Suspects of Convenience

The sting targeted stores selling over-the-counter medicines that could be cooked into meth. But the cops warned major retailers to stop the sales while throwing the book at mom-and-pop shops, most of which are owned by Arab immigrants.

The game was on.
From mid-March through July 7, the Mini Thins undercover team tried to sting as many mom-and-pop convenience stores as possible.

They met with some great successes, such as their trip to Metro II Liquors, at 43rd Avenue and Glendale in Glendale. Its owner bit hard, asking the narcs on tape if they could funnel some meth back to him after they cooked it with chemicals he'd helped to provide.

When it was over, the undercover team had bought 129 cases of Mini Thins and similar products at 21 stores, enough ephedrine/pseudoephedrine to make pounds of methamphetamine.

In their investigation, the police came to focus on one wholesaler, Iraqi immigrant Frank Younadim. During the sting, detectives bought more than 20 cases of Mini Thins products traced to Younadim. The police also learned Younadim's distributor had shipped 80 cases to the Scottsdale man in April 1997 alone. A search of Younadim's storage locker and other locations later yielded more than 50 cases of the products.

That wasn't against the law. But prosecutors alleged that Younadim listened in at one store as the undercover team struck a deal with a retailer. They claimed he's criminally culpable because he must have heard the cops say they were cooking dope with the pills.

(But Younadim's attorney, Bruce Feder, asked detective Granieri last December, "Is it your belief during that conversation, it was specifically discussed that the medications being purchased were for purposes of manufacturing methamphetamine?" Granieri answered no.)

Younadim, 38, was the only wholesaler charged in the case. Those who sold the Mini Thins to Younadim, and the other distributors who sold the precursor drugs to convenience stores, have avoided prosecution.

The drug cops have said in court documents that their game plan was improvisational: Because they had prior information on only a few stores, they'd drive around Phoenix and sometimes Glendale, looking for mom-and-pop shops at random to approach.

"We would determine if they sold the [Mini Thins], and upon receiving an affirmative answer we would determine whether they would sell large quantities of that product," Swain Granieri told a defense attorney. ". . . I certainly believe a case is a large quantity."

After September's raid, police released a list of the 34 independent convenience stores that hadn't bitten. Twenty-five of those stores, however, didn't carry Mini Thins.

Police reports indicate that employees (or owners) at two of those 25 stores told the narcs they could get Mini Thins, but were leery of the suspicious-looking trio. One clerk/owner asked the undercover team if they were cops, and refused to take the dialogue to the next step.

Police have said they erased audiotapes of those efforts that didn't hit pay dirt, so it's impossible to compare them with those that did.

The Alyas Case
May 21, 1997, was a big day in the Mini Thins investigation. The undercover team stopped at 16 small independent convenience stores, including 13 for the first time.

Five stores that day, including the E-Z Stop market, would be added to the list of those already stung by the undercover team.

Parts of the secretly taped dialogue between Amir and Fay Alyas and Detective Tommy Kulesa are inaudible. But it's clear Kulesa pushed the couple hard after seeing a few jars of the Mini Thins on a shelf.

"Do you ever sell, like, cases?" he asks Amir Alyas.
"No, cases no," Amir replies. "That's all I got on the shelf over there."
Kulesa then struck up a conversation with Fay Alyas, as her husband tended to other customers during the late-afternoon rush hour.

"I need like a whole bunch for the ephedrine in 'em," he tells her.
"Mm, hmmm," she replies.
"But that's all you got, huh? Do you ever sell a lot? I need more than that."

"How many you need? I can make you order."
"I need like a case, like 144 bottles."
"144! . . . What they call it, the drug . . ."
"Yeah, the drug people. Yeah."
"No, no, the administration of the drugs. . . . They prohibit this."

That should have ended things right there. But Kulesa wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Yeah, what we do is we take the ephedrine out, we make drugs with it, that's what I'm doing."

Kulesa and Granieri chat with each other for a few moments, then Kulesa turns back to Fay.

"I need to get as many bottles, if it's possible," he then tells her.
"But it's $4.99 a bottle. Is that okay?"
After Kulesa says it is, she pulls two more 12-bottle packs of Mini Thin Two-Way Action tabs from behind the front counter, and tells him she can get more from her distributor in a week.

"A couple cases, too," Kulesa urges.
"Oh, you buy them by the cases?" Fay Alyas asks.
"Yeah, I buy 'em by the case."

"Let me look around and I'll get one case for you," Fay Alyas tells the narc. ". . . Two weeks ago, [the distributor] came by and said, 'Do you still want Mini Thins?' I said, 'No, I got enough.'"

She rings up the total, $192.30, including tax, then puts the money that Kulesa hands her into the cash register.

The undercover team had been in the store for nine minutes.
To the cops, Fay Alyas was a drug dealer waiting to happen. She finds that idea, well, almost funny.

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