ELKHART — After six Elkhart businesses were raided by police and closed in connection with the sale of synthetic marijuana in June 2014, half have since reopened.
And though it’s approaching a year since their doors were shut, the future of two gas stations along Franklin Street and a food mart along Benham Avenue remains uncertain. Their windows and doors are still boarded up, and orange signs along the sides of the structures say the properties remain in control of the Elkhart Police Department.
A number of people have submitted this question over the course of the past year, least of all because the boarded up buildings are an eye sore. It’s a difficult question to address because legal proceedings involving the businesses’ owners aren’t done yet, so some answers can’t be known yet.
“There is still pending litigation to hold the business operators responsible for the criminal conduct they allegedly committed within Elkhart County,” said Heather Norman, communications director for the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office. “These businesses are still closed by order of the court and civil litigation is ongoing.”
WHY HAVE THE OTHER BUSINESSES CLOSED IN THE RAIDS REOPENED?
On June 10, a total of 12 businesses — six in Elkhart County and six in St. Joseph County — were seized and sealed by the state of Indiana in connection to an investigation into the sale of synthetic marijuana.
Undercover officers and cooperating informants purchased synthetic drugs or synthetic look-alike substances from the businesses on several occasions, according to a statement from the Elkhart County Prosecutors Office. Eleven people in Elkhart County were arrested in connection with the investigation.
The Elkhart County arm of the investigation specifically targeted Granger residents Gurcharn Singh and Jaswinder Kaur, who operated four of the raided locations, according to a news release from the Elkhart County Prosecutors Office.
Corporations, created by either or both Singh and Kaur, owned the Phillips 66 and Burger Dairy at 1403 Franklin St.; the Marathon gas stations at 1589 W. Franklin St. and 1850 E. Bristol St.; and the Sunnyside Food Mart at 1502 S. Benham Ave.
Officers found “significant co-mingling” between Singh’s personal account and the bank accounts used by the those businesses, according to the statement.
Singh and Kaur are awaiting trial and are both being held on $5 million bonds at the Elkhart County Jail.
Two of the Elkhart locations, Energy Oil at 1245 S. Main St. and Handy Spot at 1226 S. Main St., reopened in December after their corporate entities reached an agreement with the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office, according to previous reporting by The Elkhart Truth.
One of the gas stations that used to be managed by Singh or Kaur, the a Marathon along Bristol Street, is owned by National Oil and Gas Inc. and reopened about a month ago, said company president Trout Moser. Two months ago, the Bluffton petroleum distributor terminated its lease with the accused managers.
Since the Bristol Street Marathon reopened, Moser said the store has been getting the same volume of business it had before the raids.
“I think we’re glad to see that people understand that it’s a new party that wasn’t involved in (criminal) activity,” Moser said. “People are willing to give second chances.”
Moser said such criminal activity doesn’t happen a lot at their leased locations. When a lessee signs on with their company and with the Marathon Petroleum Company, they have to agree to not have drug paraphernalia in the business. Even then, Moser said neither company is involved in the day-to-day operations of the business.
“We do everything in our power to make sure these dealers are running a legal and upfront business but, let’s face it, none of us are there 24 hours a day,” he said.
Another representative of National Oil and Gas Inc. said at a hearing in Elkhart Superior Court 3 that the company was looking to reopen a fourth of the six gas stations — another Marathon at 1589 W. Franklin St. It it’s unclear when or if that could happen.
The Phillips 66 and Burger Dairy along Franklin Street and the Sunnyside Food Mart along Benham Avenue are still in the limbo. Both of those stores were owned by either or both Singh and Kaur.
All six stores in St. Joseph County reopened soon after the raids because unlike the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office, the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office did not file paperwork for civil asset forfeiture and to close the stores, according to Jessica McBrier, director of special projects and media relations for the office.
EFFECT ON THE COMMUNITY
After the seizures of the gas stations and food mart, Elkhart city council members Ron Troyer and David Henke both said the closings were an inconvenience for non-driving residents who lived near and shopped at the gas stations.
On a windy Tuesday afternoon, April 21, crossing guard Carolyn Dancer helped schoolchildren cross the street by the shuttered Sunny Side Food Mart at the intersection of Benham and Indiana avenues. She lives on Oakland Avenue, a mile away, and has been a part of the community for 40 years. Even though the mart is not a pretty sight, Dancer said the store had to be closed for “good reasons.”
“But I know the neighborhood people need it because they say they miss it,” Dancer said. “Because they like coming down there, buying different odds and ends. ...(like) eggs and diapers — something for their baby.”
She said someone should reopen the gas station as long as they run it right.
Denise Browning, who has lived in Washington Gardens for three years, said Sunnyside Food Mart closing has required people to walk further or plan ahead to take the trolley to Woodland Crossing, where there is a Kroger and Sears, among other stores.
“It was is really convenient for everybody around here because there isn’t any, you know, little corner stores for any of us to go to around here,” Browning said.
But that’s not to say the closure of the Sunny Side Food Mart has left people without another option at all. Browning said she now goes to the little store on Indiana Avenue by the Roosevelt Center.