|Perhaps the most exciting Rutherford County Beer Board meeting in history took place Monday evening in County Clerk Lisa Crowell’s office in downtown Murfreesboro.
The owners of four convenience stores throughout the county were called before the board to answer for criminal charges arising from a countywide synthetic drug sting conducted by the Rutherford County Sheriff’s office and other local law enforcement agencies.
Operation Synful Smoke was conducted in September 2011, and local law enforcement officers raided dozens of convenience stores throughout the county where investigations had revealed sales of illegal synthetic drugs were ongoing.
The raid was conducted in cooperation with Rutherford County District Attorney Bill Whitesell, and followed a countywide effort by local law enforcement agencies in March to advise each store owner of the illegal nature of the products they were selling.
State law allows local beer boards to revoke or suspend beer licenses on a case-by-case basis if “criminal activity” takes place on the property, and board members decided, after some discussion, the owners’ guilty pleas in General Sessions Court for sale of illegal substances amounted to verifiable criminal activity.
Law enforcement officials advised the board of the specific nature of the charges against each store owner, and each owner was given a public hearing before the board in which to answer the charges.
“Since the raid, we are getting numerous reports of store owners throughout the county continuing to secretly sell these drugs through special handshakes and codewords by customers at the counter,” one officer told the board. “Many store owners who have discontinued their sales of synthetic drugs complain they are losing business to the stores that continue to sell them.”
Owners Sun Ju Kim Beck of Family Market at 8050 Highway 99 in Rockvale, Mustafa Ghulamali of Kountry Korner Market at 7604 Old Nashville Hwy in Murfreesboro, Siddarth Patel of Lascassas Market at 2712 Lascassas Pike in Murfreesboro, and Fady Henin of Wild Rockvale at 6125 Hwy 99 in Rockvale all pleaded ignorance of the illegal nature of the substances they were selling.
Beck, Ghulamali and Patel each received 30-day suspensions of their beer license, effective at midnight Monday, after board member David Nipper made a motion and the board unanimously agreed.
After receiving his license suspension, Patel continued to address the board asking for relief, going so far as to offer his knowledge of which store owners are continuing to sell drugs.
His offer was refused by Board Chairman Keith Bratcher.
“The public hearing has concluded, and your suspension has already been decided,” he said. “You are now required to turn in your beer license to the clerk at the open of business tomorrow.”
The board issued the stiffest penalty to Henin, after law enforcement officials informed the board Henin was offering a “special deal” to customers who bought high volumes of the drugs.
“A sign in the display window at the time of the raid informed customers they would receive a free bong or pipe with each purchase of five or more packs of the synthetic drugs labeled ‘incense,’” one law enforcement official stated. “Mr. Henin later said he never knew that the products were drugs or what they were used for, and he said it all on camera in an interview with local television news.”
In his comments to the board, Henin continued to maintain he had no knowledge the products were actually synthetic drugs, which are smoked by customers.
Additional records were then produced by the board indicating Henin’s beer license had previously been suspended within the year for selling beer to a minor.
“I get confused about the ages,” he said in his defense. “It’s all very confusing and complicated.”
“Do you get confused about the money?” Board Member Mike Avery asked.
Henin did not answer, and Nipper then motioned for a 180-day suspension of the beer license, which passed unanimously.
Henin later told reporters he will most likely lose his business because more than 50 percent of his receipts are based on beer sales.
However, sources indicate the owners periodically skirt beer licensing laws by simply selling the business to a family member who can then apply immediately to the beer board for a new license.
“There’s really nothing we can do about that,” Board Member David Nipper said when asked about the problem.
Both Bratcher and Rep. Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna), who was a member of the audience during the meeting, said they would support legislation on the state level to tie the licenses to the physical address of the businesses rather than the name of the owner.
“That would mean the suspension or revocation of a license would follow the business no matter who owned it,” Bratcher said.
Sparks agreed and said he would definitely be sponsoring legislation to do exactly that in the next session of the Tennessee General Assembly.
“These store owners are breaking the law, wrecking families, and killing people in the name of profit,” he said. “They don’t care who they hurt, as long as they make money.”