The owners of the Austin Food Pantry are appealing a decision by the Village of Oak Park to close their corner store in September as a result of an employee being arrested on 17 counts of heroin sales and possession at the establishment.
The Oak Park Board of Trustees established a hearing board at the Oct. 16 board meeting to consider the owners' arguments and then make a legally binding determination. Trustees Dan Moroney, Deno Andrews and Jim Taglia will serve as the hearing body at the meeting set for 3 p.m. on Oct. 26.
The case centers around the arrest of Edgar Lucas, 55, on Aug. 30. Oak Park Police raided the convenience store at 1 Chicago Ave. and charged Lucas with 15 counts of heroin sales and two counts of heroin possession.
The arrest was made as part of an undercover sting that took place between July 11 and Aug. 29.
The store was closed temporarily after the bust, but Village Manager Cara Pavlicek later revoked the owner's business license.
Azzam "Sam" Mohammad and Maher "Mike" Haw were identified as the co-owners of the business in the notice of appeal.
Attorney Scott J. Frankel, who is representing the owners, argues in the notice of appeal that the owners "have not been charged with a crime related to the drug sales, and the village introduced no evidence at the revocation hearing indicating that the store owners knew about the sales."
Reached by phone, Frankel said he and the owners believe Pavlicek "made a mistake" in shutting down the store.
"We hope [the village] reverses the decision and allows the store to reopen," he said.
Frankel argues in the appeal that 65 area residents have signed a petition to have the store reopened and that during the 18-year history of the store "the village had not ticketed Austin Pantry for any code violations whatsoever."
Frankel also argues that the owners have assisted law enforcement officials over the years, noting an incident in 2011, when "they provided critical information to the Chicago Police Department that helped solve the murder of an off-duty Chicago police officer on Division Street in the Austin neighborhood.
"And a few years earlier, they helped Oak Park police identify and prosecute two masked men who had committed armed robberies at Austin Pantry and other nearby Oak Park businesses."
The decision to close the store constitutes a "one-strike-and-you're out policy" which defies the standard set out for revocation of a business license as defined in the village ordinance, Frankel said in the appeal.
He notes that the village provided no notice to the business about the heroin sales, and gave them no opportunity to abate the nuisance. Frankel states in the appeal that the nuisance ordinance says if the offending party is notified of the nuisance and does not correct the problem, then the matter "shall be referred to the village attorney for court action."
The appeal notes that owner Mohammad, who works as a truck driver and often is not at the store, has indicated he will install new security cameras at Austin Pantry and allow police to monitor those cameras.
He also committed to spending more time at the store and to more thoroughly vet potential employees.
"Although the drug sale problem took place for just a few months out of the 18-year history of the store, the store owner and the building owner believe that these new measures will ensure that drug sales never again take place at Austin Pantry," the appeal states.
Publisher's note: Scott J. Frankel is a family member of a Wednesday Journal employee.
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