An Oak Park appeals board has upheld a decision by Village Manager Cara Pavlicek to close a convenience store, located on the corner of Austin Blvd. and Chicago Ave. in Oak Park, in September after police arrested one of its employees on 17 counts of heroin sales and possession.
The Oak Park Business License Appeal Board, made up of three Oak Park trustees, heard testimony from Austin Pantry co-owner Azzam “Sam” Mohammad as well as residents and the village staff before voting unanimously to reject the appeal.
The village revoked the business license on Sept. 18, following the Aug. 30 police sting of the business, which resulted in the arrest of store employee Edgar Lucas, who was charged with 17 counts of heroin sales and possession.
Following the testimony, the appeals board deliberated in a closed-door session and returned with its decision. A findings-of-fact document explaining the reasons for the board’s decision was scheduled to be prepared and made public by Oct. 30.
Several residents testified in favor of not renewing the business license, arguing that Lucas was not the only problem at the store. Young men also were selling drugs outside of the store for several months leading up to the arrest and created a dangerous environment for the corner, they said.
Oak Park Police Chief Anthony Ambrose told the appeals board that police had been called about loitering and drug sales activity at the store more than 50 times in 2017 alone.
Neighbors say the problems at the corner shop had been ongoing for years, but over the course of the last year, it became obvious that drug sales were taking place on a daily basis in and around the corner store.
James Bowers, a civil rights attorney, owns a storefront building half a block away from the Austin Pantry where he is working to open an antique store. Bowers says he’s been in the neighborhood for 30 years and worked to get drug dealers off the block.
His building, located at 5940-5942 W. Chicago, also is home to Gone Again Travel & Tours, a travel agency and non-profit owned by Austin resident Crystal Dyer.
Bowers said that over the course of about six months prior to the August police sting, people were always standing around outside Austin Pantry.
“For a period of a few months it was really obvious what was going on,” he said.
He said he and others have worked hard over the years to clean up the neighborhood and alert police to drug and gang activity, but the Austin Pantry impeded their efforts and put locals’ lives in danger.
Harold Blake, owner of Avanti Elegant Boutique, 5949 W. Chicago Ave., said he’s been doing business on the block for 30 years and seen the business district go through “a lot of changes.”
Blake said over the last few years Austin Pantry began to attract what appeared to be a criminal element and “a lot of people stopped going in there.”
“I haven’t been in there for a couple of years,” he said, adding, “I just didn’t like the atmosphere in there. Sometimes they’d be messing around with the women, you know, patting them on the butt and all that stuff, and I just stopped going in there to tell you the truth.”
He noted that the owners of Austin Pantry had collected signatures in a petition to get the store reopened, but Blake said: “I don’t know how [the owner] got the signatures or who he got them from, but he did not from me.”
Both Bowers and Dyer said they believe the criminal element Austin Pantry attracted also resulted in armed robberies at nearby businesses prior to the closure of the convenience store.
Both Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, 5957 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago, and Metro PCS, 2 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park, were robbed at gunpoint just a few weeks prior to the police sting of Austin Pantry.
“It trickled over here and affected the business over here; it could have affected me too,” Dyer said. “It’s bringing that element onto that corner, and they’re scoping out everything else, and that’s what happened.”
Bowers said he believes that the arrest of Lucas, who police identified as the manager of Austin Pantry, a point disputed by the owners of the establishment, “should be a death sentence” for the business.
“What they did is threaten the lives, as well as the businesses, of everybody in their community by allowing that activity in there,” Bowers said.
Mohammad, who co-owns the store with Maher “Mike” Haw, said he had employed Lucas for several years but was unaware that he was selling or using drugs.
“I trusted him, too,” he said, adding that Lucas was a “good man” who “switched and changed his life.”
“I don’t know what happened to him,” Mohammad said.
Mohammad, who was infrequently at the store, promised to be there more and install video surveillance and give Oak Park police access.
“We’re not bad people; I’m not a bad person,” he said, adding, “I don’t want people to look at me different. The store wasn’t the problem; (Lucas) was the problem.”
Ali ElSaffar, Oak Park Township Assessor, who has owned the building since 1996, promised to make improvements to the retail portion of the property.
“I certainly feel bad about what has happened,” ElSaffar said. “There have been complaints in the newspaper saying all of the things that have been going on. That’s something I personally feel bad about and wish hadn’t happened, but I think that’s done. The person who was mostly responsible for it was the person who has been arrested and now is in jail.”
Tamell Jackson, an employee of the store, said the store has worked to reduce loitering and threatened to call police when it happened in front of other businesses in the area.
He said Mohammad gave him a chance when he hired him to work at the store and urged the board to allow Austin Pantry to reopen.
“I hope you give us a second chance to rectify the situation,” he said.
The board voted unanimously to uphold the decision to revoke Austin Pantry’s business license. It is uncertain whether Mohammad will attempt to appeal the decision further.
Things have been quiet since the village ordered Austin Pantry closed in September, according to one source who sees the corner on a regular basis and agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity over concerns for their safety.
The source echoed comments of others, saying Austin Pantry was “a hangout” and it was obvious drug sales were taking place.
“I was surprised that Oak Park didn’t make a bigger deal of it being a hangout,” the source said. “I would be shocked if Oak Park reverses its decision because to me it seemed like that was their main goal. They didn’t care who was arrested or anything – they wanted that store shut down because they were sick of it.”