Mom & Pop Crackdown

A city task force is aggressively suing business owners, some of whom are facilitating crime in their neighborhoods. And some of whom are just making donuts.

The city asked for over $200,000 to settle the case against Johnson in September 1999. In the end, Johnson agreed to pay $15,000 for, among other things, more training for his property manager.

Norman's Liquors sits at the bend of 19th and Randolph streets, ensconced in a working-class neighborhood that sees its fair share of drug deals and homicides. Adequately kept houses surround the storefront, and scraps of paper and plastic bags blow up against the buildings from the street.

Nineteenth and Randolph is one of the worst corners in that neighborhood, Sgt. Michael Williams of the Taraval Police Station says. It's been a choice location for drug deals for a decade because it is a major thoroughfare. Dealers and buyers can do their business on the corner, then hop into their cars and speed off toward the freeway or the city center.

The way the city attorney's office sees it, Lin and Roger Chao (above right), are responsible for some of the mayhem at Mission and 20th streets because they haven't done enough to keep criminals out of their Magic Donuts shop (above left). The Chaos disagree, but paid a fine to get the city off their backs.
The way the city attorney's office sees it, Lin and Roger Chao (above right), are responsible for some of the mayhem at Mission and 20th streets because they haven't done enough to keep criminals out of their Magic Donuts shop (above left). The Chaos disagree, but paid a fine to get the city off their backs.
Lin and Roger Chao's Magic Donuts shop
Bobby Castro
Lin and Roger Chao's Magic Donuts shop

It was the excessive drug dealing that led to the still-pending public nuisance lawsuit against the owner of Norman's Liquors, Sam Kaleh, a slightly balding middle-aged man who took over the store from his cousin a year and a half ago.

According to the city's suit, Norman's Liquors allowed drug dealers to congregate "in or around" the store on four separate occasions in the first half of 1999. The suit also alleges that Kaleh and his landlord have allowed the property to "facilitate drug transactions" three times in 1999. The city also claims that Norman's is a public nuisance because Kaleh has allowed the property to be a "locus for criminal activity."

"The liquor store provides a shelter," explains Deputy City Attorney Phoebe Labarle. "When the police drive up, people run inside and stash things. There's one or two arrests where people spit out their drugs while they're inside the store. At this point, there are no reports that the store owner is selling drugs."

Kaleh's attorney says that by punishing Kaleh, the city is targeting the wrong person. "The storeowner is never charged with the crime," notes Kaleh's attorney, Haitham Ballout. "We never deny that these things happen -- this is one of the worst neighborhoods. But the storeowner is not responsible for the national drug problem. What actually has he done wrong?"

Kaleh acknowledges that the same 15 kids hang around the area every day, sometimes on the corner in front of his business. Though he says he does not fear for his personal safety, Kaleh is extremely nervous about disrupting the tenuous relationship he has cultivated with the potentially questionable characters who loiter in the area.

"I ask nicely for them to move, and they move," Kaleh says. "Every day I go out there a hundred times to tell them. I told them that the city filed a lawsuit against me, so now they are not here as much."

But Williams says Kaleh has not done enough. "We can't expect liquor stores to be policemen, but we do expect them to cooperate and call the police, give us a description of what is going on, and not get in the way," he says.

Williams says that after police asked, Kaleh did not stop selling Brillo pads (which are often used in makeshift crack pipes) or a brand of Arab cigarettes popular with young drug dealers. Kaleh has also refused to close at midnight, or move freezers blocking windows so that police can see what is going on in the store.

Labarle, however, says that Kaleh has been open to the City Attorney's Office's suggestions to abate the nuisance and has improved the lighting, installed security cameras, and posted No Loitering signs. But even if Kaleh continues to cooperate, Labarle says the suit will not be dropped if the criminal activity persists. "There have been arrests out there recently," Labarle says. "The police continue to report that it's an area of concern."

Kaleh sums up the lawsuit with one word: "Bullshit."

"I came to this country from Palestine in 1981," he says, his eyes flashing. "I have no ABC violations and Tobacco and Firearms sent me a congratulations letter for not selling to a decoy. In my almost 20 years here, the only thing I've had is a speeding ticket. And I am not intending to do anything against the law.

"They try to blame all the problems in the neighborhood on my store," he says. "It is not my problem. The problem has been there. It was here when I came and it will be here when I leave."

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