Kristina Garcia, 20, waited for about 20 minutes in front of a Ceres convenience store for a man to buy her a six-pack of beer Saturday evening.
What the man didn't know was Garcia was wired for audio surveillance and there was a law enforcement team waiting to arrest him on suspicion of providing alcohol to a minor.
Garcia was one of 16 decoys who stood outside stores in Stanislaus County and randomly asked adults to buy them a six-pack, in what is called a "shoulder-tap" operation.
Garcia said the adrenaline started pumping as she and another decoy approached the man who later was arrested.
"You just got to get up the nerve to ask, because you know what he might do will get him in trouble," said Garcia, a criminal justice student at California State University, Stanislaus.
The man went inside the business and asked Garcia and her decoy partner to meet him behind the convenience store. There, he gave them the six-pack and their change from a $10 bill.
The officers followed him in his car across the street and pulled him over before they cited and released him.
Alcohol enforcement operations in Stanislaus County such as this one have grown in the past few years and produced some success, police said, even if it means fewer arrests.
On Saturday, five law enforcement teams hit the streets in Modesto, Ceres, Turlock, Oakdale and Patterson to try to curb underage drinking.
Of 112 people contacted, officers issued 20 citations, Modesto police Detective James Rokaitis said. One person was booked on suspicion of possession of methamphetamine.
About 50 officials from Modesto police, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, Turlock police, Oakdale police and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control participated in the shoulder- tap operation. Police said 16 decoys participated, and they were monitored by audio and video surveillance equipment.
These operations are part of a countywide effort to deter minors from buying alcohol or getting others to buy it for them.
Rokaitis, who coordinates the effort, said officers rather would walk away from each undercover operation without making arrests or issuing citations.
"Our goal is keeping alcohol out of kids' hands," he said. "With this (effort), we're judged by how much compliance we have."
Fewer businesses sell to minors
The number of Stanislaus County businesses caught selling alcohol to minors dropped from 23 percent in the fiscal year 2005-06 to 14 percent in 2006-07, according to a Modesto police report.
These numbers were gathered from sting operations in which 18- to 20-year-old decoys walk into a business and try to buy beer. More than 800 businesses were a part of the undercover operations in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Rokaitis said a business caught selling to a minor can receive a $3,500 fine or a 15-day suspension of its alcohol license. He said that's a big revenue loss to a liquor store or a restaurant that relies on alcohol sales.
The detective also coordinates training for business owners and their employees on how to spot a fake identification and warns them about the penalties for selling to minors.
But some businesses, Rokaitis said, ignore the warnings in favor of making money. He said some won't ask for a valid ID because it might mean they lose a sale.
"I once had a business owner on the phone who told me he's in it to make money," Rokaitis said. "I'm not an anti-alcohol guy, but I want my businesses to be responsible."
These undercover operations are funded by a grant from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and awarded to the Modesto Police Department, which oversees the grant on behalf of law enforcement agencies in Stanislaus County.
The grant has been awarded to Modesto police for the past four years, and its amount has increased each year, from $84,000 to $125,000.
"These kind of operations do make a difference," said Mark Gedney, a state ABC investigator who participated in the shoulder-tap operation. "The stores start checking more for IDs. The kids also find it harder to find people to buy them alcohol."
Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy Tom Letras agrees that four years of undercover operations have made a difference among businesses that sell alcohol.
"I think they're on their toes now," said Letras, who helps coordinate the operations conducted in the outlying areas in the county. "After getting multiple violations, they start to realize this is getting pretty expensive."
$500 fine for buying the beer
The adults who break the law and knowingly buy beer for the minor decoys are arrested and cited with a misdemeanor, which carries a $500 fine for first-time offenders, according to police. As many as 40 hours of community service could be added to the penalty.
The fine can increase to $1,500 for those with criminal records or warrants or those who commit additional crimes during the decoy operation.
These operations are necessary, Rokaitis said, because child alcohol abuse can produce dangerous and unhealthy outcomes such as fatal car wrecks and binge drinking.
"All kids think they're invincible," Rokaitis said. "They don't see it happening to them."
Rokaitis recruits decoys without criminal histories and who have not been caught lying about their age.
The decoys usually are recruited from the police Explorers and other youth law enforcement organizations, but Rokaitis is looking for college students in criminal justice programs.
"We want honest kids, who look their age," said Rokaitis, adding the decoys can't lie during the stings.
Ashley Kennedy, 19, is a member of the Modesto police Explorers and has been on more than 10 shoulder-tap operations. She was one of Saturday's decoys.
The officers are close by as she approaches strangers in front of liquor stores, but she said it still takes some guts to be out there.
"My mom was the one that was always scared for me," said Kennedy, a Modesto Junior College student pursuing a career in law enforcement. "I feel pretty protected with the officers right there. But you have to be very confident or they won't buy it."
Modesto Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.