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Originally published: 2013-12-19 16:01:22
Last modified: 2013-12-19 18:06:47

A high-stakes test

by Anna Oakes

The phone dinged and its screen illuminated, glowing in the dark interior of an SUV idling in a downtown parking lot.

"Dang it," uttered Boone Police Lt. Danny Houck, reading the text message from an undercover officer inside a King Street bar. It was the fifth establishment thus far this past Friday night to sell a beer to a 20-year-old who was using his own driver's license.

"What does it take to get people to check IDs -- I mean, seriously?" Houck said, talking with the Alcohol Law Enforcement officer in the backseat. "I'd never thought this many would have sold."

For Houck, it entailed more paperwork, for one. But it also meant that police continue to see compliance check failures despite another round of checks earlier this year.

The Boone Police Department and ALE (a section of the N.C. Department of Public Safety) teamed up with the nonprofit Western Youth Network to conduct compliance checks of Boone establishments licensed to sell alcohol between Nov. 27 and Dec. 14 -- the second round of checks conducted this year.

In July and August, 16 percent of the establishments checked -- including bars, restaurants and stores -- sold alcohol to a person under age 21. In the latest round of checks, 13 of 46 establishments -- 28 percent -- sold to an underage individual. According to police, 50 percent of bars, 24 percent of stores and 10 percent of restaurants failed the test this go-round.

"Unfortunately, in spite of previous enforcement efforts and education efforts, we had more establishments fail the test this time," Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford said in a statement. "Obviously, bars had the worst results, with some bars failing the test last time and this time. This is simply unacceptable, and we are terribly disappointed."

The 13 businesses that sold alcohol to a person under 21 from Nov. 27 to Dec. 14 were the Wilco Hess at 1256 Blowing Rock Road, the Kangaroo at 1220 W. King St., the Wilco Hess at 2702 N.C. 105 S., the Kangaroo at 2200 U.S. 421, Ingles, Walgreens, Hunan Chinese Restaurant, Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Parthenon Cafe, Klondike Cafe, Macado's, Murphy's Restaurant & Pub and Galileo's.

The state ABC Commission will be notified of the violations, and establishments could face fines or other disciplinary actions.

In addition, the following persons were cited with selling a malt beverage to a person younger than 21: Dakota Rae Russell, 19, of Boone; Rex Daniel McQueen, 60, of Boone; Justin Travis Shepard, 26, of Zionville; Kelsey Nicole Greene, 19, of Boone; Oscar Earl Toliver Jr., 62, of Boone; Magean Dollie Craig, 23, of Lenoir; Junxia Wang, 44, of Boone; Luke Wesley Danner, 24, of Asheville; Holly Nicole Wright, 19, of China Grove; Micah Elizabeth Galloway, 22, of Lenoir; Tyler Steven Gordon, 22, of Pinehurst; Kaycee Danielle Brown, 23, of Wilkesboro; and Emily Suzanne Dinkins, 23, of Lewisville.

Last Friday, one bartender glanced at the 20-year-old's ID, then handed him a Bud Light anyway. At the next, the barkeep ignored or didn't notice the black Xs marked on the guy's hands, a common practice to signal that someone is underage.

At another location, it was the door monitor who dropped the ball, giving the 20-year-old a "21 and over" wristband. In that situation, however, the bartender who sold the alcohol would be the one to be charged, Houck said.

Colton Lenz is general manager at Char Restaurant and Bar, an establishment that passed the latest round of compliance checks. In the past, Char received a citation when a security company employee working the door admitted someone underage, he noted. Lenz said all of his bartenders attend the ALE training course at least once a year.

"My staff is very well trained in terms of ID-ing people," he said.

Lenz said that with ALE checks, the bartender is immediately informed when he or she sells or successfully does not sell alcohol to an underage person, who is pointed out to them. With the checks conducted by Boone Police, however, the establishments are not cited until hours after the violation occurred, and the underage person who bought the alcohol is not identified.

"It could have been a real person or not. It asks us to trust them 100 percent, which I feel like is a little unfair," he said. "I definitely think that Boone (Police) has every right and I think that they should do compliance checks; I do wish it would be a much more transparent process."

Crawford said the checks would continue, and he thanked "the majority of the businesses who conduct their alcohol sales responsibly." The effort is conducted in partnership with the Western Youth Network, which is responsible for the Watauga Substance Abuse Prevention program.

"Compliance checks are not just an enforcement operation, but an effective strategy in reducing underage drinking because they ultimately reduce access to alcohol by our community's youth by decreasing alcohol availability," said Hollie Wilcox, WYN community prevention coordinator.

For law enforcement, the stakes are high.

"We still remember young people like Tyler Blalock who died in our community and work to prevent further tragedies," Crawford said. Blalock, an Appalachian State University student, drowned in Boone Creek in September 2012. Investigators said the 19-year-old became "very intoxicated" after attending an off-campus party, purchasing beer at a local store and visiting a bar before the drowning.

"Last year in North Carolina we lost approximately one life per week due to underage drinking," said Stacy Cox, ALE special agent in charge, in the statement. "We applaud Boone Police Department for taking a proactive approach to combat the problem and for inviting ALE to assist with their initiative."

ALE offers free training to anyone holding an ABC permit and also speaks with civic groups and schools. To schedule a program or report violations, call (828) 466-5550.