The New Face of the ABC 

Alcoholic Beverage Control special agents are now more FBI than FDA.

“We’re chasing bad guys down the street,” Slonaker says, a bit defensively. “But because we don’t ride around in marked cars responding to 911 calls, people forget we’re here and what we do.”

Much has changed since 1933, when prohibition was repealed and the General Assembly established the ABC to monitor the sale of alcohol and enforce consumption laws. Back then, agents were interested in moonshiners and their stills. Today, agents continue to target places like bars and retail stores that sell alcohol illegally, but their interests are expanding.

Since October, Slonaker and Halphen have been working with the Firearms and Drug Enforcement (FADE) unit of the Richmond Police on everything from street-level drug dealers to nip joints — where alcohol is sold without a license — to public safety hazards such as the cruising young people that congest downtown April 10.

The partnership developed when the two agencies — each faced with budgetary constraints — realized they could benefit from sharing resources and teaming up. The FADE unit, for instance, provides ABC with the manpower it lacks in investigations that quickly could turn dangerous. ABC lends FADE assistance in surveillance, especially with the use of its unmarked vehicles, including a van used for street-corner interdictions where police suspect drug dealing and crime.

FADE and the ABC also share hotline and Crimestoppers tips that lead to more arrests. Although new, ABC agents and police say their relationship matters. From January through March of 2004 ABC assisted FADE and other police in making 99 arrests. And in the past month ABC and FADE have upended four nip joints in the city, dislodging an array of contraband from illegal untaxed booze and cigarettes to assault weapons.

For years, ABC has worked in tandem with other agencies including state police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, in conjunction with regulating and enforcing ABC laws governing 14,000 licensed establishments throughout the state. But perhaps more than other co-ops, the link with FADE demonstrates the new breed of ABC enforcement: It is more visible, more vocal and arguably more aggressive than ever.

Police know from the past that the night could get ugly after the BET event at Kings Dominion. It ends at 8, and looking for a place to go, throngs of young people make the short trip south on Interstate 95 to the city. But even before dark, before the 7 p.m. briefing at the Richmond Police Training Academy on Lombardy Street, cars huddle and gleam at gas stations along Broad.

Slonaker, Halphen and ABC Special Agent Brad Bellows are among the 150 or so officers on hand tonight, to be backup for police and float where needed — down to Shockoe Bottom up Broad Street to Belvidere, checking out clubs and afterparties, wherever problems could arise.

After the briefing, Slonaker, Halphen and Bellows grab dinner at a Carytown eatery. Just as each agent patrols a different region of the city — there are only five enforcement officers for the greater Richmond area — each brings to the job a different approach, mindset and personality.

Bellows, 35, is known as the computer and economics guy. His specialty is identity theft. He’s small in stature and jovial. But at an afterparty at the Renaissance banquet hall on Broad, the Navy reserve officer is all business, amicable and to the point.

Halphen, 36, is a former U.S. Customs officer who worked border control in Laredo, Texas. Tall, thin and soft-spoken, Halphen has a boyish look and perpetual calm. He has a talent for surveillance, and it’s easy to see how he goes undetected in the pot fields he frequents.

Slonaker is a lifelong Richmonder, born and raised in Oregon Hill. He’s trim but sturdy and sports a goatee. A former officer with VCU Police, he says of his patrol time, “If I had a nickel for every call I responded to or report I took that involved alcohol, I could retire.” Slonaker knows the city and its streets, and appears to do his best work talking to its inhabitants.

After dinner, Bellows is dropped off to assist police with crowd control along Broad. It’s just before 10 as Slonaker and Halphen ascend Church Hill in an unmarked car. They gaze northwest from the promontory, and Halphen points to the advancing ribbon of headlights on the interstate.

Chaos begins around 11 when the radio dispatcher says shots have been fired at Harrison and Broad. Slonaker puts the emergency lights on and speeds up Grace Street. By the time he and Halpen near the intersection, police are everywhere. Yet within the boisterous crowd, it appears nothing has happened. They head east again along Broad. Side streets, parking lots and Shockoe Bottom are flooded with people. Only police vehicles are allowed on the strip now.

Slonaker and Halphen check in with their FADE contacts, Lt. Steven Drew and Sgt. Anthony Franklin, who are positioned at opposite corners of Broad and Belvidere streets. Franklin’s got the Rite Aid, where young people are hanging out on hoods of cars and strolling as if on a boardwalk. Almost all have cell phones clutched in their hands or held up to their ears.

Across the street at the Hess gas station, Lt. Drew worries the lot — where about 100 are gathered — could get out of hand. It’s the same way at the BP station on the southwest corner of Belvidere. He tries to convince an employee to shut off the lights and let police clear the area. With the situation more under supervision than control, Slonaker and Halphen get back into their vehicle and head to the Bottom.

The dispatcher calls for assistance for a stabbing at the nightclub Secrets. Slonaker switches the siren and speeds, taking whatever streets he can, to the scene. Already police are there — the mounted squad, bike patrol and a half dozen marked cars.

A man dressed in a white suit spouting expletives and surrounded by women is whisked away from the nightclub by a security guard. Another guard has just been stabbed with a broken beer bottle and is in an ambulance bleeding, the driver tells Slonaker. Amid the stir, a line of people waiting to pay $20 to get in stretches the length of the club and wraps around the corner. The owner of the club enters the street, visibly frustrated and flailing his arms. Slonaker and Halphen speak with him sternly and urge him to get things under control.

All at once multiple calls for assistance come in. A shooting at Pine and Broad. Another stabbing in the Bottom. Then, shots fired somewhere else, but it’s not clear where. Siren on, Slonaker curses the gridlock and honks his way west.

Someone’s dead. There’s bedlam at Pine and Broad. Slonaker and Halphen jump out and abandon the vehicle in the middle of Broad, joining the instant thicket of police and possible witnesses.

It’s just after 1 a.m. Hours will pass before the ogling crowds taper off and tire of this, leaving the city, its police and its freshest fatality alone. Hours will pass, too, before the young man is identified as Jose Andujar, 21, before his body is wrapped in plastic and hoisted into a hearse. And his family in Georgia is told a bullet pierced his heart on Easter, and that nobody knows who did it or why.

The presence of ABC agents at a homicide or other crime scenes, makes sense. Faced with 10 percent budget cuts for two consecutive years and an additional $1.4 million to be cut in 2004, the 130 special agents of the Virginia ABC have to do more with less. And with more criminal cases, they must spend more time in the field and away from the desk.

A pilot program is underway enlisting two civilian licensing technicians to do much of the background and preliminary work for potential ABC licensees. “It means I can take off my regulator hat,” Slonaker says, and pursue more criminal investigations of nip joints, for example, which police say plague Richmond.

Special Agent in Charge James R. Pinette Jr. says ABC enforcement is becoming more dexterous. “We are partners in the community,” he says. “And we’ve given our agents the freedom to self-initiate, to work cases that are not typical of what people may associate with ABC.”

S. Christopher Curtis, director of ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement agrees. “When our agents team with localities, it becomes a win-win situation for public safety,” he says. “Resources are limited for most agencies, and combining efforts affords a stronger impact on criminal activity. When agents and officers check for alcohol-related problems, they find all sorts of things. Enforcement solidarity gives the collective agencies a more powerful approach.”

“Nip joints, drugs and guns all go hand in hand,” FADE’s Lt. Drew says. Teasingly, he tells Slonaker and Halphen that they’re his “Mini Me,” adding: “You complete me.” The agents seem to understand. “We’re an assist agency,” Halphen explains, like state police. Rarely does ABC get credit or public mention for its role in most of the investigations it pursues. “I don’t care if it’s a Richmond PD case or an ABC case,” Slonaker says. “We’re a resource and a tool for local law enforcement.”

Their cases sometimes have national and even international implications. Last year, Halphen, who works with state police on a task force called the Governor’s Initiative Against Narcotics Trafficking (GIANT), went undercover for months working a sting in King George County. Called Operation Phoenix, the probe targeted illegal cigarette trafficking. Halphen, along with authorities from New York and federal ATF agents, set up a front operation for discounted cigarettes in a storage shed in rural King George.

After advertising the operation in an Arabic newspaper in New York, they arrested 10 people for smuggling more than $2.1 million worth of cigarettes from Virginia to New York, where the markup is at least 300 percent. The buyers, Halphen says, were funneling the money to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.

Then there was the case recently when ABC worked with Richmond Police’s FADE unit to search a house suspected as being a nip joint on Minor Street in Richmond. Although it couldn’t be determined that alcohol was being sold on the premises, officers found assault weapons and narcotics and learned the owner’s grandson, with felony warrants out for his arrest, was living there. It’s now a federal case.

“They’re a very good unit,” Lt. Drew of the Richmond Police says of the ABC officers. Working with them “shows us a different aspect of it. Gives us a second or third opinion.”

Slonaker puts the pairing like this: “How many of the drug houses they’re running across are also nip joints? Joe Smith decides he’s going to open a nip joint. Joe Smith’s not dealing drugs, but he opens a nip joint and drug dealers come and patronize it, for food, beer, to get off the street, get cool, get warm. They can cut up their drugs there. They can sell out of there if they have to. We’ve helped them develop cases because we can slide in there and watch.”

Yheir presence offers precautionary backup April 8 when Slonaker and Halphen assist FADE in the issuance of a search warrant of 906 Blanton Ave., home to former City Councilman Henry “Chuck” Richardson.

It’s a Thursday night just before 9. Based on a tip from an informant, police suspect Richardson’s son Karl, 34, who lives in the basement of the house, is growing a significant amount of marijuana.

“We’re going to search this one a little differently because of who he is,” Lt. Drew says to the squad in a briefing. “There is nothing dynamic about this at all,” he stresses. And he instructs: “If you move something, put it back. Be careful what you say.”

After three hours spent at South Side’s 2nd Precinct on Belt Boulevard devising an “operational plan” and waiting for the warrant, the 15-member squad of FADE, along with Slonaker and Halphen, departs for Richardson’s house. A fleet of police vehicles converges at the Carillon nearby then enters the alley.

Slonaker accompanies two FADE officers to the front. Halphen joins a crew out back. From their radios officers in the backyard can hear what develops.

Richardson is home with his wife. He’s playing pool when police knock.

He’s told of the warrant and he’s cooperative. He leads the officers around to the back, saying the door to his son’s apartment is unlocked. It isn’t. He offers to get keys but police refuse. Sgt. Franklin and his team of “breachers” ram the door, shattering it.

“God damn, God damn,” Richardson mutters softly. He paces for a moment then stops to watch.

“Police! Search warrant!” the officers exclaim entering one-by-one and disappearing inside. A basement window has been boarded over. Three large exhaust pipes stem from the patio and rest on the back of a blanketed air-conditioning unit. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, his hair in a ponytail, Richardson gazes on, noticeably upset.

With the door open, the smell of marijuana permeates the air instantly. Inside the basement the FADE officers discover what they thought they would: 45 marijuana plants ranging in size from several inches to several feet. They also find a small amount of crack cocaine.

Sgt. Franklin explains to Richardson that the warrant is for the entire residence and officers are going to take a quick look upstairs.

“No Jesus, not the whole house,” Richardson says to him. Franklin shakes his head from side to side. “He’s got a stash somewhere,” he says to the officers out back, adding: “You guys find it.”

When police upstairs come down about an hour later, they tell Slonaker, Halphen and the others they found about 30 needles, most with traces of heroin. The officers know his history. In 1995, after being arrested on a heroin distribution charge, Richardson resigned the 5th District council seat he had held for 18 years. He served 22 months in prison and was released in October 1997. He has political buttons calling for his return to city politics peppered throughout his house, an officer observes.

Outfitted with latex gloves, investigators comb the premises for several hours, some using digital cameras to document the scene. They retrieve the pungent apple-green marijuana plants and place them in black plastic bags, ready for the evidence room.

“The son might be coming so we want to seize him and whoever he’s with,” Lt. Drew says. Eventually, Karl Richardson arrives and police take him into custody. He’s charged with possession of cocaine and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. They charge his father with possession of heroin. Around 11 Chuck and Karl Richardson leave the house from the back door — handcuffed and flanked by police — while Phyllis Richardson looks on.

It is a Thursday afternoon and Slonaker, Halphen and Lt. Drew sit at 2nd Precinct waiting for work that is routine and repetitive but always possibly life-altering. They discuss the city’s latest homicide in Shockoe Bottom just days ago, when a man was shot and killed at 18th and Main streets outside a pizza eatery.

“Is that all in your realm as a pizza place?” Drew asks the agents, adding: “Do they serve alcohol?”

“They have a beer license now; they serve very little alcohol,” Slonaker replies. “From what I understand, it was outside but I haven’t seen a report. Somebody said it was two vehicles and they shot at each other all the way up to ER Drive at MCV.”

“Over pizza?” Drew asks disbelieving.

“Over some beef that happened at the Canal Club,” Slonaker says.

“So with them selling alcohol, will y’all be a part of that [homicide] investigation?” Drew asks.

Slonaker and Halphen consider it.

“It depends on how it goes down,” Slonaker predicts. “For example, if you sell alcohol, am I going to jump your shit because people came in and started shooting up the place?” He pauses for a moment, then says: “I’m going to jump your shit if you’re catering to that disorderly crowd. If there’s always somebody getting in a fight, always somebody getting hurt, always major headaches there, there’s a pattern,” he says.

Richmond has shown that 150 cops and the best-laid plans couldn’t prevent Andujar’s homicide early on Easter. And this most recent murder in Shockoe Bottom two weeks ago seems to prove the unthinkable reality that, as Slonaker puts it: “Somebody will get mad and shoot somebody over a piece of pizza.”

So if you’re the assist agency with little manpower, little chance of being recognized for your job and plenty of work to do elsewhere, why stay? Slonaker and Halphen say ABC special agents have their reasons. They’re partners with police. It’s a public-safety issue. They don’t want to worry if their wives meet friends for dinner downtown. They want to live in the city.

A new approach to policing could start with them. “You break up the fight at the court, how many people are drunk? You respond to the accident, how many people are drunk? You go to a domestic, how many people are drunk?” Slonaker asks, rolling his head to mimic a cycle. Softly, Halphen offers what must be an agent’s mantra: “Alcohol violations are precursors to other things.” S

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