OXNARD — It's a bartender's nightmare. Two young women sit at the bar. The bartender asks for ID, glances quickly and serves two beers. Then he gets busted.
"You just served alcohol to two minors," an undercover Oxnard police officer tells the bartender before writing him a ticket.
"But I checked ID," the bartender protests.
Not closely enough, the officer responds, pointing to the wording on a decoy's driver's license that reads: "Age 21 in 2002."
That is what happened at two Oxnard bars on St. Patrick's Day, when the luck of the Irish was nowhere to be found for the bartenders cited.
Several times a year the Oxnard Police Department and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control conduct minor decoy or sting operations at pubs, restaurants and liquor stores throughout the city.
Teenagers carrying accurate ID cards try to buy beer while an undercover police officer waits nearby. If bartenders or store clerks sell to the decoys, they are cited for furnishing alcohol to a minor.
Alcohol sales to minors are a problem throughout the county, according to Deputy Ed Tumbleson of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.
"The minors are getting the alcohol from somewhere," Tumbleson said. "We arrest kids all the time with alcohol and it's these stores that are selling it to them."
That is why decoy operations are conducted by several county law enforcement agencies, including the Sheriff's Department in Thousand Oaks and Ojai and the police departments in Ventura and Simi Valley. Most agencies fund their sting operations through their regular budgets, but there are grants available from ABC.
In Simi Valley, Sgt. John Wilcox said decoy teams go out two or three times a year to the city's night clubs, restaurants and liquor stores. Wilcox said the stings keep owners on their toes.
Oxnard began its sting operations last year after receiving a $70,000 ABC grant to curb alcohol-related problems and reduce alcohol sales to minors. This year that grant was renewed, and the department received $100,000.
In 1998, about 15%--or 31 out of 207 restaurants, bars and stores visited in Oxnard--sold alcohol to the decoys. And so far this year, about 16%--10 of 64 establishments--have been caught selling to minors. There are 250 establishments licensed to sell alcohol in Oxnard.
Sharon O'Hara, a civilian who manages the grant for the Oxnard Police Department, said the sting operations deter individuals from selling to minors because they are worried about getting caught.
"It's more than just enforcement," O'Hara said. "It's prevention too. If we create a consciousness around town that we're doing this, we believe that over time it'll be less likely that they'll sell to minors."
Before last week's sting operation, Officer Don Mulville went over the rules with the decoys.
Don't get fancy. Order a plain Budweiser. Don't lie to them. If asked, tell them your real age. Don't engage them in conversation. "Remember--it's a good night if nobody sells," Mulville said.
Then Mulville, two teen decoys, an undercover officer and an ABC investigator visited dozens of bars and restaurants, while a similar decoy team targeted liquor stores.
At each bar the ABC investigator and the undercover officer sat at the bar or near it. While they waited for the decoys, they looked through menus or asked about drink specials. Then the decoys arrived and ordered.
Despite written notice to store owners that the stings were being conducted in Oxnard, two liquor stores and two restaurants with bars sold alcohol to the decoys during the night.
At each of those four sites police arrested the individual who sold the beers. Police also collected evidence, including beer cans, a marked $10 bill and a photo of the bartender with the decoys.
When Gabby, 18, and Candie, 17, ordered beers at Jolly's Cocktail Lounge, bartender Simon Bishop asked them for identification. Bishop quickly looked at the ID cards, but still served the beer, authorities said. Immediately after the sale, Officer Jason Benites approached Bishop and told him he had just sold beer to two minors.
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Happy St. Patrick's Day," Bishop said, taking a swig of his own drink.
Benites asked the decoys, "Did this man furnish you with alcohol?" When they answered yes, Benites wrote a citation and snapped a picture of Bishop with the decoys, whose last names are being withheld to protect their undercover status.
After leaving the bar, Gabby, a Ventura College criminal justice student, said she has mixed emotions about being a decoy.
"I feel bad and good," said Gabby, who wants to be a probation officer and work with teenage gang members. "He shouldn't be selling alcohol but I feel kind of bad because I'm the one that busted him."
Most of the decoys are police Explorer Scouts or children of officers. They must be under 20 years old, have never used a fake ID nor purchased alcohol outside the decoy program. They also cannot be regular customers of the bars, restaurants or liquor stores.