Death of a Shopkeeper

Friends say controversial police sting contributed to store owner's demise

After church services on a steamy Sunday afternoon last May, Najib Savaya tried through an interpreter to put his plight into perspective.

"I am not a dishonest liar guy," said the soft-spoken Iraqi-born man, leaning up against a wall at northeast Phoenix's Chaldean Catholic Church. "I never have trouble. I did not know that your secret police were out after me and my family. If I know that what my boys do was wrong, I stop them. I am not a thief guy."

Listening in a few feet away, Savaya's wife, Anjel, started to weep softly and shake her head from side to side. A younger woman rushed over and laid a comforting hand on Anjel's shoulder.

All this happened a few weeks after a Maricopa County Superior Court judge had dismissed major felony drug and racketeering charges against the Savayas, their three adult sons and 34 other Phoenix and Glendale convenience store owners and employees.

All had been arrested in September 1997 after a well-publicized sting known as the "Mini Thins" case. Mini Thins are an over-the-counter cold medication that contains ephedrine--a chemical often used illegally in the production of crystal methamphetamine.

Phoenix police and federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers raided the independent stores after getting a tip that the shops--including the Savayas' Liquor Wheel--had become a prime local source for meth cooks, who were buying the medication in bulk (in many instances) from the little stores.

Yet area "super-stores" such as Wal-Mart had stopped bulk sales of Mini Thins and other meth precursors at the friendly urging of law enforcement months before the police sting started. The mom-and-pop stores, including Liquor Wheel, hadn't been afforded that same warning.

The judge dismissed the cases against the small stores after ruling that the defendants had committed no crimes under Arizona law. Though the legal victory was sweet, the Savayas and the others knew it could be short-lived.

For one thing, the state Attorney General's Office shipped its files to the U.S. Attorney, hoping that the feds would prosecute the Mini Thins defendants under their less restrictive criminal code.

Also, state prosecutors announced their intention to continue civil forfeiture proceedings against 16 of the convenience stores--which, if successful, would be financially crippling or worse. (For legal reasons, those proceedings are on hold in Superior Court.)

"I come here to be free and now I am not," Savaya said last May. "I am very sad man now."

Months passed, and federal prosecutors still hadn't announced their intentions.

Though his life was in limbo, Najib Savaya tried to maintain a semblance of his pre-Mini Thins existence--working at the store, going to church, attending family functions. He and his family had moved to Arizona in 1996, a dozen years after escaping the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and landing in the state of Michigan.

But Amir Alyas, another onetime Mini Thins defendant, says he and his wife, Fay, saw firsthand that Savaya and his wife remained haunted by the experience.

"We were most worried about Najib because he was the most nervous among us," says Alyas, also a native Iraqi who attends the same church as the Savayas. "He was stressed, this nice, nice man with big heart. A lot of people involved in this secret police thing get hurt bad. But this thing killed Mr. Savaya."

Najib Savaya died last month of a heart attack. He was 54.
Savaya's family is adamant that the Mini Thins case caused the sudden demise, according to his Phoenix defense attorney, Marc Budoff.

"I think they have a point in that the government hosed a lot of these [Mini Thins defendants]," says Budoff, who represented Najib Savaya but not his other family members. "The police and the AG absolutely overreached on this case, and they dragged many, many people into a big net that had no business being there, including my client."

The evidence against Najib and Anjel Savaya does appear to be far less compelling than that against their three sons. DEA case agent Art Staples said as much in an interview last year with defense attorneys, when he conceded that the boys had done almost all the negotiating and selling of the Mini Thins to undercover cops posing as meth cooks.

"They came here--to the land of plenty--to get away from the oppression in Iraq, and then, bingo," says Anjel Savaya's defense attorney, Eleanor Miller. "Mr. and Mrs. Savaya clearly were not knowledgeable about what, if anything, illegal was going on, other than they were making money."

Meanwhile, the feds say they still haven't decided if they will refile criminal charges against any of the Mini Thins defendants.

 
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