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Penalties likely in teen beer sale sting

Penalties likely in teen beer sale sting Official expects license suspensions

By Paul Pinkham and Rich Tucker
Times-Union staff writers

Friday, June 7, 2002

Last modified at 11:31 p.m. on Thursday, June 6, 2002

State Attorney Harry Shorstein displays an example of an ID used in an underage beer sale sting which shows that the holder would not turn 21 until 2005.
-- Bruce Lipsky/Staff

Photo MetroThe 15 Duval County stores where employees were caught on tape selling beer to teenagers probably will face at least a brief suspension of their licenses to sell alcohol, the enforcement chief for Florida's liquor licensing agency said yesterday.

"We're not going to put up with this, and we've got to send a message," said Chief A. J. Smith of the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

"There could be some mitigating factors," Smith said. "But in light of what's currently going on ... Director [Richard Turner] has pretty much said even a first offense is going to get at least a two-day suspension."

Those who face charges

These are the people charged following the State Attorney Office's sting of 56 randomly selected groceries and convenience stores from Mayport to the Westside.

  • James Francis Devers, 47, at Terry's Country Store, 2198 Mayport Road. Declined comment
  • Silva Vlash Gseka, 18, at Albertson's, 2875 University Blvd. W. "The kids who are buying, they have to be careful too ... They don't have to drink. It's not my fault if they do."
  • Michael Travis Ingram, 19, at Smokers Express, 8350 Baymeadows Road. "They were just doing their job."
  • Akram Kassap, 34, owner of Speedway Food Store, 4545 Ocean St., Atlantic Beach. "I probably got confused ... with the numbers. Sometimes with the long night -- it's no excuse, but I didn't do it on purpose."
  • Kunar R. Mahida, 24, at Shell, 7071 Philips Highway. Declined comment.
  • Elisha Nicole Morse, 22, at Texaco Food Mart, 8866 Baymeadows Road. "I was set up. ... They should have told me at the time I did it instead of waiting two weeks."
  • Sandra Isabel Navarro, 43, at Sprint, 2810 Florida A1A. Could not be reached for comment.
  • Dipen Viju Patel, 22, at Flex Discount Beverage, 2765 Mayport Road. Declined comment.
  • Darlene A. Peavy, 45, at Sprint, 5111 Baymeadows Road. "I know I asked for the ID because I always do. It must have been a fake."
  • Anthony Ray Rusk, 20, at Shell Food Mart, 1120 Atlantic Boulevard, Neptune Beach. "I made a mistake. That's pretty much what happened."
  • Kimberly A. Sheets, 39, at Sprint, 1601 Penman Road, Jacksonville Beach. Declined comment.
  • Yoo Chun Won, 35, at Exxon Food Shop, 1480 Mayport Road. "We try to check every ID, but they come in at the busiest times, and people get upset when they have to wait."
  • Juvenile clerks at Winn Dixie, 999 University Blvd. N.; Food Lion, 966 Arlington Road; and Winn Dixie, 777 Market St. Could not be identified by authorities.

During a two-week sting, three teens teamed up with the State Attorney's Office and visited 56 randomly selected groceries and convenience stores from Mayport to the Westside. The teens wore hidden cameras and microphones on which they recorded the illegal sales.

Smith said he is awaiting evidence from the State Attorney's Office before suspension proceedings could begin. Division guidelines call for a seven-day suspension and $1,000 fine for a first offense; 30-day suspension and $3,000 fine for a second offense in three years; and revocation for a third offense.

Smith said the guidelines are flexible. In the past, first offenses typically have drawn no suspensions.

State Attorney Harry Shorstein said the sting should give clerks pause before not checking IDs or selling to underage customers.

"I am hopeful this operation will serve as a wake-up call to business owners and clerks that we will not tolerate this," Shorstein said at a news conference yesterday.

Authorities arrested James Francis Devers, Silva Vlash Gseka, Michael Travis Ingram, Akram Kassap, Kunar R. Mahida, Elisha Nicole Morse, Sandra Isabel Navarro, Dipen Viju Patel, Darlene A. Peavy, Anthony Ray Rusk, Kimberly A. Sheets and Yoo Chun Won.

Investigators also charged three juveniles who cannot be identified by authorities under Florida law. The 15 face the charge of serving alcohol to a minor, a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Kassap, the owner of the Speedway Food Store in Mayport, said the sting was unfair. He said he had to close his store when he was arrested and estimates he lost about $1,000 in business before he was released at 4 a.m. yesterday. Kassap was back at work yesterday afternoon, his 34th birthday.

"The guy had ID. I checked it," Kassap said. "I probably got confused ... with the numbers. Sometimes with the long night -- it's no excuse, but I didn't do it on purpose.

"I've been working nine years, and I always check ID, but sometimes, if you keep refusing, you wouldn't make any money," Kassap said. "This could spoil my record forever."

Kassap was one of several of those arrested who were at work yesterday after being released from jail.

So was Morse, a Texaco Food Mart employee in Baymeadows arrested for selling beer to an underage customer, even after looking at his license.

"They should have told me at the time I did it instead of waiting two weeks," she said. "If it was so much about safety, why didn't they come in and get me right then?"

Rick Beseler, the State Attorney's Office chief investigator, said authorities waited to make arrests because they did not want to alert other stores to the sting.

Gseka, a Southside Albertson's employee who was videotaped selling beer to two underage customers, said the operation placed blame on the wrong people.

"The kids who are buying, they have to be careful too," she said. "They don't have to drink. It's not my fault if they do."

Spokesmen for Albertson's, Winn-Dixie and Food Lion -- all of which had employees sell beer to the teens -- said clerks undergo rigorous training that emphasizes checking IDs for all customers who appear younger than 30. Clerks also are trained to enter birth dates into their registers whenever selling alcohol.

Employees at smaller convenience stores said yesterday they also are told always to check IDs but sometimes do not have time when facing lines of customers.

"We try to check every ID, but they come in at the busiest times, and people get upset when they have to wait," said Won, a Mayport Exxon Food Shop employee who was arrested. "We just do our best."

Shorstein said the sting, prompted by recent traffic deaths caused by underage drinking, will encourage clerks and store owners always to check IDs.

"We have considered this to be an unbelievably serious problem," he said. "We know a sting of this nature will have a deterrent value."

Terry Smith, the owner of Terry's Country Stores at the Beaches, said he will fire his employee, Devers, who is accused of selling alcohol to an underage customer. "The first thing I tell a new employee is, 'no second chances. If you sell alcohol to someone underage, I will fire you,"' Smith said. "I tell them it's like they're joining a police force without the badge."

But Smith said he doubts the sting will do much to reduce underage drinking.

"I understand they are doing their job, but this will never stop minors from drinking. Minors will always get beer if they want it," he said. "I don't have any answers how to stop it. If I did, I'd have a crystal ball."

Attorney David Robbins, who frequently represents clients charged with drunken driving, said law enforcement should conduct undercover operations targeting underage alcohol sales more regularly. Police routinely bust topless dancers, and this problem is more serious, Robbins said.

"There's just no question that you can't have alcoholic beverages sold to minors. The potential is just too great," Robbins said. "If we have 16- and 17-year-old kids driving around with unlimited access to alcohol, we're going to have tragedies. We're going to have deaths."

Staff writer Paul Pinkham can be reached at (904) 359-4107 or via e-mail at [email protected].

Staff writer Rich Tucker can be reached at (904) 359-4169 or via e-mail at [email protected].

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