Suspects of Convenience

Faieza Alyas was fixing her husband, Amir, breakfast of lentil soup and crackers when she learned that the Phoenix police considered them criminals.

The day--Monday, September 29, 1997--had started typically for the Iraq-born couple and their two sons, Christian, 15, and Brandon, 11. The north Phoenix family arose early, with Fay--as she's known--readying the boys for school. Amir left about 6 a.m. for the couple's convenience store, E-Z Stop, on 19th Avenue, just south of Glendale Avenue.

The Alyases have owned the store for almost five years. They make a decent living by working relentlessly and by building customer loyalty; their regular customers could just as easily patronize the shiny 7-Eleven store across the street.

Amir and Fay Alyas are proud people, proud of their Chaldean heritage, proud of their children, and proud of the fruits of their hard work.

And they are especially proud of being American citizens.
"It was my dream, the United States of America," says Fay Alyas, crossing herself. "To come here, to feel the freedom. We don't do anything fishy. We work hard, we did good. This was everything good to us. Until this."

The couple immigrated to the States two decades ago, they say, to escape the persecution of Saddam Hussein's Iraq (Chaldeans are an ancient but vibrant Catholic sect). Now in their early 40s, both became U.S. citizens in the mid-1980s, Fay in a Detroit ceremony led by President Ronald Reagan.

Neither has a criminal record, and E-Z Stop has had no liquor violations since the couple bought it.

Amir opens for business each day at 6:30 a.m. Fay comes by the store after the boys leave for school. It's a comfortable routine.

But about 9 a.m. that day last September, three Phoenix police officers rushed into the E-Z Stop.

"A lady policeman come over and say, 'You're under arrest! Don't move!' They put my husband on the floor and put our hands in the--what you call them?--the cuffs of hands. We keep asking, 'What we do?'"

The police marched the couple to a squad car for a trip to the Madison Street Jail, with television cameras capturing the moment on videotape.

"Finally we find out what we do," Fay Alyas says. "We sell too much medicine over the counter--Mini Thins--and we're not supposed to do this. I said, 'Oh, my God. We don't know.' I think of my home country, Iraq. They catch you with drugs, you die, that's it. We not even know word 'methamphetamine' until the government teach us that day."

Her husband adds, "They lock us up for selling cold medicine to secret police. Why the government come to this good family and drag us into their sea of drugs? Mini Thins?"

Ostensibly used to treat asthma and bronchial problems, Mini Thins are packaged in bright-colored pouches. Distributed by Body Dynamics Industries of Indianapolis, the legally approved, over-the-counter drug is nicknamed "trucker speed," because long-distance drivers often use it to stay awake.

The couple spent the night in jail, using their phone calls to assure their sons things would be okay. Then they prayed.

A judge informed the Alyases the next morning of a state grand jury indictment against them:

"From early 1997, [the Alyases] . . . did agree with one or more persons [to] engage in . . . the manufacture of methamphetamine; possession of equipment or chemicals for the purpose of manufacturing methamphetamine; possession, sale, transfer or furnishing of a precursor chemical (ephedrine); and money laundering." (A "precursor" chemical may be extracted from a pill as part of a methamphetamine-making recipe.)

The couple also were charged with "racketeering" and of "knowingly possess[ing] chemicals for the purpose of manufacturing methamphetamine."

Another charge alleged they'd sold Mini Two-Way Action (another name for Mini Thins) pills to an undercover officer--believing he was a doper who planned "to unlawfully manufacture methamphetamine."

It added up to six felonies each, each carrying a possible prison term upon conviction. The judge set the Alyases' bond at $16,000 each. They paid it from their savings, which emptied their account.

They had been snared in a sting by the Phoenix Police Department and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

The raids were the Valley's top story that night. News crews tipped off by publicity-hungry authorities had gotten to some of the targeted convenience stores before the cops. It was a classic "show bust," with an official plot line that had television anchors shaking their heads in dismay:

Undercover cops had persuaded the owners and/or employees of "mom-and-pop" convenience stores to sell them cases and cases of Mini Thins. The kicker was that the merchants had known their "customers" were going to convert the drug into meth.