her dad.

Eddie had, for some time, been writing down his emotions and keeping them in his backpack. “The only thing I haven’t lost yet is my life,” one letter said. “But I hope I’ll lose it soon cause I can’t take it anymore.”

Several people said they’d called child services about the families over the months. Nothing came of it. But on this night the police drove up below Breanna’s second-floor room and stuck around as social workers led the girl and her siblings off to foster care. Others took Eddie and his younger sister.

Eddie Martinez, 14, sits crying in the stairwell. See more scenes from life at the Country Inn »

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After a couple of days, authorities reached out to Eddie’s father, who had been released from prison two years earlier and again had steady construction work in Oregon.

When his dad visited the prior Christmas, Noreen said he cursed her for turning Eddie into a “mute.”

Yet he agreed to take the children in. He drove down from Oregon to pick them up.

Eddie worried that he’d miss his friends and Breanna. But he always pined for the life his family had when they were together.

“About to go to school in a little,” Eddie wrote on Facebook, two days after arriving back in central Oregon. “I'm really nervous.”

That afternoon, he updated the post: “School was fun today.”

At the Country Inn, another family moved into room 219.

How we reported this story

Los Angeles Times staff writer Joe Mozingo and photographer Francine Orr began reporting on the children at the Country Inn in September as part of their ongoing coverage of San Bernardino, the poorest city of its size in California. The journalists witnessed all scenes described in this story. The families’ histories were pieced together through interviews and a review of court, police and coroner’s records and news reports. Eddie Martinez’s father, Gabriel Martinez, did not respond to requests for an interview. Breanna’s mother, Vanessa Padilla, could not be found after her children were taken from her. Read more »

Contact the reporters Joe Mozingo and Francine Orr.

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Additional Credits: Digital design director: Stephanie Ferrell. Design and production: Lily Mihalik.