URBANA — Urbana city officials are looking to suspend or revoke the liquor license of an east Urbana convenience store in the wake of the arrests of its owner and another employee for allegedly selling drug paraphernalia from the store.
"It decreases the value of life in that area," Urbana police Lt. Bob Fitzgerald said of the alleged illegal activity at the Home Run Food Mart, 1509 E. Washington St., U.
"With all of South Lierman, the crime and drugs and other problems are getting out of hand. We've worked with the apartment owners and community groups to take away the stigma associated with the South Lierman Avenue area," he said.
And now police are turning their attention to the sale of drug paraphernalia from the popular neighborhood gathering spot, admitting that it is just one small part of the larger problems of the crime-riddled area.
Ramzi Alsaqri, 49, who listed an address in the 2300 block of Ironwood Circle, Champaign, was arrested shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday at the store for unlawful sale of drug paraphernalia.
Police also have a warrant for the arrest of his brother, Jameel Alsaqri, 48, of Champaign, who's believed to be out of the country because of a death in his family.
The Illinois Liquor Control Commission lists Ramzi Alsaqri as the president and 100 percent owner of the Diah Corp., which runs Home Run Food and Liquor, and Jameel Alsaqri as the secretary of the corporation with no ownership interest.
Fitzgerald said Alsaqri's arrest and that of employee Mohammed Mahmoud, 27, of the 2400 block of High View Court, Champaign, came after an almost month-long investigation into the alleged sale of items used to smoke crack cocaine.
Police went to the business shortly after its 7:30 a.m. opening Thursday to carry out the search, which had been authorized Tuesday by a Champaign County judge.
When they arrested Alsaqri, they also presented him with an order suspending liquor sales for seven days. A hearing before Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Smyth, acting as the liquor commissioner while Mayor Laurel Prussing is away, is scheduled for Tuesday.
Acting Urbana City Attorney Curt Borman said the purpose of the hearing is to see if Alsaqri's Class C package liquor license, which cost him $4,755 in the last fiscal year, should be suspended or revoked.
Fitzgerald said Alsaqri was ordered to remove all liquor from the store before he could reopen to sell other merchandise.
As police were searching, Mahmoud arrived for work and was arrested.
The state's attorney's office had sought the arrest warrants on Wednesday. The men were expected to appear in court Friday. The charge is a Class 4 felony carrying penalties ranging from probation to one to three years in prison upon conviction.
"We recovered a lot of evidence that shows they are putting together 'brown bags,' which contain Chore Boy, a glass pipe and a lighter," Fitzgerald said, referencing a brand of scouring pads.
Sold separately, the items are legal, but when sold together, they appear to meet the statutory definition of drug paraphernalia, Fitzgerald explained.
In the application for the search warrant for the business, police said sources equipped with hidden video cameras asked clerks for a "brown bag" and would be handed a bag containing a piece of copper or stainless-steel scouring pad, a decorative glass tube with a flower inside, and a lighter for $5. The cash register did not record those sales, according to the application.
Champaign police Sgt. Tom Walker, a 19-year veteran of drug investigations, explained that a user will put a small rock of crack cocaine inside a piece of glass tubing along with a Chore Boy or Brillo pad, which acts as a filter.
"You heat the rock and it turns to liquid. You're sucking in the vapor from melting the rock. The Brillo provides a filter and I assume decreases the temperature. ... Plus, the vapor attaches to the Brillo. If the user can't get another piece of crack, he can heat the Brillo for another hit. That's why they save Brillo. You go in a crack house and there's Brillo everywhere," explained Walker.
Fitzgerald said as officers searched the store they could find no Chore Boy products in the aisles for sale, bolstering their contention that the item was being sold for an illegal purpose.
They also took an undetermined amount of cash and a shotgun from the business, but the gun was taken for safekeeping only.
"It's not linked to any crimes," Fitzgerald said, adding that Ramzi Alsaqri has a firearm owner's identification card and the gun will be returned to him when he presents the card to police.
Fitzgerald said the Home Run, which is one of the only places within several blocks where residents can buy food, doesn't have that many calls for service, but there are scores of them in the immediate area.
"A year ago, I put together a security plan (for Home Run)," Fitzgerald said. "We're not getting calls there per se, but things happen around there that are related."