Sheriff's officials said Friday they will spend a $97,000 state grant sending teen-age cadets into east Ventura County liquor stores to catch merchants in the act of selling booze to minors.
The East Valley Sheriff's Station won the hefty state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control grant to target liquor outlets in Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and unincorporated areas, Chief Deputy Robert Brooks said.
"We're thrilled to get the grant," Brooks said.
Until now, east county deputies had used underage cadets about twice a year to try buying liquor from merchants.
The new money will pay for one senior deputy and two sheriff's cadets to run a similar "decoy" program year-round, he said.
The planned yearlong crackdown won quick praise from the head of the Ventura County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"Alcohol is the No. 1 killer of our teen-agers, so if we can get this taken care of, that would be fantastic," said Linda Oxenreider, president of Ventura County MADD.
A drunk driver killed Oxenreider's son and two other young men and injured two others in March, 1989, striking them as they walked away from a disabled car on the Conejo Grade.
"We have a lot of kids getting injured or killed in crashes," Oxenreider said. "I wish all the police and sheriff's departments had grants to do something like this and to get these liquor stores closed down."
But at least one liquor merchant said Friday that police decoys are easily spotted--they are the ones who stride to the counter with a single four-pack of wine coolers and nary a trace of nerves.
"When the Sheriff's Department sends in decoys, they're pretty well trained . . . not to act as typical minors, but as mature drinkers," said Bill, an employee at Bakarat Liquor Market in Moorpark who would not give his last name.
He said his store consistently cards younger customers and even displays signs reading, "I'd card my own mother" and "If you're under 21, soft drinks are over here."
"I'd be very surprised if there are any liquor stores that purposely sell to minors," he added. "The consequences of selling make us very vigilant."
Brooks, however, said, "We know that underage purchasers have a relatively easy time," and he estimated that about half of east county liquor stores do not card underage buyers.
Several east county liquor merchants said they often are approached by young would-be drinkers with lame ploys.
"Every day," said Raymond Bahnam, manager of Park Oaks Liquor Store in Thousand Oaks. "Sometimes they don't have their ID on them, or they have some fake ID."
Other minors, he said, stand outside the store and offer a stranger $5 or $10 to buy a 12-pack. But, Bahnam said, "I don't sell it to the other guy either, and I warn them, 'You're going to be cited . . . if they catch you.' "
Few underage buyers come into Conejo Valley Liquor in Thousand Oaks, said owner Labib Hawa, but those who do stick out.
"Basically, the first thing you've got to do is ask them what their age is, then you ask them for ID," Hawa said. "You look at the ID, the date, the picture, height, eyes. Normally, you can tell by looking at them--they're either shaking or not behaving normally."
The grant will pay for one existing senior deputy to be reassigned full time to the program, and for two sheriff's cadets to work as decoys, said Sheriff's Lt. Marty Rouse, who heads the Moorpark Police Department.
The money also will buy a video camcorder and a pair of binoculars to be used for surveillance, and will pay for printing of pamphlets explaining the ABC law to merchants, Rouse said.
In the past, lack of funding has allowed only two decoy sting operations per year in east county, with perhaps 20 citations written each time, Rouse said. The misdemeanor violation of the business and professions code carries up to a $1,000 fine and repeat offenders can have their liquor licenses revoked, he said.
While underage drinking itself is a problem, Chief Deputy Brooks said, cracking down on it also will "shut off the source of a lot of other problems that we have--gang violence, other kinds of violence, traffic collisions."
Times Correspondent Ira E. Stoll contributed to this report.