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Long Beach market a front for meth?

September 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Undercover officers say a Long Beach market may have been a front for selling drugs.Police say Benjamin Enrique Vega had been selling drugs behind store shelves filled with diapers and baby formula.

The nutrition store sits across the street from Saint Mary Medical Center in Long Beach.

The store is called the Happy Moms and Kids Nutrition Store, which advertises that it accepts WIC (items for women, infants and children).

The store was open Wednesday morning, but as soon as ABC7 arrived, they locked up and left.

The woman who was locking up said she didn't speak English, so Eyewitness News Reporter Carlos Granda asked her about what happened in Spanish.

Granda said the woman told her she knew nothing. She said she was there to pick up documents.

Police say the Happy Moms and Kids Nutrition Store was a front for selling methamphetamine.

"There were mothers that came in with their kids to buy baby formula. So, the store was doing what it was supposed to. But on top of that, it was exposing these mothers and their children to other people that were coming into that store for completely illegitimate purposes," said Sergeant Paul LeBaron, Long Beach Police Department.

Police arrested Benjamin Enrique Vega. Undercover narcotics investigators began tracking him about four weeks ago after getting a tip.

Police found old items and expired food on the shelves of the store. Neighbors told Eyewitness News the shoppers appeared unusual.

"Everybody that goes in there doesn't come out with like milk, sodas, potato chips or so forth. They come out with a little bag or something like that, and that's it," said Steve Smith, neighbor. "We don't see heavy traffic in here. We hardly see anyone in there ... anyone," said Tom Smith, another neighbor.

Police say while they were there searching the store, Vega's phone kept ringing. They say the callers were customers allegedly wanting to buy meth.

"One of our detectives spoke to one of these potential buyers on the phone and convinced the buyer that he was the suspect. And the buyer ordered a $20 quantity of methamphetamine. And about five minutes later showed up at the store ready to purchase it with $20 in their pocket. And she was arrested too," said Sgt. LeBaron.

"I was surprised because, like I said, they looked like pretty friendly people," said another neighbor.

Vega's wife co-owns the store, but she was not arrested.

Vega is being held on $30,000 bail. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday.

 

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