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Cops set booze sting

Explorers posing as minors near liquor vendors ask adults for alcohol to help catch and ticket lawbreakers.

March 15, 2008|By Joseph Serna

They’re young, confident and working for the police.

They might seem like the awkward but charming teenagers of “Superbad” — think “McLovin” — trying to score some booze with an adult’s help, but looks can be deceiving.

Standing outside of liquor stores throughout the city, Costa Mesa Police explorers are posing as minors asking adults to buy them alcohol.

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A sting operation Friday night involved only the decoys and three police officers seconds away listening in via microphones hooked to the kids.

“The whole mission is to cut down on underage drinking in Costa Mesa,” Sgt. Victor Bakkila said. “One ticket gives us a lot of publicity.”

Adults caught buying alcohol for a minor are issued a ticket, and authorities hope they’ll tell friends about the hazards of helping kids drink.

“I seen this on the news,” said one man at Harbor Liquor while police issued him a ticket. “When I was inside I was saying ‘I know they’re cops. I know they’re cops. Forget it, we’ll find out when I go outside.’”

Authorities were too busy still working the detail Friday night to identify those who were issued tickets.

During the sting, plain-clothes officers waited in their car within eye sight of the minors. The explorers were usually posted just away from the store entrance asking customers, “Hey, can you buy us a beer? I have money.”

More often than not they were rejected. One woman scolded them for even wanting to drink. The manager at one store shooed them away.

“The citizens as a whole understand it’s a problem,” Bakkila said. “We have to remember alcohol-related deaths killed thousands of people on the highways last year. [Kids] may be able to drive, or do other dangerous things when they drink.”

Four baby-faced explorers approached dozens of shop customers in pairs for safety reasons, and made sure not to badger the witness.

“That’s what makes it not entrapment,” Bakkila said.

On the rare occasions someone did buy the teens alcohol, less than a half-dozen times in three hours, the officers returned the beer to the store. Bakkila uses his own money in the sting because the grant for the program doesn’t cover it.

Costa Mesa police are planning two more similar operations in the coming months. People approached to buy beer should first say no, then tell the store owner so he can shoo them away, Bakkila said.


JOSEPH SERNA may be reached at (714) 966-4619 or at joseph.serna@latimes.com.

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