State officials said Monday they will try to revoke the liquor license of an Anaheim market that investigators say sold beer to high school students before a desert crash that took four lives.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control also will seek misdemeanor charges against the owner of Me-N-Paul's Market and a clerk who allegedly sold seven six-packs of beer to three teen-agers with the group the night before the July 29 crash near Victorville.
The store has sold alcohol to minors three times in the past 14 months and has developed a reputation among Katella High School students as an easy place to buy beer, said Carl Falletta, assistant director of the agency's Southern division. The store had been cited in the past for allegedly selling to minors, but a formal investigation began after the desert tragedy.
An attorney for the store owner denied the allegations.
"These kids could have stopped anywhere along the way and gotten beer or gotten it from their own house," said attorney Stephen W. Solomon, who also denied that the store is known for selling to minors.
Falletta said it is uncommon to revoke a store's license, but the Me-N-Paul's investigation showed a "substantial lack of diligence" on the part of the owner and his employees in checking the identification of minors.
"Although I'm pleased that the investigation has been completed, I'm disturbed that four promising young people have been lost," Falletta said at a news conference attended by tearful family members of the dead teens.
State alcohol officials worked with the Anaheim Police Department and the Victorville office of the California Highway Patrol to complete the investigation of the store.
James Virgil Patterson, 17, lost control of his Chevy Suburban, killing four of his seven passengers and leaving a trail of 40 beer cans strewn on the remote dirt road. Officials said his blood alcohol level was 0.16, twice the legal limit for adults, and that he was traveling at an unsafe speed.
Those killed in the crash were Jonothan Croweagle Fabbro Curtis, 16, of Garden Grove; Steven Richard Bender, 18, of Orange; John Thornton, 18, of Anaheim, and Anthony Fuentes, 17, of Anaheim. Three other passengers were seriously injured. Only Patterson escaped serious injury.
At Monday's news conference, CHP Capt. John Fogarty announced that his agency has completed its investigation into the crash and will recommend to the San Bernardino County district attorney's office that Patterson be charged with four counts of vehicular manslaughter and four counts of felony drunk driving.
Fogarty said he hoped the pursuit of criminal charges against Patterson and the liquor store owner will deter further tragedies.
"The collision itself, I realize, was an accident," Fogarty said. "But the things that led up to this accident were no accident."
Family members of the dead teens applauded the proposed action against the liquor store, and several burst into tears when Fogarty announced that his agency is recommending manslaughter charges against Patterson. But the relatives decried the state's laws as too lenient, asking why Me-N-Paul's was allowed to keep selling alcohol after the store was cited for selling to minors in June, 1994.
"It's all after the fact," said Cindy Bender, mother of Steven Bender. "We families are the ones whose lights have been shut off."
Bender vowed to work toward strengthening the laws against the sale of alcohol to minors.
Laura Stewart, the mother of Fabbro Curtis, said the tragedy highlights the need for greater parental involvement in educating young people.
"They should have had a designated driver," said Stewart, who wore her son's water polo jacket emblazoned with his nickname, "Jon-O." "The boys were all responsible boys. . . . I just miss Jonothan. I just miss him."
Patterson's family could not be reached for comment.
Officials say the market's owner, 35-year-old Masood Zaman, was at the store June 28 when 56-year-old Muhammed Hosain sold seven six-packs of beer to three of the eight teens. The group then drove about 100 miles to a desert spot where they partied into the morning.
Falletta said his agency has asked the Anaheim city attorney to file misdemeanor charges of selling alcohol to a minor against Zaman and Hosain, because investigators said the pair appeared to discuss the sale beforehand. The teen who bought the beer had a fake identification, but Falletta said the investigation indicates it was an expired driver's license.
The business was first cited on June 23, 1994, and paid a $370 fine for selling alcohol to an 18-year-old working as a decoy for Anaheim police, Falletta said.
Hosain was also cited Aug. 9, after the Victorville accident, when undercover investigators witnessed him selling alcohol to a minor, Falletta said.
Solomon, the attorney for Me-N-Paul's, said his client is being treated unfairly because of the highly publicized accident.
"This place doesn't have a continuing pattern of problems. This place has got one alleged serious problem, which is creating all this," he said. "The ownership is very sad and offers its condolences to the victims' families but . . . they didn't do anything wrong."
Of 184 businesses targeted by Anaheim police this year for investigations of sales to minors, 48 were found to be doing so, Anaheim Police Chief Randall Gaston said. The cases have been referred to state alcohol officials for action, but none of those businesses has lost its license, Gaston said.
Falletta said the agency plans to seek an injunction from Orange County Superior Court to prevent Me-N-Paul's from selling alcohol to minors during the lengthy administrative procedure against the store. The injunction will not stop the store from selling alcohol, but if caught selling to minors, Zaman could be jailed for contempt of court and his store shuttered.