A two-year-long investigation culminated today, Friday, September 8, with charges against 23 Bethel residents, most of them cab drivers, for allegedly selling alcohol without a license; in other words, for bootlegging.
The State of Alaska is charging 18 cab drivers, who come from every Bethel cab company: Quyana Cab, Kusko Cab, Taxi Cab, and Alaska Taxi. Quyana Cab Company and its co-owner Min Sook Cha are also charged. Other individuals being charged allegedly helped cab drivers bootleg. The list also includes a former night-manager at Tundra Suites motel, Neal Gutleben.
The two-year undercover investigation was conducted by the State Trooper’s Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team.
Bethel residents might remember the raid that occurred in June 2016 where Troopers, with the help of Bethel Police and the FBI, searched homes and cabs, mainly in Bethel's Trailer Court; many Quyana and Taxi Alaska cab drivers live in that neighborhood. In some units, the raid uncovered tens-of-thousands of dollars in cash as well as liquor purchase orders and a large number of liquor bottles.
The troopers had been receiving tips for years that Bethel cab drivers were selling alcohol.
In December 2015, the unit began to investigate.
Troopers first turned to state records. When someone in the bush purchases a liquor order of more than 36.5 liters, stores submit that information to the state. Troopers noticed that many of these orders were made by cab drivers.
Then the Troopers went undercover. Riding in cabs, the officers would ask drivers if they could get “one” or get a “jug.” Both are slang for a bottle of R&R Whiskey. The slim plastic bottle is a familiar sight littering parking lots and beaches in Bethel and may be the most commonly consumed alcohol in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
If they were willing to go along, the driver would then stop at a residence to pick up a bottle or meet up with another driver who carried them. Sometimes, if a driver recognized an officer as a previous buyer, the driver would offer to sell the undercover officer a bottle. Few drivers carried the alcohol in their cabs.
Many charges are against Quyana Cab drivers. According to charging documents, Quyana co-owner and driver, Min Cha or “Mindy”, told an undercover officer that “selling alcohol is dangerous business.” Cha then asked the officer if she had helped him or her to score before, the officer said yes. Cha then said that, “she could not remember because she has helped so many people to score before.”
Another Quyana driver, Won Jin Yang, told officers that “he did not get any money for arranging and carrying out the sale of alcohol - all the money goes to someone else.”
A Taxi/Alaska driver, Jonathan Sungjoo Cha, told a similar story. Cha said that a man living in trailer number 41 allegedly keeps the ledger and most of the money from the sales. Cha also said that Taxi Alaska would “continue to sell alcohol after the liquor store opened, but they would mainly sell after hours.”
Alcohol sales were legalized in Bethel in early 2016, but only to licensed stores.
From 2015 to 2016, Troopers made 50 undercover bootleg purchases in all. Forty-seven of the 50 were from on-duty cab drivers. Most of the purchasers bought 750 milliliters of R&R Whiskey for $50.
Only three of the defendants, none of them cab drivers, have previous criminal convictions.
All charges are Class A Misdemeanors. If convicted, the maximum penalty is one year in jail and a $25,000 fine. The maximum penalty for a business convicted of selling alcohol without a license is a $500,000 fine.