An Oak Park appeals board has upheld a decision by Village Manager Cara Pavlicek to close an Oak Park convenience store in September after police arrested one of its employees on 17 counts of heroin sales and possession.
The Oak Park Business License Appeal Board – made up of Oak Park trustees Deno Andrews, Jim Taglia and Dan Moroney – heard testimony from Austin Pantry co-owner Azzam “Sam” Mohammad as well as residents and the village staff before voting unanimously to reject the appeal.
The village revoked the business license on Sept. 18, following the Aug. 30 police sting of the business, located at 1 Chicago Ave., which resulted in the arrest of store employee Edgar Lucas, who was charged with 17 counts of heroin sales and possession.
Following the testimony, the appeals board deliberated in a closed-door session and returned with its decision. A findings-of-fact document explaining the reasons for the board’s decision will be prepared and made public by Oct. 30.
Several residents testified in favor of not renewing the business license, arguing that Lucas was not the only problem at the store. Young men also were selling drugs outside of the store for several months leading up to the arrest and created a dangerous environment for the corner, they said.
Oak Park Police Chief Anthony Ambrose told the appeals board that police had been called about loitering and drug sales activity at the store more than 50 times in 2017 alone.
Mohammad, who co-owns the store with Maher “Mike” Haw, said he had employed Lucas for several years but was unaware that he was selling or using drugs.
“I trusted him, too,” he said, adding that Lucas was a “good man” who “switched and changed his life.”
“I don’t know what happened to him,” Mohammad said.
Mohammad, who was infrequently at the store, promised to be there more and install video surveillance and give Oak Park police access.
“We’re not bad people; I’m not a bad person,” he said, adding, “I don’t want people to look at me different. The store wasn’t the problem; (Lucas) was the problem.”
Ali ElSaffar, Oak Park Township Assessor, who has owned the building since 1996, promised to make improvements to the retail portion of the property.
“I certainly feel bad about what has happened,” ElSaffar said. “There have been complaints in the newspaper saying all of the things that have been going on. That’s something I personally feel bad about and wish hadn’t happened, but I think that’s done. The person who was mostly responsible for it was the person who has been arrested and now is in jail.”
Residents and business owners in the area argued that the Mohammad was negligent in running the business and should not have the business license renewed.
James Bowers, a civil rights attorney who owns a building and business about half a block east on Chicago Avenue, said that for about three or four months the drug sales were taking place on a daily basis outside the store.
He noted that about half a dozen men were always “milling about outside the store” going back and forth between Austin Pantry and a laundry mat across the street.
“As a business owner I take responsibility for my block,” Bowers said, arguing that the Austin Pantry owners should not be given a second chance.
Linda Valentine, a resident of the area, said the convenience store had problems for years, and she had made several complaints beginning in 2012.
“The store was not clean; the store had an unprofessional look … litter was a constant problem,” she said.
Tamell Jackson, an employee of the store, said the store has worked to reduce loitering and threatened to call police when it happened in front of other businesses in the area.
He said Mohammad gave him a chance when he hired him to work at the store and urged the board to allow Austin Pantry to reopen.
“I hope you give us a second chance to rectify the situation,” he said.
The board voted unanimously to uphold the decision to revoke Austin Pantry’s business license. It is uncertain whether Mohammad will attempt to appeal the decision further.