Victory Inn sex-ring leader altered appearance during manhunt

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Darrick Bell, the "ghost" of Victory Inn who led federal investigators on a nearly three-year manhunt after being accused of running a sex-trafficking ring at the Detroit motel, drastically altered his appearance and had help from a woman to hide from federal agents.

The Victory Inn caught fire Wednesday, two months after a judge shuttered the motel for one year, calling it a public nuisance.

Bell, 50, gained weight, grew a beard and a nearly full head of salt-and-pepper hair during his flight from justice that ended Wednesday night when federal agents arrested the six-time felon and convicted killer at a hotel in Monroe.

Federal officials Thursday chronicled a prolonged manhunt that spanned at least three states, featured a near-miss in Ohio and thousands of tips about a man accused of enslaving women at a run-down Detroit motel. 

“We really wanted this guy bad,” said Aaron Garcia, assistant chief deputy U.S. Marshal, who described the moment a team of 13 agents arrested Bell late Wednesday. “I think he knew the day was coming. He knew we were really close.”

Bell, known on the streets as "Ghost" and "Tone," is being temporarily jailed without bond and has a detention hearing Monday in federal court, where he is facing up to life in prison if convicted of charges that include sex-trafficking conspiracy and selling heroin, which killed at least one person.

Investigators nearly captured Bell last week in Lima, Ohio, approximately 80 miles south of Toledo. A tipster indicated Bell was living there and using an alias.

Inside Victory Inn raid: ‘Never seen anything like this'

Federal task force officers were en route to Lima last week when Bell disappeared, Garcia said.

“The problem with this guy from the beginning is we were always a little step behind him,” Garcia said.

Another tip led to the Econo Lodge Inn & Suites in Monroe. Investigators executed a search warrant and found Bell inside Room 223. Investigators found nearly $12,000 and suspected cocaine in the motel room, the release said. They also arrested Davison resident Rachel Ayers, 33, who was charged in federal court with helping Bell evade authorities since 2017.

Feds: Killer ran Victory Inn brothel, is on the run

“It should be known that we don’t give up on cases and when there’s a fugitive out there, federal law enforcement works our tail off until we make that arrest and bring those fugitives to justice,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider told reporters Thursday.

Darrick Bell

At least 10 other people have been charged in the Victory Inn case, including Bell's girlfriend, motel manager Janette Tawfik, who was known by Victory Inn sex slaves as "The Dragon Lady." Prosecutors described Tawfik, 42, as a violent, gun-toting motel manager who teamed with drug dealers and pimps — including Bell — to provide muscle and keep sex-trafficking victims in check.

The accusations from prosecutors against Janette Tawfik emerged Monday during a dramatic federal court hearing that featured surveillance video of life inside a motel where cocaine, heroin and flesh were sold with help from motel staff.

The investigation and raid rescued 14 women and uncovered a sophisticated criminal organization with a hierarchy, lookouts and a body count. The drug and sex-trafficking operation overtook the 42-room motel — leaving two rooms for legitimate customers.

As many as 20 women were forced to live in inhumane conditions and have sex with customers in motel rooms that cost $55 per night — or $35 for three hours.

The investigation culminated in January 2017 in one of the largest federal raids in Detroit history when law enforcement personnel from 20 agencies converged on the motel along Michigan Avenue, east of Wyoming Avenue near the Dearborn border. 

Ayers, whose criminal record includes several drug and prostitution convictions, told investigators she has traveled with Bell several times between Ohio and Michigan since the January 2017 raid at the Victory Inn. 

Rachel Ayers

"Ayers stated that she was aware that Bell was subject to federal prosecution and that she knew he was a federal fugitive as early as 2017," deputy U.S. Marshal Salvatore Valgoi wrote in a criminal complaint Thursday. 

Ayers actively helped Bell evade arrest by driving him between covert locations, buying cellphones so Bell could communicate with drug dealers so he could obtain cash and remain a fugitive, Valgoi wrote.

Late last month, she drove to Ohio and picked up Bell and brought him to Michigan, he added.

The Victory Inn raid and Bell's disappearance drew headlines in early 2017.

A team of federal agents and local police spent about three months investigating and preparing for the raid plus a dozen nights of undercover surveillance. Agents pulled blueprints from Detroit City Hall while planning the raid and interviewed suspected human trafficking victims.

The surveillance revealed an organized criminal enterprise had overtaken the motel and was pimping women and selling drugs, according to court records, testimony and interviews. The criminal enterprise included lookouts posted along Michigan Avenue — one outside a strip club and another near an adult bookstore — to warn colleagues at the motel about law enforcement, investigators said.

Federal agents obtained blueprints of Victory Inn before raiding the motel Jan. 12, 2017.

Instead of raiding one room or a single home, agents faced a two-story motel with more than three dozen rooms, numerous victims and suspects. Homeland Security Investigations wanted a force large enough to storm every guest room with at least four agents.

Homeland Security Investigations assigned six tactical teams to swarm the motel, almost 200 personnel, several K-9 officers and 100 tactical agents wearing body armor and carrying long guns or pistols and battering rams.

The team of investigators included Fox, a Belgian Malinois K-9 officer from the Taylor Police Department. Fox’s handler was about to let the dog charge into one motel room when he looked at the motel room’s floor.

It was carpeted, wall to wall, with used hypodermic needles.

Investigators didn't find Bell, the accused leader of the alleged criminal enterprise, who also was known as "Tone."

“Tone” had as many as eight women working for him at the motel, according to investigators.

Agents didn’t know his real name, initially.

“He was like Keyser Söze,” a law enforcement official told The News, speaking on condition of anonymity and referring to the elusive villain from the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.”

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews