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A West Toledo liquor-store clerk received the maximum sentence — six months in jail — after a jury Tuesday found him guilty of selling a bottle of vodka to a 17-year-old Ottawa Hills High School student last year.
Nicholas Thompson, 38, of 340 S. Reynolds Rd. was convicted in Lucas County Common Pleas Court of selling or furnishing intoxicating liquor to a minor Feb. 1, 2013, while working at Foxx Liquor, 5341 Dorr St.
After a day and a half of testimony and two hours of deliberation, the jury of six women and two men found Mr. Thompson sold the Belvedere vodka to Blake Pappas, a friend and classmate of 18-year-old Brian Hoeflinger, who was killed later that night in a drunken-driving crash.
“Kids — 17-year-old kids — should not be going and buying bottles of Belvedere willy-nilly in state stores,” Common Pleas Judge James Bates said after imposing the jail term. “Mr. Thompson did have a prior [conviction for an underage sale]. The municipal judge on that prior sale gave him a $150 fine.”
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys and prosecutors were instructed not to mention the fatal crash to the jury. They were to focus on the offense at hand: the illegal sale of liquor to a minor.
Attorney Rick Kerger, who represented Mr. Thompson along with retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas, accepted the verdict but questioned the judge’s sentence.
“I think it’s odd because during the trial, he kept out all reference to the Brian Hoeflinger crash, and then he used that as the fact to enhance the sentence,” Mr. Kerger said afterward. “It seems like if it was in for that, it ought’ve been in for the trial, but that was his ruling.”
Both Mr. Pappas and Michael Geiger, another Ottawa Hills High senior who went to the liquor store with Mr. Hoeflinger, testified they were not asked for identification when Mr. Pappas paid for the vodka with money the three of them had pooled.
Mr. Kerger, a high-profile local lawyer, said he took the case because he “was approached to represent him [Mr. Thompson] and I agreed. That’s as deep as it gets.”
Mr. Douglas, who was not present for the sentencing, later Tuesday declined to discuss why he would be interested in a case as seemingly minor as a liquor-law violation.
“I think that’s a confidential matter between client and an attorney, and thus I cannot discuss it,” the retired justice said.
And Daniel Steinbock, dean of the University of Toledo law school, said Tuesday he was “not going to speculate as to why” lawyers of their status took on the case.
Judge Bates said that while it’s rare to have a misdemeanor like this go to trial in common pleas court, he felt it was important because of Mr. Hoeflinger’s death that followed the transaction that night.
“I personally think that the municipal [court] judges — maybe not all of them, but I’ve gone through a lot of municipal sentences for this particular offense — it doesn’t seem like municipal judges take this offense very seriously,” the judge said.
Mr. Hoeflinger’s parents, who have tried to raise awareness about teen drinking since their son’s death, attended the trial. Dr. Brian Hoeflinger said he hoped the verdict and sentence would send a message to others who work in liquor stores and set a precedent “that institutions that sell alcohol can’t sell to minors and expect to get away with it.”
“It’s a step, it’s a first step in a chain of events that have to keep happening to stop kids from gaining access to alcohol,” he said. “Our son died, and it was alcohol-related and we can never bring that back, but we can certainly try to stop it for the future.”
His wife, Dr. Cynthia Hoeflinger, concurred, saying a message was sent that underage sales are unacceptable.
“I’ve heard it said that ‘Kids will be kids and they’ll get alcohol,’ but guess what?” she said. “I think if they wouldn’t have gotten that alcohol that night. … I think it’s reasonable to assume that perhaps he wouldn’t have been in that accident.”
Mr. Thompson was taken into custody, although he still faces two additional counts of underage sales stemming from unrelated sales that allegedly occurred at Foxx Liquor on April 12, 2013.
In August, the Ohio Division of Liquor Control terminated its liquor-agency contract with Foxx, although the store still may sell beer and wine.