Lexington Market stall operator accused of illegally selling guns

April 08, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

The 53-year-old owner of a long-standing Utz potato chips stall in Lexington Market and his 21-year-old girlfriend are accused of running a side business over the counter, selling guns to Bloods, Crips and Hells Angels among others, according to a criminal complaint filed late last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Michael Papantonakis, who has worked at the stand since his father bought it in 1970, is also accused of unsuccessfully trying to have the market's executive director beaten with "a bat or something, just enough to break his arms and legs," the document claims, though it does not specify the nature of the alleged dispute.

Both Papantonakis and his girlfriend of at least three years, Sharon Heberle, denied through relatives Tuesday the federal charges of engaging in the unlawful dealing of firearms. According to a search of court records, neither has a criminal history. If convicted, they could each face a maximum of five years in prison.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information supplied by the Maryland U.S. attorney's office, an article in Wednesday's editions incorrectly stated the dates Michael Papantonakis, who owns an Utz potato chip stall at Lexington Market, is alleged to have illegally sold guns to undercover operatives. A criminal complaint filed against him in federal court last month claims he sold weapons from his shop and elsewhere between September 2007 and March 2009. The article also failed to credit the City Paper with breaking the news on its Web site this week.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

A nine-page affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, filed March 31 by a task force officer within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, describes a surprisingly casual world of gun dealing, where anyone could buy a firearm for the right price: Money was counted out in the open, and customers were invited to inspect guns behind the counter, the affidavit says.

Papantonakis, a former bounty hunter, is alleged to have sold guns for years, including more than a dozen handguns and rifles to people working for or with the ATF in six transactions, dating from September 2007 through March 2008. The transactions were documented in testimony and surveillance equipment recordings, according to the ATF officer. (The affidavit contains incorrect dates and names, which the Maryland U.S. attorney's office corrected for The Baltimore Sun.)

The prices for the firearms ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, with the occasional discount: Three rifles were marked down to $2,000 from $2,350 on the condition that the person making the buy, an undercover operative posing as an MS-13 gang member, also beat up the market's manager, Casper J. Genco Jr., according to the documents. "If it's true, it's a shock to me," Genco said.

Papantonakis is being held, though his court appointed attorney has filed a motion to reverse the detention ruling. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Vendors in the crowded lunchtime market Tuesday said they were stunned by the April 1 arrests, afraid the illegal dealings on the streets, where drugs and money change hands in the open air, had moved inside. They described Papantonakis, a father of two and grandfather of three, as an affable man who loved Harley-Davidsons and his Pennsylvania home's acreage, sometimes inviting other shop owners up for barbecues.

"Mike's not that kind of guy. He's like a big brother to me - my kids look up to him as Uncle Mike," said Sherry Thayer, a sandwich maker at Barron's Deli, next door to the Utz stall. She said she has known Papantonakis for 30 years, since he was a bounty hunter looking for her roommate.

"He'd give me the shirt off his back if I needed it. Mike would never hurt a fly," she said.

Heberle's mother also works at the Utz stall with her daughter, who started there at the age of 16. The elder Heberle, who shares her daughter's name, was there Tuesday and still struggling to digest the news of the charges.

"It's a big shock; I don't believe it - no way. I've worked here three years and haven't seen anything out of the ordinary," she said. She described her daughter's relationship with Papantonakis as being good for the young woman, despite the age difference.

"At first I wasn't for it, but what can I do? She was grown at the time," she said. Papantonakis has helped anchor her daughter, she said. The couple likes to spend time shopping for Harley-Davidson gear or eating out, often at Cactus Willies, she said.

Papantonakis' sister, Stella Papantonakis, claims the case is the product of a grudge by a confidential informant.

"This confidential source was a longtime family friend going back almost two decades," her brother's attorney wrote in papers filed Monday. His identity "was obvious," the attorney wrote. In a court filing, U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the possibility that Papantonakis would know the identity of a witness in the case, and the alleged threat against Genco, contributed to the decision to detain him.

"My brother hasn't done anything wrong, not one thing wrong, and now we're in jeopardy of losing the family business because of all of this," said Stella Papantonakis, who plans to run the store. She said Genco is attempting to shutter the business.

"That's been turned over to our attorneys," he said yesterday.

Utz potato chips have been sold at the market stall for decades, though the business has no affiliation with Utz Quality Foods, the Hanover, Pa., company that produces the chips. The stall owners simply buy the product and sell it, said George Neiderer, Utz's vice president of human resources.

"We have no ties to it," he said.

Papantonakis' father, a native of Greece, bought the business when his son was 14. A decade later, Papantonakis took it over, his sister said. He's run it ever since, making friends with other vendors and passing the time with small talk.

His arrest is "tragic for the market," said author Patricia Schultheis. Her 2007 book about the history of Lexington Market features a cheek-to-cheek photo of a bearded Papantonakis and a pony-tailed Heberle. "Baltimoreans just love that market. It's absolutely central to their identity as citizens in this city, and anything that tarnishes that is just terribly sad."

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