PEORIA HEIGHTS, Ill. (WMBD) — A West Peoria liquor store regularly sold alcohol to minors, alleged a Peoria Heights attorney representing the family of a 15-year-old girl killed last year in a drunk-driving crash.

“Selling alcohol to underaged teenagers was part of the modus operandi and business practices of Express Liquors. It’s part of how they do business. It’s what they did to make money,” said Jeff Green who is representing the mother of Mia Dusek of Bartonville, who died Feb. 27, 2022, after a traffic crash with an intoxicated teenage driver behind the wheel.

Green said he hopes the lawsuit will be a wake-up call for others to see the dangers of underage drinking.

“And I’m not talking about 19-year-old or 20-year-old college students with fake IDs; I’m talking about 15-, 16-year-old children who can walk into Express Liquors, purchase any amount of alcohol and not even get carded,” said Mia’s mother, Deborah Beaupre.

Green, who said Express Liquors has a reputation of being an easy place for minors to buy alcohol, vowed to turn over any evidence that he uncovered during the suit to the West Peoria Liquor Commission. “This is a problem that continues and persists today.”

West Peoria’s response

WMBD reached out to the city of West Peoria which oversees the liquor license for Express Liquors. Mayor Jim Dillon who heads the city’s liquor commission said the store has been fined three times since December 2020.

One instance was in December 2020 which led to a $800 fine. The second case was in May 2022 and the third was in March 2023, Dillon said. The latter two cases resulted in $1,000 and $2,500 fine respectively.

During a recent sting operation where the sheriff’s office sent in an underage person to buy alcohol, that person was carded and denied a sale. That happened, Dillon, within the past week.

“We have sent letters and talked to the gentleman there,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, they have more rights than we do. They are supposed to abide by the law, and I have to abide by the law.

“I think what we’ll continue to do is work with the sheriff and have more stings where they send undercover people in there,” he said, noting that he’s not a fan of the negative press the city is receiving due to allegations of underage drinking.

With all the cases closed, there’s not much the city of West Peoria can do at the moment.

Green said his investigation as a civil attorney turned up statements from five teens who all said they bought alcohol from the store several times while they were under 15 or 16. One girl, now 16, said she was buying liquor at the store without being carded when she was 14.

The statements indicated, Green said, that the five teens bought liquor at least 65 times in the year or so prior to Mia’s death. And the store, he said, has continued to sell liquor to minors after the tragic crash.

The attorney said the deputies with the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office have gone into the store three times since Mia’s death and twice, an undercover minor working with the department was able to buy alcohol without being carded.

“The next time they get caught when the sheriff sends in an underage kid, then that will give us the paperwork to do something. Anything that I do here they can appeal to the state liquor commission,” Dillon said.

More on the suit

On Wednesday, Green filed a seven-count suit in Peoria County Circuit Court alleging negligence, a wrongful death and other claims against Express Liquors and the driver of the vehicle, Clayton Bell, 17, who has since been sentenced to 14 years in prison for aggravated DUI.

The suit seeks at least $50,000 on each count plus other types of damages that could dwarf that statutory amount. The next scheduled court hearing is months away and it’s possible the case could take years to reach an endpoint.

An attempt to reach the owner of Express Liquors, 725 N. Western Ave., was not successful at both his cell phone and at the store. An attempt to speak with one of Bell’s parents was not successful.

But on Thursday, Beaupre, said the suit was about stopping another mother to suffer as she has.

“If this liquor store and others like it are allowed to continue to sell alcohol to minors then it will only be a matter of time before another avoidable senseless death occurs and a family’s life is destroyed like mine,” she said.

The crash occurred around 12:25 a.m., Feb. 27, 2022, in the 6700 block of West Pfeiffer Road, a stretch of road with steep hills that can block a driver’s line of sight. Deputies with the Peoria County Sheriff’s Office arrived to find the overturned vehicle. It had been going at a high rate of speed — the suit alleged it was double the posted speed limit of 35 mph — just before the crash.

Passengers who survived said the car was trying to “catch air.”