Bethel taxi drivers charged in dozens of illegal alcohol sales
State prosecutors have filed a series of charges stemming from dozens of alleged illegal alcohol sales by Bethel cab drivers, following years of investigation by undercover Alaska State Troopers.
A Friday statement from Assistant Attorney General John Haley, with the state Office of Special Prosecutions, said that a total of 24 defendants face misdemeanor charges of making alcohol sales in Bethel – without being licensed to do so by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
“In 2015 and 2016, law enforcement officers in Bethel made 50 undercover alcohol purchases from individuals who lacked a license to sell alcohol,” state prosecutors wrote. “Forty-seven of the alleged illegal alcohol sales involved on-duty cab drivers. In the majority of the alleged incidents, a cab driver sold an undercover officer a single 750ml bottle of R&R Whisky for $50.”
Some 18 drivers from four Bethel cab companies – Quyana Cab Co., Kusko Cab, Inc., the Alaska Cab Co. and the Taxi Cab Co. – were charged in the case. Two other people, including a night manager at the Tundra Suites Motel, were charged with individually selling alcohol to undercover officers; other defendants “are alleged to have worked with the cab drivers to illegally sell alcohol.”
Quyana was also charged as a company in the case, Haley said, but some others couldn’t be charged because they were sole proprietorships.
According to a charging document filed against Quyana Cab, the in-depth investigation was prompted by several years of tips to the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team, or WAANT, that Bethel cab drivers were illegally selling liquor out of their cabs.
“WAANT compared information regarding large alcohol purchasers in Bethel with a list of taxi cab drivers obtained through the City of Bethel taxi database,” prosecutors wrote. “Through this comparison the WAANT investigators could see that many taxi cab drivers had a history of unusually large alcohol purchases in the last year. Several drivers purchased more than 100 (liters) of liquor in the year 2015.”
Haley said Friday that the cab drivers had legally obtained their alcohol supplies, through Bush orders from liquor stores in Anchorage. Those stores are required to maintain a database of larger orders, which investigators were able to find some of the defendants’ purchases.
“Most stores in Anchorage have to report anything being shipped to the Bush over 36.5 liters,” Haley said. “You can see through that that quite a lot of cab drivers had ordered a lot of liquor.”
A few sales discovered during the investigation weren’t criminally charged, Haley said, because the sellers couldn’t be positively identified.
During the course of the investigation, nine Quyana Cab drivers -- including a co-owner of the company -- allegedly sold undercover buyers bottles of R&R for $50 or $60 per bottle on 17 occasions.
“On several occasions the (officer) would ask a Quyana driver if it would be possible to get more alcohol in the future,” prosecutors wrote. “The drivers generally answered that the (officer) could simply call dispatch and ask for a cab because all of the Quyana drivers could sell alcohol.”
Drivers with Alaska Cab Co. and Taxi Cab Co., which prosecutors said were charged jointly because they were operating out of a shared office, allegedly made a total of 25 sales to undercover officers. A single driver from Kusko Cab, Sejdula Ajeti, is charged with making two additional sales.
Investigators in the various taxi-based sales were driven to or heard mention of several addresses in Bethel, which were raided by troopers in June 2016. A partial inventory of items seized during those raids included 120 bottles of liquor, plus $71,000 in cash.
Haley declined to discuss what other materials were seized during the raids, or whether additional charges linked to the investigation were possible Friday.
The three non-taxi alcohol sales involved Neal Gutleben, the night manager at the Tundra Suites, and Christina Engebreth. Undercover officers were allegedly able to buy two bottles of R&R from Gutleben, and a third from Engebreth, during the winter of 2015.
Defendants charged at Quyana include Min Sook Cha, Jae Chang Lee, Brandi Dull, Won Jin Yang, Kwang Joon Chon, Hung Kwon, Stella Hensley, Kevin Nicholai, Jin Yong Lee and James Dong Kim. Alaska Cab Co. and Taxi Cab Co. defendants include Seung Kyu Jang, Jonathan Cha, Sang Lee, Myoung Lee, Il Kwon Kim, Pok Im Kim, Joung Ai Lee, Sang Ho Kim, Bongsun Lee and Kyung Sin Lee.
Convictions for selling alcohol without a license carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $25,000 fine for individuals, or a $500,000 fine for businesses.