ELYRIA — Moments before Elyria police officers pulled into the parking lot Tuesday morning of Shopway Food Mart, customers filtered in and out of the store.
A man and woman from the Cleveland area had set up a tent in the parking lot to help residents fill out applications for the federal Lifeline phone program. A neon “Open” sign glowed in the window.
But just after 11 a.m., police delivered a court order giving officers the authority to close the doors.
“We are here to execute a court order that was months in the making,” said Elyria police Capt. Chris Costantino. “We want this to serve as a message that we are going to continue to aggressively go after any business that operates outside the realm of the law.”
While there, police also arrested a female employee who had marijuana and a large amount of cash in her purse.
Lorain County Common Pleas Court Judge James Miraldi granted the temporary restraining order late Monday. A hearing on a permanent restraining order will be later.
In his two-page decision, he said the city clearly demonstrated the Lake Avenue business and its operators and employees, Thaer D. Mustafa, Hesham M. Ayyad and Michael Thrist, were involved in a pattern of illegal drug sales and misuse of cards used for the federal Women, Infant and Children food program.
Miraldi had heard testimony and received evidence during an April 12 hearing as to why Shopway was a nuisance and should be closed.
Shopway was raided by Elyria police and the Ohio Investigative Unit days before the hearing as a result of an ongoing investigation into the business for drug trafficking and food stamp fraud. The nearby Cakes, Candy and Flowers also was investigated.
According to police, evidence of food stamp fraud at both businesses was captured on camera, and illegal synthetic marijuana was found at Shopway, as well as 12 Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, or electronic food stamps, and four guns.
“These guys did a great job documenting what was going on there,” Costantino said. “There are other businesses we are getting complaints about, and they will work just as hard with these. We want residents to know we hear what they are saying, and we will do what we can to make the neighborhood better.”
When the business was raided last month, it was also condemned by the city at the time for several electrical violations.
Kevin Brubaker, a city official with the Building Department who was on hand Tuesday as the store was boarded up for a second time, said it was not being condemned. The building owner made necessary repairs soon after the raid, and that allowed the business to open while the case wound its way through court.
“The owner came in and did what he was supposed to do to bring the electrical up-to-date,” he said. “He got a licensed contractor and did everything by the book to reopen.”
Costantino said the court order closes the business as is, including the store’s inventory.
“The business is under police control right now, and no one can go into it except through us,” he said.
As police stood by Tuesday, employees left and customers were turned away. Others stood by and watched with camera phones as plywood boards were nailed over the doors.
“These are good boys who didn’t deserve this,” said Gary Enlow, a minister who said he is friends with the owners. “Once they got their hands slapped for being greedy, they got their act together and have not been doing anything illegal."
Attorney Michael Stepanik, who represents Shopway, has long said the business was not the source of the illegal activity police allege. Crime happens all the time in Elyria that does not involve Shopway, he said Monday.
However, Holly Huff, head of the Cascade-Furnace Block Watch who also testified for the city at the hearing, has a different view of Shopway and is happy to see it closed.
“I was quite surprised and very pleased,” she said. “There are some serious things that have happened down there that have moved into the neighborhood. We have seen a lot of things that have started there.”
Huff said she and neighbors would love to have a store close to home but would rather it be one she can walk into and feel comfortable.
“That’s not that store,” she said.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.