PORT RICHEY — Ryan Nye has been doing undercover work for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the state's division of alcohol and tobacco since he was 16 and a student at Ridgewood High School. Back then, he was sent into stores to see if clerks would illegally sell him cigarettes and other tobacco products. The state pays $50 for a night's work.
"Then I progressed," Nye said. By the time he was 17, he was going into stores to try to buy beer — and helping to bust stores that didn't check his ID or knowingly sold alcohol to someone who wasn't 21.
"I love it," said Nye, who is 18 and plans to enroll in the Sheriff's Office academy after his next birthday.
"It's as close to law enforcement work as I can get right now."
Nye was one of five teens – four who are 18 and one who is 19 — who assisted the Sheriff's Office and the state in an undercover alcohol bust earlier this month. They visited 83 businesses throughout the county.
Clerks sold them beer at 34 of them — including grocery stores like a Sweetbay in Zephyrhills and a Publix in Wesley Chapel, convenience stores like a 7-Eleven in New Port Richey and a Circle K in Land O'Lakes. Buys were also made at a SuperTarget and CVS, both in Wesley Chapel, deputies said.
Sgt. Kurt Pinto, who was in charge of the investigation, said the agency does this routinely.
The teens are told to buy beer (they tended to choose six-packs of Corona, Budweiser and Bud Light) and to produce their IDs if asked — and answer truthfully if asked their ages. If a clerk said, "You're 21, right?" the teens were told to say, "No," and give their real ages.
Deputies and state agents in plain clothes would be in the store and watch the clerk. If he or she sold alcohol, the teens would leave the store with it and then the agents would swoop in.
Those clerks were charged with selling alcohol to a minor and given a summons to appear in court. The charge is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a possible fine.
Many of the arrested clerks cried, Pinto said, and worried they would lose their jobs. He said it didn't seem like the cashiers were being malicious when selling the beer.
"They just weren't paying attention," Pinto said.
To protect and serve
Nye said at first, participating in these investigations felt strange but "I knew I was doing the right thing," he said. He didn't want young kids harmed by alcohol and tobacco.
All of the teens are members of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Explorer Post 916 — a group of 14- to 21-year-olds who learn about law enforcement. There are Explorers clubs — which are open to men and women — throughout the United States. They are chartered by the Boy Scouts of America.
Using Explorers — or children of deputies — for undercover investigations is also done in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Nye, who lives in Port Richey and works at a funeral home, has been an Explorer since he was 14. His badge number is part of his e-mail address. He looks forward to someday serving as a deputy.
"I want to help protect and serve the citizens of Pasco County," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.