Board Questions Adversarial Police, Business Relationship; Multiple Fines Issued For Underage Sales Violations

SNOW HILL – Officials handed down a $750 fine and cautioned a resort business regarding its treatment of local police at a hearing this week.

The Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC) fined Coconuts $750 after the beach bar at the Castle in the Sand hotel failed a compliance check by serving alcohol to a minor. BLC members also advised the connections of the business that it was imperative that officers from the Ocean City Police Department, which in this case had handled the compliance check, were respected.

“I’m very concerned about how the officers are treated,” BLC Chairman William Esham said. “You need to be concerned about it also. They need to be treated with respect even if they’re wrong.”

In a BLC hearing Wednesday, attorney James Almand and connections of the hotel described their ongoing efforts to prevent staff from serving minors alcohol but acknowledged that on Aug. 1 an underage individual had been served.

“I can offer you no excuses for our failure…,” consultant Barry Neeb said. “Unfortunately, we cannot remove the human element from this business.”

Neeb, a retired Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officer, was hired five years ago by Adam Showell of Castle in the Sand to eliminate underage service at Coconuts after the establishment was fined $4,000 and had its license suspended for three days after serving a minor and violating other rules. Neeb said he examined the operation and hired new security personnel, put a strong focus on training security and servers and began conducting regular seminars and reviewing the company’s policy manual. At his suggestion Coconuts adopted the use of colored wristbands to identify patrons over the age of 21 and staff began confiscating fake IDs. Neeb said he even invited OCPD’s Frank Socha to visit the bar a few years ago, after he’d implemented the changes, and that Socha, who handles many of the department’s alcohol compliance checks, had been satisfied.

“We’ve been successful for five years,” Neeb said.

Josh White, head of security at Coconuts, said training in how to prevent underage sales went on every day at Coconuts.

“It never stops,” he said.

According to White, the day the sale to the minor occurred, the employee responsible had collected two of the five fake IDs the bar had confiscated that day. He showed BLC members the basket of more than 300 fake IDs staff had collected this year. The employee, who was fired after the incident, told the board he’d just made a mistake. In addition, Jeff Hicks, the food and beverage manager who’d spoken to Socha after the sale occurred, admitted he’d raised his voice at the officer but said it had only been because he was upset.

Showell told the BLC the 2014 suspension had resulted in $60,000 in lost sales and 600 mad hotel guests and that since then the Castle in the Sand had worked hard to ensure no one under 21 was served alcohol.

“Coconuts is very successful,” Showell said. “I don’t need the money from selling to underage persons.”

According to Socha, he got command level approval to check Coconuts after hearing rumors that the bar was serving minors. Socha said that in recent years, the OCPD had acknowledged that most businesses weren’t out to serve minors intentionally and began announcing the time frame for compliance checks. While that period had already passed, OCPD gave him special approval to check Coconuts in light of reports the department received. As Socha prepared to share what the department had been told, Almand objected, calling it hearsay. Esham noted the objection but said the board made a habit of listening to the police.

“We had reports Coconuts was using a specific method to allow people to get in,” Socha said.

He said police heard about the method, which involved the use of wristbands, from three separate people, including one who’d been stopped for driving while intoxicated.

“We also spoke to a person who was the subject of an EMS call at Coconuts who we got a call for who was passed out in the bathroom,” Socha said. “Coconuts had at that point taken them down the street and helped them off the property. We located this person and spoke with them.”

When Socha approached an assistant manager about the issue of minors getting drinks, he says the man told him he couldn’t prove it. At that point, OCPD conducted the compliance check and, using the same method the individuals had described, had a minor served alcohol.

Almand asked Socha about the purpose of the R.A.A.M. underage drinking program. When Socha replied that its purpose was to reduce the availability of alcohol to minors, Almand pointed to the Town of Ocean City’s website, which he said described the program as a partnership between businesses and the police.

Almand asked Socha whether he believed Showell’s assertion that the business was successful and didn’t need to serve minors.

“Based off the reports I have, no,” Socha said. “The business I believe is allowing people to drink underage there.”

Almand said that after Socha received the reports of underage drinking he never contacted Showell or Neeb, who he knew was handling Coconuts’ alcohol compliance program.

“Mr. Neeb is putting the proper mechanisms in place I don’t dispute that but … they have to be followed and they have to have a group of people there who are willing to follow them and work with police.,” Socha said.

Almand also questioned the stories told to police by the drunk driver and the person who’d been the subject of the EMS call. He added that the second individual had previously used a fake ID in Frostburg and had been charged with using a fraudulent ID two hours after police talked to him at Seacrets.

“At that point did you do a record check?” Almand said.

Socha said he did not.

After the lengthy hearing, Esham told those present that much of what had been said was hearsay and that the board was tasked with considering the one violation on Aug. 1.

“I like to support the Ocean City police,” he said. “We need you. You protect our businesses, you protect our town. This really smells different than anything I’ve had in my 31 years down here, it just does. You know Adam Showell … I don’t know why in the world if you had this information you didn’t call him. You certainly know Barry Neeb. I can’t imagine why you didn’t call him. I’m surprised.”

Esham said the bar had been checked multiple times since its last violation and had not sold to minors then. He encouraged Showell to communicate with the OCPD and “figure out what’s going on between you and the Ocean City police.”

“Something’s wrong…,” Esham said. “I’ve been here 31 years — some  people think too damn long — and I’ve not seen this before. I’m just being honest with you.”

BLC members agreed a violation had occurred and fined the business $750. Esham encouraged staff to always respect the OCPD but said it was clear that Coconuts was making consistent efforts to ensure minors weren’t served alcohol. BLC member Charles Nichols agreed.

“We recognize a lot of efforts have taken place,” he said.

At Wednesday’s meeting the board also addressed violations related to underage sales at a handful of other resort businesses. Montego Bay Super Thrift received a letter of reprimand. Grotto Pizza, Pho Char and My Thai OC each received a $250 fine.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

Alternative Text

Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.