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.

"I kind of hear [Kulesa] say, 'We make drugs,'" she says, "but I don't pay attention because it's not my business. He notice we are stupid people about drugs. Why he take advantage of us? I'm afraid they're going to steal. 'I'll get one case for you' is talk to get them to leave."

(The Alyases' command of English is deceptively flawed. The couple sometimes don't comprehend when people speak too fast or unclearly. But they rarely let on, choosing to mask linguistic shortcomings by smiling or nodding in agreement.)

The first sale consisted of 36 bottles.
Police reports show that was the only time the couple sold the narcs any Mini Thins. But the team returned to E-Z Stop four more times in the next six weeks, trying to interest the Alyases in selling them "cases."

The second visit came June 2.
Fay Alyas tells Kulesa, "I can't get them," referring to the Mini Thins. She tells him she called a lot of people, but no luck. (Fay says she was just trying to pacify the persistent customer.)

On this trip, the cops bought a 12-tablet box of Actifed--which contains pseudoephedrine.

A week later, the drug warriors returned yet again to E-Z Stop, where the Alyases' 11-year-old son, Brandon, was hanging out with his mom and pop.

"I'm still waiting [for the Mini Thins]," Fay tells Kulesa, adding she'll be happy to buy some more Actifed for him.

"We could do that," the cop replies.
"Okay."
"'Cause I talked to the guy about the dope . . ."
"Mm, hmm."

"And he says, 'Yeah, we can pull the ephedrine out of that.' He says it's easy."

"Yeah, okay."
On July 7, the cops return to E-Z Stop for a final time. The booty: $147.73 of Sudafed and Actifed.

"You don't have any more in the back or anything like that?" Kulesa asks, taking a last stab.

"No, but I, I make order for you," Fay Alyas promises.
Kulesa's report notes she tried to hand him a cash register receipt from the sale.

"I don't a re--, I don't want no receipt," Kulesa tells her, laughing.
The E-Z Stop sting had produced $382.92 in sales--and only half of that from Mini Thins, the investigation's targeted drug.

On September 18, 1997, a state grand jury unanimously indicted Amir and Fay Alyas on major felony charges.

Grand Jury
Assistant attorney general Billie Rosen is known in legal circles as a bulldog barrister, usually as a compliment. She's usually well-prepared, and she usually wins.

Rosen's strategy at the state grand jury was to first give the panel a big-picture view of the Mini Thins sting, then to break down the individual cases one by one.

That seemed to make sense, though defense attorneys complained later that it unfairly lumped disparate tales into one.

But grand juries aren't assembled to determine a person's guilt or innocence. They decide whether "probable cause" exists that a crime has been committed, and the individual being investigated committed it.

Grand juries are a one-sided affair--the prosecutor's side--and it's rare for their members to ask more than a question or two. In this case, however, jurors asked several relevant questions, only to get some misleading or outright incorrect answers.

"Are the Mini Thins illegal, or is that the over-the-counter anybody can buy?" a grand juror asked Phoenix detective Ricardo Garza, the official case agent.

"There is two answers to that, yes and no," Garza replied. "They are legal to purchase in small quantities. They are illegal--there are federal reporting requirements when you sell over a certain amount. . . . But in the quantities we were purchasing, it is illegal."

That was false.
At the time, nothing in the law kept a customer from buying as many Mini Thins as a store was willing to sell, and nothing that kept a store from selling as much as it wanted. Prosecutor Billie Rosen agrees with that description, provided store owners didn't know or reasonably suspect that their customer might be doing something illegal with it. (The new federal law limiting sales didn't go into effect until October.)

"If you own a store," Rosen says, "and I come in and want to buy tens of thousands of pills of what are supposed to be cold medication, and I want to purchase it with cash, no less, might not the store owner be charged even above and beyond what the officers flat-out told them? Reasonable people don't go buying that many pills at once, and a reasonable suspicion would be that the buyers are going to do something illegal with it. My officers made it easy for me by telling the people they met at the stores that they were making [drugs]."

Grand jurors also weren't told about the warnings that police had given the big stores.

Finally, the panel never heard about the legal exemption about over-the-counter sales that would spell doom for the Mini Thins case in state court.

Billie Rosen got every indictment she sought over a two-day period. The indictments remained sealed for about a week, when about 100 police officers, television crews and selected print journalists went on a raid.

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