Detective aims to keep spirits in check

Alcohol outlets are tested on sales to underage customers

October 07, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Howard County Detective Cpl. Martin Johnson leaned his elbow on the center armrest of his unmarked Honda Accord and pointed a small black telescope at the entrance of a Waverly Woods liquor store.

Johnson had just sent Stella Dieu, an 18-year-old former police cadet, into the store to attempt to purchase a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice.

"It's not a trick or a trap," Johnson, 47, said of the sting operation. "It's just a test. Will you sell alcohol to someone under 21? Yes or no."

At Your Wine & Spirit Shoppe in Waverly Woods, the answer was yes. Dieu walked out carrying the Smirnoff Ice in a brown bag and $11.50 in change in her pocket. Johnson seemed genuinely disappointed.

"A good night for us is when nobody sells," he said. "Really."

Johnson is the county's liquor-sales enforcer. He has been busting underage drinkers, fake ID carriers, bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Howard County for 11 years.

He does not keep statistics on stores' failure rates, choosing instead to "take it one test at a time, pass or fail," he said. Johnson selects the stores, bars and restaurants at random and runs the tests as often as he can, depending on his workload.

Any holder of the county's approximately 250 liquor licenses might want to do him favor -- maybe a free beer once in awhile -- because then he would owe them one. But Johnson does not drink alcohol.

He said that he has tasted beer only once and can't understand why anyone would pay money "to acquire the taste."

He prefers mango juice poured over a cup of ice and a protein bar. That was his dinner before he set out with Dieu and 19-year-old police cadet Wesley Watson of Woodlawn to test three liquor stores and an Ellicott City restaurant two weeks ago.

First, Johnson snapped digital pictures of his "testers" to show the liquor board, clerks and store owners just how young his volunteers looked that day.

Dieu is a petite Asian-American with long, straight black hair. Her makeup is lightly applied. She wears a black cardigan over a white tank-top and stretchy black leggings.

Watson's height, about 6 feet, makes him appear older than Dieu, of Columbia. But his attire and speech give away his age. He wears a sporty style of sunglasses often worn by cyclists, a large Xavier University athletic warm-up jersey and baggy jeans. He often finishes his sentences with "furreal" and "aright."

Johnson instructs Dieu to purchase and handle the alcohol because she looks and is younger.

Both enter the store with nothing but $20 and their Maryland driver's licenses. If Dieu isn't carded, they walk out of the store with the specific alcohol Johnson told them to request. Even when clerks ask for a volunteer's identification, however, they have been known to ignore the birth date and sell the alcohol anyway, Johnson said.

Most of the time, however, Dieu and Watson are denied.

"If I sent two teens into 10 places and every single place sold without carding, I'd think there was something wrong with the test," Johnson said.

According to Dieu and Watson, the clerks who passed the test all expressed some bewilderment at the brazenness of the attempt.

Foster's Country Store on Frederick Road: Passed.

"Uh, you're not 21," owner Bill Davis told Dieu. She had to ask for her money back.

Glenwood Wine & Spirits on Route 97: Passed.

"Do you realize that you're under 21?" the clerk, Craig Cubbage, asked Dieu.

"Yes. Yes, I do," she said.

"I can't sell it to you, then," Cubbage said.

Serafino's on Plum Tree Drive in Ellicott City: Passed.

After waiter Matt Stepowski carded Dieu, he left the table and found his manager, Mandy Bachmann.

"We can't serve you until 2010," she told Dieu.

But at the Your Wine & Spirit Shoppe, nothing was said. The clerk later shrugged and told Johnson, "She looked 25 to me."

No matter the outcome of the test, Johnson goes into the store within a few minutes of his volunteers walking out. Wearing a suit and tie Sept. 27, he carried a blue three-ring binder containing forms and notes from previous tests.

In three of the four tests, the owner or clerk knew Johnson. But he often flips out his badge, just like on TV.

The clerks who deny alcohol to the teens receive letters of commendation from Police Chief William J. McMahon, which Johnson keeps on file and sends to the store's owner and the liquor board. Restaurants and shops have been known to give cash bonuses to employees who pass tests.

If the business fails, Johnson still goes in, friendly as ever. He takes down the necessary information, checks to ensure that a manager trained in liquor sales is on property -- as required -- and always ends the conversation with a version of "Is there anything I can help you with?"

Johnson then reports the violation to county lawyers, and the license holders appear before the liquor board. Typically, stores and restaurants do not lose their license or have it suspended for a first offense -- but they can be fined up to $2,000.

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