Mickey Irizarry retired from the New York Police Department and moved to Arizona to slow down and take in the state's wide-open spaces, says his attorney.

But less than a year after buying Wauneta's Trading Post on North Highway 89, Irizarry is facing allegations by the state liquor department that he knowingly sold large amounts of liquor to bootleggers.

It is a claim his attorneys planned to deny yesterday in Phoenix as Irizarry appeared to find out just what the liquor department has against him and whether he will continue to be able to sell booze out of his store.

According to a March 3 press release issued by officials at the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, "On several occasions during the investigation, undercover law enforcement officers purchased large amounts of alcohol from each liquor store and stated during the purchase that the alcohol was going to be resold or bootlegged on reservation land." Irizarry said the day after he was served with violation paperwork that he "absolutely" denies the allegation leveled by the liquor department.

Irizarry owns a beer and wine license, and he continues to be able to sell alcohol pending action by the compliance department.

Irizarry's attorneys Daniel Kaiser and Jeff James of the Flagstaff law firm Kaiser, James & Wilson were hired Tuesday to represent Irizarry at a liquor compliance department meeting in Phoenix Wednesday.

"It's still in the early stages at this point," Kaiser said. "We don't know at this point what evidence they have."

He and James will know more about what Irizarry faces and how to respond after Wednesday's meeting, Kaiser said.

But, upon initial examination of the case, Kaiser said he and James were immediately concerned with the timeline of the investigation, which was 18 months and perhaps longer. Irizarry has only owned Wauneta's for less than a year.

It could be the previous owners of the store are more the focus of the liquor department's investigation, Kaiser said. It could even be why the previous owners sold the business to Irizarry.

Kaiser, who said he has a substantial federal court load of cases originating on the Navajo Nation, knows of the devastation wrought by the specter of alcohol abuse. He is also aware that liquor establishments that border the reservations are of keen interest to investigators.

"(Irizarry) has got a big target on his store and on himself," Kaiser said. "He's quite upset about the whole situation."

THREE STORES ACCUSED

Wauneta's was among three liquor stores bordering the Navajo Nation that were accused March 3 of knowingly selling large amounts of booze to bootleggers. They are the first businesses in the state to ever face such charges from the liquor department.

A multi-agency task force of law enforcement officials spent 18 months investigating the liquor retailers, According to a March 3 press release issued by officials at the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control.

The retailers are: Hank's Trading Post, 26 miles north of Flagstaff on North Highway 89, owned by Joe Freeman; Wauneta's Trading Post, 32 miles north of Flagstaff on North Highway 89, owned by Irizarry; and Hatch's Quick Stop, 2310 Navajo Blvd., Holbrook, owned by Tim Hatch.

The nearby Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation are both "dry" reservations, which means that alcohol is illegal to be possessed, purchased or sold.

Each of the store owners face potential administrative sanctions. Among the possible penalties are monetary fines and revocation of their liquor licenses.

VIOLATIONS TO BE REVEALED

Sgt. Wes Kuhl of the liquor department said Irizarry was scheduled to meet with a compliance officer at 3 p.m. to go over the violations he is accused of committing. The meeting will give Irizarry the opportunity to admit to the violations, or request an administrative hearing to defend himself in the event he wants to challenge the violations.

Depending on the outcome, a penalty will be determined, if any.

The owner of Hank's has already met with compliance, but he has put in an application to transfer his liquor license and the liquor department is contesting that, Kuhl said. The owner of Hank's will likely appear before the liquor board on the May agenda.

"We're not allowing any activity right now in connection with the alleged violations," Kuhl said. "And those violations will be addressed with the liquor board."

The owner of Hatch's will meet with the compliance department March 23.

The investigation began after the liquor department received complaints from law enforcement agencies in the area and from members of the Navajo community about bootlegging activity alleged to be taking place at the three stores.

Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation leaders have publicly lauded the liquor department's action. They also expressed support of Director Leesa B. Morrison's mission to attempt to amend state liquor laws to make it a felony for liquor retailers to knowingly sell large amounts of alcohol to bootleggers.

Federal authorities who investigate and prosecute violent crimes on the reservations also expressed support of the liquor department's action. Federal officials have long seen a correlation with the reservations' high levels of violent crime and alcohol and drug abuse.

Larry Hendricks can be reached at lhendricks@azdailysun.com or 556-2262.

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