Clerk sentenced to six months in jail for sale of alcohol to teenWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | email@example.com
An eight-person jury deliberated for about two hours April 15 before finding liquor store clerk Nicholas Thompson guilty of selling alcohol to an Ottawa Hills teen whose friend was killed in an alcohol-related crash later that night.
Lucas County Court of Common Pleas Judge James Bates sentenced Thompson, 38, to six months in jail, the maximum penalty possible for the misdemeanor charge.
Over the course of the two-day trial, Thompson was found to have sold a bottle of vodka to Blake Pappas, a 17-year-old friend of Brian Hoeflinger, on Feb. 1, 2013, at Foxx Liquor Store on Dorr Street.
Pappas, now a student at the University of Cincinnati, and another teen, Michael Geiger, now a student-athlete at Michigan State University, testified April 14 that the three friends met at Hoeflinger’s house after school, where they pooled their money and drove to Foxx Liquor to buy alcohol.
All three boys, who were seniors at Ottawa Hills High School, entered the store and chose a 1.75-liter bottle of Belvedere vodka. Pappas then purchased the liquor for about $50 without being asked for identification while Hoeflinger and Geiger browsed nearby.
Hoeflinger, 18, died from injuries sustained in an alcohol-related crash later that night. Bates asked the jury to disregard any references in testimony to the accident or Hoeflinger’s death and focus only on the sale of the liquor.
However, in comments to the jury after sentencing, Bates referenced Hoeflinger’s fatal crash and said some judges don’t seem to take the crime of underage sales seriously, noting that he felt the $150 fine Thompson received for a prior offense was inadequate.
“It’s not much of a deterrent,” Bates said. “That’s one of the reasons I imposed this pretty harsh sentence as it relates to this case.”
“This man is the source of a leak,” Lucas County Assistant Prosecutor Charles McDonald told jurors during closing remarks, referring to Thompson’s September 2012 conviction for the same offense. “The defendant is a gatekeeper in our community, [or] should be. He’s the last line of defense. … He said yes when he should have said no.”
“He seems to have developed a bad habit,” fellow assistant prosecutor Louis Kountouris said.
The prosecutors showed jurors photos of the five employees who were working at Foxx Liquor on Feb. 1, 2013, concluding that “by process of elimination” the clerk who sold Pappas the alcohol had to have been Thompson. Only two employees matched the white male description given by the teens and the other man, Adam Meglitsch, had testified April 14 his job was to stock shelves and he never worked the register. Meglitsch is also shorter and more than 10 years younger than Thompson.
“One by one it becomes obvious, irrefutably, that the conclusion is the defendant matches the witness description. Nobody comes close,” Kountouris said.
Thompson’s attorney Rick Kerger argued that someone else bought the alcohol and gave it to the teens.
“Records show Nick Thompson worked that night, records show he sold a bottle of Balvadere, but no records show as to whom he sold it to,” Kerger said.
The buyer paid cash and surveillance footage from the store is recorded over every 10 days, so the footage from Feb. 1 was gone by the time investigators seized the shop’s DVR machine on April 16, 2013.
Kerger also referenced the purchase of a $1.29 mini bottle of wine that appeared on the receipt with the vodka, which neither teen mentioned.
“Blake tell you about that? Michael tell you about that? Nobody told you about that. Because they didn’t buy it. Somebody they gave the money to bought it,” Kerger told the jury.
McDonald scoffed at the explanation of someone else purchasing the liquor for the teens, telling jurors they had no reason to lie since investigators promised they would not be charged if they cooperated in the investigation.
“Mr. Kerger has mentioned Person X — this mystery person who has never been mentioned until just now — who he claims bought the alcohol,” McDonald said during closing remarks. “Why would these two young men, bright, futures ahead of them, risk everything to fabricate a story for some unknown mystery person?”
A written statement made by Thompson during the April 16, 2013, search of Foxx Liquor indicated he didn’t remember the specific Feb. 1 transaction but could have sold alcohol to Pappas without carding him because he recognized him as a regular customer. That’s “not a defense,” McDonald said.
“The law in Ohio is that … if a defendant checks for an ID on a certain date and that person comes in again and that person asks for alcohol and if that person is a minor, regardless of how many times before he’s asked for his ID, the defendant is guilty,” he said.
Thompson’s statement that he could have made the sale is “not proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Kerger argued.
The state called five witnesses on the first day of trial, including the two teens. Two witnesses were called by the defense on the second day: Earl Mack, a retired Ohio Department of Public Safety agent who worked in alcohol enforcement for 26 years, and Foxx Liquor part owner Andy Jarbou.
Jarbou, who was among the five employees working Feb 1, 2013, testified that Thompson always wore a hat and glasses, facts Kerger noted the two teens did not mention in their initial descriptions of the clerk. Jarbou also testified that after the September 2012 Foxx Liquor sting in which Thompson sold alcohol to an underage patron working undercover, he was suspended for four weeks and retrained on checking IDs. Reminders to check IDs were also posted by all registers, Jarbou said.
“I don’t care how many signs Mr. Jarbou [posts],” Kountouris said during his closing remarks. “There’s signs everywhere [on the road, but] does everybody follow the signs? No.”
Mack testified that when he worked as an agent he was not permitted to wear a mask during store searches or interviews as Agent Michael Hakeos did at Foxx Liquor during the April 16, 2013, search. Thompson’s lawyers had questioned whether Hakeos, who testified April 14, had intimidated Thompson by leaving his mask on while interviewing him. McDonald noted that Mack’s boss at the hotel where he now works as a part-time security officer is one of the part owners of Foxx Liquor.
Kerger said he accepted the verdict, but questioned the judge’s sentence.
“The jury didn’t accept our explanation. Their verdict is their verdict,” Kerger said. “The thing that’s odd is during the trial [Judge Bates] kept out all references to the Brian Hoeflinger crash and then he used that as the fact to enhance the sentence. Seems like if it was in for that it ought to have been in for the trial.”
Even though the accident wasn’t the focus of the case, Kountouris said he hopes the verdict will bring the Hoeflinger family some closure and also set a precedent for other cases involving the sale of alcohol to minors.
“It’s a huge problem and this unfortunate incident brought the whole thing to light. It was magnified by the loss of the Hoeflinger youth,” Kountouris said.
Hoeflinger’s parents, Brian and Cindy Hoeflinger, were in the courtroom both days along with their children. Brian said that although nothing will bring back their son, they hope the sentence will send a strong message “that institutions that sell alcohol can’t sell to minors and expect to get away with it without having consequences.”
“For us it was important because it’s a first step in a chain of events that have to keep happening to stop kids from gaining access to alcohol,” Brian said. “Our son died and it was alcohol-related and we can never bring that back, but we can certainly try to stop it for the future.
“It does send a message and I think the judge did want to send a message and I think the prosecutor’s office wants to send a message that this won’t be tolerated,” Brian said.
Cindy said she is frustrated and heartbroken that her son and his friends were able to obtain liquor so easily.
“If they would have checked IDs or whatever and found out they weren’t old enough, we would have then found out, and then we could have taken steps as his parents to discipline him or take care of it,” Cindy said. “I have a right to believe my children are not allowed to buy alcohol until they are 21. That is a law. So I should have a reasonable expectation that my son can’t walk into a state liquor store and buy alcohol.
Although noting his son was still the one who chose to drink the alcohol, Brian said he agreed with McDonald’s description of liquor store clerks as gatekeepers.
“That source that provided that alcohol was the first step in a whole chain reaction that led to our son’s death,” Brian said.
“We have no way of predicting, but if they wouldn’t have gotten that alcohol that night I think it’s reasonable to assume that perhaps he would not have gotten in that accident that night,” Cindy agreed. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, but at least the message was sent out today that it’s not acceptable.”
Since the accident, the couple have founded an organization Brian Matters, www.brianmatters.com, and become national advocates against teen alcohol use and abuse.
Foxx Liquor had its liquor license revoked in August 2013, but still sells beer and wine.
Tags: Andy Jarbou, Brian Hoeflinger, Charles McDonald, Cindy Hoeflinger, Earl Mack, Foxx Liquor Store, James Bates, Louis Kountouris, Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, Nicholas Thompson, Rick Kerger