Chip Stand Protests Eviction


April 29, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

Lexington Market doesn't want the Utz potato chip stand anymore.

The workers say they sell chips and always have. The feds say that - at least until one of the owners, a former bounty hunter, was busted April 1 - they also sold guns to gangs.

Crab cakes and Uzis may fit the stereotype of a violent city, but it's not what the purveyors of a world-famous market want to promote. So Lexington Market Inc. filed suit in Baltimore's Wabash District Court against Stella Tsourakis, the woman they say owns the place along with her brother, Michael Papantonakis, who is in jail facing federal firearms charges.

Stella, facing a May 31 eviction order unless the judge allows her to stay, is not going quietly.

She posted signs around her stall on Tuesday urging patrons to sign petitions to keep the stand open. As of 4 p.m., she had gathered more than 40 names. "Market management is forcing us to evict," one of the signs says. "This has nothing to do with ATF because no guns were found here. ... We thank you for 40 years of patronage."

By ATF she means the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which along with city police led an investigation that they say revealed that a member of the Hells Angels could procure a weapon from the Utz stand as easily as a downtown worker on a lunch break could buy a bag of chips.

"It's alleged," said Stella, who also uses the last name Papantonakis. She was working the stall on Tuesday, doling out chips and sodas to her regulars, and busy replacing signs torn down by market security guards. The market's manager, Casper J. Genco Jr., wouldn't comment because of pending litigation, but he told me that signs have to be pre-approved by management.

These weren't.

That produced what one shopper described as both a loud argument and a musical-chairs game in which guards ripped the signs off the glass and Stella replaced them just as fast. One man who walked by yelled that the shop was putting guns in gang hands, helping to kill city youth, while other customers screamed back that no one has yet been convicted of anything.

It is true that authorities didn't confiscate weapons from the stall (though they said several were sold over-the-counter) and that is enough for Stella. "It isn't fair," she told me on Tuesday. "Did they find any guns here? No, they didn't. So it has nothing to do with us."

Only it has everything to do with them. I doubt the argument that cops didn't find machine guns the day they made the bust will convince a judge that the tenants should be allowed to stay.

And it can't help that the signs pleading for help also list Genco's name and office number - even if they did misspell it as "Jenco" - since one of the allegations outlined in federal court papers is that the owner offered to reduce the cost of three rifles if the buyer, an undercover agent posing as an MS-13 gang member, agreed to beat up Genco.

"No comment," the manager said when I asked if he considered the posting of his name and phone number a threat.

Still, the Utz stand has its supporters. James Lee, a 52-year-old substitute teacher, who taught one of the Utz workers, Sherry Thayer, readily put his name on the petition and told me that if no guns were found during the raid, then no harm was done.

But ideology aside, the real concern seems to be losing a cheap place to buy food.

"Look, a 24-ounce soda for a buck," Lee told me, handing over a dollar. "Fifty cents for a can. Where else can you get that?"

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