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Police: Clearwater store owner sold bread, milk, drugs

Passers-by glance at the chained doors of the Greenwood Food Market on Thursday afternoon in Clearwater. The market, which was closed Thursday, is owned by Junn Yang Lai, who was arrested Wednesday on drug-related charges.
Published Mar. 28, 2013

CLEARWATER — There was no note, no sign on the convenience store's doors. Just rusty chains and a padlock told customers the Greenwood Food Market, a usually bustling North Greenwood neighborhood hangout, was closed Thursday afternoon.

Owner Junn Yang Lai, described by friends as nice and generous, was arrested Wednesday, accused of peddling drugs from behind the store's counter.

Lai, 55, was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on felony charges of possession of cocaine and marijuana with intent to sell, possession of morphine and possession of a firearm while in the commission of a felony.

The Palm Harbor resident had no previous criminal record in Florida. Years ago, state records show, he ran a Chinese restaurant in Jacksonville.

Lai left jail Thursday after posting bail of about $27,000. He did not return a phone call Thursday from the Tampa Bay Times.

Overnight, someone shuttered his store at 1205 N Martin Luther King Ave.

After receiving a tip, officers searched the food mart Wednesday and seized 77 grams of marijuana packaged for sale, two grams of crack cocaine and a morphine pill, police said.

Lai's store is beige and nondescript except for a hand-painted sign: Bread. Milk. Beer. People walked up to the chained doors Thursday, shook their heads, laughed. One biker yelled to onlookers, referencing Lei's arrest, "He got jammed up!"

Hermiia Cobb, 11, saw police cars flood her block on La Salle Street, a short walk from the shop, around 5 p.m. Wednesday. Her friend snapped photos and put them on Facebook.

"I go there, like, five times a day for sunflower seeds and peanuts," she said. "He's okay, I guess. Pretty nice."

Devant Jeter, 10, biked by the store Thursday with his big sister. He also lives on La Salle Street, he said, and visits Lei for candy after school.

"Junn's real nice. He gives me Mike and Ikes for free," Devant said. "This is stunning. Now we've got to shop somewhere else."

Cheryl Usery, who lives across the street, shopped there Wednesday, hours before the arrest, for penny wrappers. Nothing seemed unusual, she said. The owner didn't seem tense. He was smiling, chatting with regular customers.

"He was always friendly," said Usery, 59. "It isn't fair. Don't be so hard on him. Everybody in the 'hood loves him."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Cairyn Baird contributed to this report. Danielle Paquette can be reached at dpaquette@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4224.

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