Teen decoys used to sting booze shops | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Teen decoys used to sting booze shops

William Ferchland
Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune Liquor Shack employee Beth Whilden has posted a sign in front of the store for patrons regarding the purchase of alcohol and tobacco.

The directions were simple: Buy the beer, don’t engage in chitchat and provide identification if asked.

Last week began the implementation of the first of nine sting operations expected to run for the next 18 months involving youths buying alcohol in an attempt to curb underage drinking.

The stings were made possible only after the South Lake Tahoe Police Department received a federal grant of more than $9,000 to fund officer overtime and equipment.

Out of 16 visits to stores that sell alcohol, three were cited Wednesday night for allowing decoys, who purposefully look younger than 21, to buy alcohol, according to Lt. Marty Hale.

“Some of these places make it very easy for them,” Hale said.

The three stores – Alpine Liquors, American Oil Number One gas station and Swiss Mart – were cited.

Both Swiss Mart and American Oil Number One are located on Emerald Bay Road. Alpine Liquors is on Lake Tahoe Boulevard.

Punishment can include the temporary suspension of a store’s liquor license and fines.

The sting began moments after the front doors closed at the police department at 5 p.m. Representatives from the Sacramento office of Alcoholic Beverage Control along with uniformed and undercover police officers sat in the board room briefing teenagers.

Three teenagers would be used. Others were too young to break the minimum age requirement of 16 and observed what was to be expected when they were ready. One forgot his driver’s license, making him ineligible.

After an informative, and amusing, 1980s video on the decoy program, police officer Scott Heng explained the drill: Try to purchase a package of beer, show identification if ordered, leave if a feeling of nervousness creeps in, and, if a sale is made, return to the store and identify the clerk.

Katie Lenihan, district administrator for ABC, said authorities would be aware of clerks contacting other stores to warn them of the sting. Those who did so could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Two of the decoys, a 19-year-old male from Stockton and an 18-year-old female from Davis, were dating. Both were part of the El Dorado County chapter of Friday Night Live, a youth organization that promotes teenage lifestyles free of illegal drugs and alcohol.

“I’m a little excited,” said the 18-year-old. “It’s interesting to see what happens.”

The couple said they participated in tobacco stings in years past but had yet to try to buy alcohol. Jeanette Phillips, health education coordinator for the county, organizes tobacco stings in the county. She said she was a decoy when she was under the legal age to buy alcohol. Nobody sold to her.

“I looked 12,” she said.

According to several studies, youth drinking is frequent at South Lake Tahoe.

Hale cited the 2002 California Healthy Kids Survey that stated 64 percent of high school juniors in Lake Tahoe Unified School District tried alcohol in a month’s duration. The level was higher than California’s average of 41 percent and a national mark of 49 percent.

“Obviously we have some issues we need to address,” Hale said.

There are 37 stores that sell liquor within the city limits of South Lake Tahoe. The Liquor Shack was cited during a sting last March.

Beth Whilden was the clerk who was cited. Whilden said she was distracted by several things, including talking on the phone, a stocker behind her and a short line on the register. She also believed the decoy resembled a customer she sold to before.

Still she knows better than to blame anybody but herself.

“If anything happens, my gosh, you have to live with the consequences,” Whilden said.

With a background in bartending and a Liquor Shack employee for roughly four years, Whilden said she checks identification constantly.

“I have, several times, caught someone with another person’s ID I know,” she said.

Hale expects the next sting to occur sometime next month.

– E-mail William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com

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