Only on 12: SLED agents bust Aiken restaurants in undercover mission

Undercover alcohol sting

News 12 was allowed to tag along during an undercover alcohol sting in Aiken County. (WRDW-TV / Aug. 23, 2012)

News 12 First at Five / Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014

AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- On a Friday night in late November, two State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agents and the coordinator of the Alcohol Enforcement Team of the 2nd Judicial Circuit met an 18-year-old at USC Aiken for a special mission.

After a quick briefing, the men took off in unmarked cars. This law enforcement mission was all about being quick and discrete.

Steve Ryan, with the Alcohol Enforcement Team, carried a list of restaurants and bars that serve alcohol within the City of Aiken. At each location, a SLED agent in street clothes would escort the minor inside. With the agent by his side, the minor would attempt to purchase alcohol.

For the entire mission, News 12 cameras had up-close access.

The first stop was Red Bowl, an Asian restaurant on Aiken's Southside. Ryan and the other SLED agent, who waits in the car while the minor attempts to purchase beside the other SLED agent, didn't anticipate a sale so quick, but they were wrong. Minutes later, the 18-year-old returned, along with the SLED agent, after reportedly purchasing a bottle of Bud Light at the bar.

At that point, once the transaction had been confirmed, Ryan and the other SLED agent entered the restaurant to talk to and ticket the seller.

"They were issued an administrative violation and a courtesy summons to the individual that sold the beer to our [under cover informant]," the SLED agent told News when they returned from the restaurant.

Next up was Chili's. In just a couple minutes, the minor was turned away.

Nearby, at a Mexican restaurant called Salsa's Mex-Mex Grill, the minor was able to purchase another Bud Light.

Ryan, who does these missions somewhat regularly in Aiken, Barnwell, and Bamberg Counties, says there's no lying by the minors, no altered ID's, and no entrapment.

In fact, Ryan says he stops by most of the restaurants and bars a couple weeks prior to the compliance check. He says he strives to educate, but he also warns them that the checks will soon happen.

"We do not allow any of these kids to have, for the male side, they're not allowed to have facial hair. We don't let them wear ball caps. For the women, we don't let them wear a lot of make-up or any kind of outfits that would seem inappropriate or provocative," says Ryan.

Yet on this night, the undercover minor was very successful. While Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, O'Charley's, Cork & Bull Pub, Longhorn's Steakhouse, and Wing Place turned the minor away without incident, the Hilton Garden Inn reportedly did not.

SLED says a waitress sold the minor alcohol. When the agents talked to the waitress after the purchase, the agents say the waitress told them that she was so busy cooking that she accidentally sold the minor beer. Back in the car, the agent told News 12 that there's no such thing as a good excuse.

Nearby, the newly-opened StrikeHouse Bowling Alley did not sell alcohol to the 18-year-old. Ryan says it's important to do compliance checks at less-traditional sellers like bowling alleys and social clubs.

After a couple more stops, the mission moved from South Aiken to Downtown Aiken.

"No one knows about these operations ahead of time," he says. "Our [Criminal Investigations] found out about it this morning."

However, as the mission headed Downtown, it was apparent that word was getting out.

"I hate to say it, but if the word hadn't have traveled as fast or we were able to move a little bit quicker, what's scary is the numbers could have been even higher," says Ryan.

Nevertheless, at Hotel Aiken, also knows as the Holley House, the minor was reportedly able to purchase a beer, even though there were guards IDing drinkers at both entrances of the hotel.

"The second SLED agent has just gone inside to make contact with him," Ryan says, while waiting in the car. "We do have a confirmed sale inside the bar."

Hotel Aiken is a popular spot with USC Aiken students and young adults. Ryan says he was surprised by the violation. He says it's a bar that normally turns minors away at the door.

"It shows that even when some of the best systems are in place for checking these things, there's holes," says Ryan.

Nearby, Pizza Joint, Playoff's, and Up Your Alley Chophouse didn't sell.

At the final stop, a club called Marlboro Station, the minor also wasn't able to purchase alcohol.

However, at the end of the night, Ryan says four out of sixteen places -- 25% of the restaurants and bars they checked that night -- did sell.

"I anticipated maybe one," admits Ryan. "Two would be a very large number for me, but to have four really kind of shocked me."

"If a minor walks into a bar and buys a Bud Light, what's the impact?" asks News 12 reporter Chad Mills.

"Some people think that it's not a big deal, but when you start looking at the stats just piling up and piling up, you know, the teenage years from 15 to 19 are some of the most dangerous years," he says.

Ryan says these missions wouldn't be as successful if SLED agents didn't participate. While deputies and officers can ticket and fine the bartender or waitress, SLED agents are the only ones who can write tickets against the restaurant or bar's license to serve alcohol.

Otherwise, if a ticket isn't written against the license, Ryan says restaurant and bar owners commonly try to fix the problem by firing the person who sold the alcohol. Ryan says that's a fix that often doesn't go deep enough and doesn't address what could be a serious problem with management.

"When SLED is there and it's actually written against the business, management and ownership takes notice and becomes much more active," he says.

So, SLED and Ryan will continue the compliance checks.

"I want to see zero," he says. "If we go out and check 15 places, I want to come back with 15 no sales."

Ryan says he recently talked to SLED Chief Mark Keel, who he says is going to continue putting an emphasis on this type of enforcement. Ryan says that a good thing, since theoretically, a restaurant or bar would be responsible if a minor was served and killed someone in a DUI related crash, and he says it's very easy for SLED to track that alcohol back to the seller in a situation like that.

In South Carolina alone, it's estimated underage drinking costs a billion dollars a year. Studies show 8 out of every 10 teenagers have tried alcohol. Another study finds 12% of all alcohol sold in South Carolina is consumed by minors.

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