BROOKSVILLE — Through the static and the white noise, a voice crackled from the radio receiver sitting on the leather back seat of the blue Hemi V8 Dodge Charger.
A man, in muffled words through the speaker, asked a woman how she was doing.
"Good," she replied. "How are you?"
Brooksville Police Department Lt. Rick Hankins leaned back from the driver's seat of his unmarked police car parked just behind Joy's Lil' Green Store and twisted a pair of knobs to adjust the briefcase-like device, which was attached to an antenna on the roof.
Hankins waited, silent, and listened for the right words.
Wearing a wire, a young brunette in a white shirt and blue jeans had just walked through the front door of the convenience store on East Avenue and headed to the back. She plucked a red 23.5-ounce can of Four Loko fruit punch out of the refrigerator and stepped back to the cashier's desk.
"Will that be all for today?" asked the shop's owner, Jim Fultz, as he stood behind the counter.
Nervous, the slender 20-year-old reached into her purse and handed him her driver's license.
The woman, known as "Marie" to protect her identity, was an undercover informant. She was at the center of a department-run confidential sting intended to catch Brooksville businesses selling alcohol to minors.
A $5,000 grant from the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition has allowed the department to double the number of operations it plans to conduct this year, and this was one of them.
The store owner eyed the ID card and handed it back to her.
"$2.76," he said.
"Thank you very much," Marie said as she paid him with a marked $20 bill and walked out the front door with the can of alcohol in one hand and an iPod-sized recording device in the other.
Alone, she pulled out of the parking lot in her black four-door Scion xD and handed the drink along with about $17 in change to Detective Bryan Drinkard, parked across the street in a white Chevy Tahoe. Seconds later, four officers and an evidence technician marched inside the store, and Drinkard approached Fultz behind the counter.
"This is an alcoholic beverage that contains 12 percent alcohol," Drinkard said, "that you sold to a minor."
Fultz's bearded face blanked and his skin grew pale.
"I guess," he said, faintly, "I got the date of the birth wrong."
Drinkard handed him an information sheet.
"Instead of arresting you or giving you a citation," Drinkard said, "we're going to give you training."
Fultz's eyes widened. He nodded his head.
"If you attend training, there will be no charges."
"Man, I'll be there."
Officers, in fact, did not arrest any of the four people caught selling alcohol to a minor during the citywide sting that targeted 16 businesses last week. As part of the grant, offenders were ordered to attend a three-hour session that will teach them how to better prevent people under 21 from buying alcohol at their businesses. Just $250 covers the cost for the offender and up to eight other employees to attend the training. The sellers will be charged with a crime only if they skip the class.
Devised in tandem by Brooksville officers and coalition members, authorities hope the novel strategy will better curb the illegal sales.
"Educating an offender on the repercussions of what they've done sometimes outweighs writing them a ticket or arresting them or sending them in front of a judge," said Hankins, who helped fashion the grant. "If what you've been doing all along doesn't work, you have to come up with a new way to alter that type of behavior."
A broad-chested 45-year-old with tattoos running up both arms, Fultz has owned Joy's since October and said he just made a mistake when reading Marie's license. He was elated at the chance to take the class and avoid a citation and fine that would have cost him at least $405.
"Instead of fining me and taking money from the store, why not train me?" he said. "This is common sense stuff. This is something we need to get back to."
Although it's rare, if a defendant chose to fight the misdemeanor charge and request a jury trial, the total court costs would well exceed $1,000.
As Hankins pulled out of the store's parking lot, he pointed over his shoulder.
"His life flashed before his eyes, and I can tell you he'll never sell to another juvenile," Hankins said of Fultz. "And think of how much that just saved the taxpayers."
• • •
Minutes after leaving Joy's, Hankins and the other officers spread throughout the inside of the BP gas station at 7410 S Broad St.
The cashier, 29-year-old Most Shamima Khatun, had just sold Marie a can of Four Loko lemonade, despite also looking at her driver's license.
"She actually made the comment to me, 'You don't look 21,' " Marie remembered Khatun saying. " 'You actually look 16 or 17.' "
Hankins and Drinkard handed Khatun the sheet and gave her the same speech they'd given Fultz. She wouldn't be arrested, they said, if she just attended a class.
But the woman looked bewildered. She spoke in broken English with a thick accent and acted as if she didn't understand what was happening.
Susan Carrigan, project director with the Hernando coalition, stood in the back of the station and shook her head as officers struggled to explain the situation to Khatun. Carrigan has worked with the Police Department on the operations and helped design the class offenders are required to attend.
Cashiers and store owners who don't fully comprehend the regulations or consequences, Carrigan said, need the training more than anyone.
"That's part of the problem," she said. "They don't understand the laws."
Within an hour of her buy at the BP, Marie walked out of the Citgo station at 19275 Cortez Blvd. with a black can of Mike's Harder cranberry lemonade in hand.
Standing below a large bright yellow sign that read "Under 18 No Tobacco" and "Please Have Your ID Ready," Citgo store owner Sebastian Madhurathil didn't ask to see her license and had tried to convince Marie to take advantage of a sale he was running — two cans for the discounted price of $3.
"He kept asking, 'Are you sure you don't want two?' " Marie recalled afterward. "I said, 'I'm good.' "
Later, Madhurathil, 54, told Hankins he thought the hard lemonade was just an energy drink and then asked the lieutenant if it was legal to at least sell beverages with minimal amounts of alcohol to people under 21.
"Even 1 percent?" Madhurathil said.
"Absolutely no," he said. "Never."
• • •
Drinkard and Marie walked into a packed Applebee's off Cortez Boulevard during the restaurant's lunch hour. It was among the operation's final targets and the lone restaurant on the list.
They sat at a high-top table, and a server brought them a pair of menus. With little hesitation, she asked if they wanted anything to drink.
Drinkard ordered a Coor's Light on draft, and Marie asked for a margarita.
"Frozen," the waitress asked, "or on the rocks?"
"On the rocks," Marie responded.
About two minutes later, the server brought the drinks out, set them on the table and walked away.
"It's that simple," Drinkard said.
Hankins and the officers then walked in and approached the restaurant manager, Jason Gargiulo.
"Generally, when someone sells to a minor in this city," Hankins told him, "they go to jail."
Hankins explained that the server was required to attend the class, and the lieutenant suggested other employees take it as well.
All Applebee's employees are subjected to rigorous and repeated training, Gargiulo said, and the server just failed to follow procedures.
"She just lost her job," he said. "We have a strict policy on that. We have zero tolerance."
• • •
Ignorance, not intentional disregard, is the primary reason minors are sold alcohol, Carrigan said.
"Convenience stores in general don't train their employees," she said. "If you want to give pedicures, you have to have a license, but you don't have to have a license to sell alcohol."
She has followed officers on sting operations throughout the state, but her trip with Brooksville Police was the first time she'd been on one in which those caught selling weren't charged.
Typically, she said, when the offenders are cited, they're fired and move on to another business where they make the same mistakes.
The new training program, she and the officers hope, will end that cycle.
"I want to be confident enough that when we're not here looking over their shoulders that they're going to be doing the right thing," Hankins said. "We are moving in the right direction."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.