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Ely thrift store shut in wake of drug allegations - UPDATED

Keith Vandervort
Posted 2/17/21

ELY – The Ely Drop and Shop secondhand retail shop was shut down last Thursday by the Ely City Council, which yanked the operation’s business license during an emotionally-charged public …

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Ely thrift store shut in wake of drug allegations - UPDATED

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ELY – The Ely Drop and Shop secondhand retail shop was shut down last Thursday by the Ely City Council, which yanked the operation’s business license during an emotionally-charged public hearing. The closure was triggered by criminal charges against one of the business’s owners for allegedly selling methamphetamines on the premises.
The council voted 6-0, with one member absent, to revoke the retail store’s business license and ordered the store closed immediately. The store remains closed indefinitely as an agreement to reinstate the license is negotiated with the owners.
Council members last week were amenable to giving the business a second chance, and established eligibility requirements for a conditional business license reinstatement. They hoped that an agreement could be reached between the Drop and Shop owners and city officials to reinstate the business license this week, but the resale shop owners have not come forward with a re-opening plan.
According to the resolution adopted by the council, the conditional reinstatement of the business license to the Ely Drop and Shop could occur if all the following conditions are met,
• Application of conditional reinstatement must specifically outline procedures the business will utilize to ensure no similar events occur,
• Submission of an updated owner and employee list, and licensee shall, within five days of a change of status, notify city officials as to the current employees and owners, and no employee or owner shall be of questionable moral character,
• Submittal to ongoing and random administrative inspections,
• No similar occurrences, and
• City Council will have complete discretion to review and approve conditional reinstatement terms prior to issuance.
Charges were filed late last year in Sixth District Court in Virginia against Amanda Stevens, one of several co-owners of the retail thrift store, located at 204 E. Sheridan St., for Sale of a Controlled Substance in the Third Degree and Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Fifth Degree, both felonies.
Rumors that the thrift store was a source for illegal drugs have circulated in Ely for some time. In a statement to the city council, Ely Police Chief Chad Houde said the department began investigating the claims in earnest right after he was appointed police chief last May. Houde said an investigation he requested by the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force tended to support the reports circulating in town.
Chief Houde described for the council an illegal sale of methamphetamine in the downtown business, in which a confidential informant of the drug task force made a controlled buy from Stevens in the store on Oct. 7, 2020.
According to the probable cause statement attached to the criminal charges, the task force set up an undercover purchase of meth from Stevens last October, using a confidential informant who told officers he/she had previously bought meth from Stevens at the store. At that time, Stevens allegedly sold the informant approximately 1.61 grams of meth. A text message alleged to have been sent by Stevens to the informant read: “Come to donations. I’m at work. And please don’t be so loose when you text. That’s how I ended up in prison last time.”
The complaint further states that a review of Stevens’ criminal history revealed a prior conviction for a second-degree controlled substance crime in 2009.
In a supplemental report, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department indicates that prior to the undercover purchase by the informant, its deputies and members of the drug task force had “conducted numerous hours of surveillance and observed high amounts of suspicious vehicle and foot traffic to and from the business.” The report also stated that officers had observed “multiple individuals that were the focus of an ongoing investigation into the use/sale of controlled substances, including but not limited to methamphetamine, frequenting the business.”
Houde said further investigation revealed that Stevens was indeed a co-owner of the business.
“With the seriousness of the crime that was committed, I related this information to the attention of the council and mayor to consider revocation of the Drop and Shop’s business license,” he said.
Prior knowledge
According to Houde, the other owners of the business say they were unaware of the illegal activity until they learned of it recently. Krings, the business’s majority owner, insisted in an interview with Houde that she knew nothing of Stevens’ activity until late January, when she was informed by Stevens about the charges she was facing. Two other minority owners, Casey Moravitz and Rosario Thole also indicated they were unaware that illegal drugs were being distributed through the store.
According to Ely City Attorney Kelly Klun, however, Krings was indeed aware of the activity.
“It should be noted,” Houde told the council last Thursday, “that the confidential informant identified another owner, Kristen Krings (last October) as previously having knowledge of a previous sale of meth at the business.”
In a surprising move, council members disputed the case evidence presented by law enforcement officials that the licensee, co-owners or employees had knowledge of the illegal drug activity in the store and failed to timely report the information to police.
Council members listened to impassioned oral arguments and written statements from as many as eight people, including other Drop and Shop store co-owners and employees, and community members, who asserted that Stevens’ actions were isolated in nature and no one else ever had any knowledge of the illegal activity occurring in the store.
Council member Paul Kess sought to amend the resolution to remove the “prior knowledge” evidence as testified to by police. “I dispute those (law enforcement) findings,” he said following the presentation of numerous tearful pleas and statements of support for the community-minded resale shop. Council members agreed to the resolution amendment.
Ownership claims
Klun maintains there remains “significant discrepancy” over ownership of the Ely Drop and Shop.
“Amanda Stevens is still citing that she has ownership in the business,” Klun said. “It is fair to say that there is no dispute in the evidence that an event did occur on Oct. 7 on the premises. And it is fair to say the Amanda Stevens is still claiming some ownership relative to the business.”
Stevens claimed that she transferred her shares to another owner last year, but her statement contradicts the statements of the shop’s other owners, who all agreed that Stevens owns 25 percent.
While Krings is the majority owner, and her name is the only one to appear on the business’s license, Klun said the names of the other owners should have been included when Krings applied for the business license.
Stevens did not attend the public hearing last Thursday night. Instead she sent a letter to the city of Ely that Klun read aloud for the record.
“As a shareholder in this company, I will be asking to temporarily turn over the rights to my shares of the Ely Drop and Shop to a third party, Leslie Zupancich, who not only has ‘business’ experience but also a ‘reputable name’ in our community, (and) is someone who I trust will put the business and community best interests first and help ensure that no such future incidents occur at the business,” Stevens wrote.
Stevens hopes to retain co-ownership in the businesses. “I am asking that once I complete my legalities and probationary terms, I will then be able to come back to the business rehabilitated and fulfill the obligations set forth to better continue to serve our community in the best way possible,” she wrote.
Stevens faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine for the third-degree charge of sale of a controlled substance. She also faces five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine for the fifth-degree possession charge. Her next court appearance is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 22, according to court documents.
Any business license reinstatement must be approved by the city council, which meets again on Tuesday, March 2.
Council action
In other business at their Feb. 16 meeting, the council took the following actions:
• Welcomed two new city police officers (see photos on page 7).
• Appointed city resident Jeanette Palcher to the Planning and Zoning Committee.
• Granted a permit to city resident Cody Perkins to tap sap from up to eight maple trees on the 200 block and 300 block of Conan Street this spring.

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