Jul. 7—LAWRENCE — Police say underage drinkers were coming from 30 to 40 miles away to illegally purchase cases of beer and bottled liquor at Mt. Vernon Liquors.
During a three-day sting in late May, investigators said 61 people under the legal drinking age of 21 bought or attempted to buy alcohol at the 422 So. Broadway store.
"What were you thinking? 61 children in three days?" asked Katie Darwin, a city licensing commissioner, to Kinjal Patel, a liquor store owner.
Licensing commissioners voted in late June to indefinitely revoke the liquor store's license to sell alcohol in the wake of charges and the investigation into the liquor store.
Darwin, fellow commissioner Alfred Potter and Hector Santiago, commission chairman, voted unanimously to retract the license.
The store can appeal the commission's decision to the state's Alcohol Beverages Control Commission.
Lawrence police and an investigator from the ABCC were involved in the three-day sting, dubbed "Operation Fireball," which also resulted in 19 fake IDs, 37 cases of alcoholic beverages and 38 bottles of alcohol being seized, said police Lt. Jay Cerullo.
"The word was out about Mt. Vernon Liquors," said Cerullo, during a recent licensing board meeting, noting the distance youth were traveling to purchase alcohol at the store.
The store owner is charged with eight counts of selling alcoholic beverages to underage individuals.
Kinjal Patel, represented by local attorney Robert Kelley, appeared before the board following the investigation and charges.
Kelley said the store owners "stipulated," or agreed to the details and charges they were facing. They understood their liquor license "is a privilege," he said.
However, due to a lack of employees available due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an elderly relative with a language barrier was working at the store during the time frame in question.
Patel and her husband, Krish, have owned the store for ten years but are currently in the process of divorce. They have never been called before the licensing board previously, Kelley said.
Also, Patel spoke to the board members herself and apologized to both them and the community. She said a "top of the line" ID-checking machine was installed at the store.
Santiago stressed that "61 kids" were involved.
"One of them could have killed themselves or someone else. It's really unfortunate that this happened," he said. "Kids were coming from 30 minutes away. The word was out here that this was a regular place they could come and buy."
Potter echoed similar sentiments, saying the situation was "extremely irresponsible" and "unacceptable."
Cerullo recommended the board revoke the store's license citing "reckless, dangerous behavior."
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.