Lawyer winds up, pitches to the jury: 'Wally the Beer Man' was entrapped
You could almost smell the yellow ribbon of mustard dabbed down the length of the hot ballpark frank. In the opening day of the trial of "Wally the Beer Man" and his co-defendant, defense attorney Peter Wold painted a picture of the sparkling Sep...
You could almost smell the yellow ribbon of mustard dabbed down the length of the hot ballpark frank.
In the opening day of the trial of "Wally the Beer Man" and his co-defendant, defense attorney Peter Wold painted a picture of the sparkling September night last year when Minneapolis police on a sting operation at Target Field claimed they caught one of the Twin Cities' most recognized figures and a co-worker selling beer to underage buyers.
"It was a great night for baseball in Minnesota," Wold told the jurors. The Twins had just clinched the American League's Central Division title, and they were about to play in front of a sell-out crowd in the opening game of their last home stand of the regular season.
"It was a truly festive, exciting evening, and Wally McNeil and Ed Stepnick were in their element," Wold said.
McNeil, better known as "Wally the Beer Man," and Stepnick, a machinist who moonlights as a vendor, are on trial in Hennepin County District Court for allegedly selling alcohol to two teens that September night.
In his opening statement to the five women and two men who make up the jury and an alternate, Assistant City Attorney Judd Gushwa painted the gross-misdemeanor crimes as straightforward.
"Mr. McNeil and Mr. Stepnick, their job is to sell alcohol," the prosecutor said. "They were walking around selling alcohol to whoever would ask for it."
But Wold accused the city of using a "19-year-old cop wannabe" and his girlfriend -- under direction of a police sergeant since fired for allegedly lying during an internal investigation -- in a "dubious" plan to entrap McNeil, Stepnick and others.
Although he's never smacked a homer over a major league fence, sunk a three-pointer on an NBA court or snagged a pass from a pro quarterback, McNeil is probably one of the most recognized figures in Minnesota sports. With his mellifluous baritone singing, "Ehhh, cold beer!" McNeil, 76, has sold everything from soda to beer to cotton candy to peanuts and virtually everything else consumable at Minnesota sporting events since 1970.
Wold said the retired pharmaceutical vice president is also something else: a vendor who doesn't sell to minors.
The defense attorney ticked off the number of nights McNeil has worked a year over the past four decades and the "millions of beers served."
"Not once in that entire history -- not once! -- did Wally fall to trickery," Wold exclaimed. He said there have never been any complaints that McNeil or Stepnick, 52, had ever sold alcohol to someone who wasn't 21.
"It was against their nature. They don't serve minors," Wold told jurors. "But they say all this changed on Sept. 30, 2010. ... It ain't so. Something doesn't add up. The police stories changed as time went on. They were entrapped. This sting was, without a doubt, initiated by the cops."
Before the trial, McNeil and Stepnick had turned down a plea offer to plead guilty in return for a $500 fine and two years of unsupervised probation. The company that hires the vendors at Target Field, Delaware North Cos. Sportservice, fired the two men, as well as six others who failed the test that night.
Although the men can sell other items at other sporting events, the Twins gig -- with 80-plus home games a year -- is the most lucrative regular work a vendor can get.
The first witness Gushwa called to the witness stand was Peter Ritschel, 47, who last September was a Minneapolis police sergeant working in the department's Licensing Division. The unit is responsible for doing "compliance checks" of the 650 establishments that have liquor licenses in the city to make sure they don't sell booze to people younger than 21.
Gushwa tried to get the damaging part out of the way early, though, having Ritschel concede that since September, he was fired by the police department for allegedly lying during an internal investigation unrelated to the Target Field sting operation. Ritschel maintained he was truthful and told jurors he is contesting the firing.
He explained how the Target Field sting worked: Officers would get a group of under-age people who wanted to work with police, explain the process and then have them try to buy alcohol while Ritschel and other officers watched a few feet away.
He said that the people are instructed to use their real ID cards and to give their real age if asked but that they were told they can lie if the vendor asks them if they're part of a police sting.
He said that on the night of Sept. 30, police had four teens who were part of the operation. He said they divided into two teams and that he was working with two of them, Anthony "Tony" Pasquale, 19, and Whitney Daniels, 18, both of Wisconsin.
Ritschel testified that they were working on the first-level concourse behind the bleachers and that a few minutes before the 7 p.m. game was to start, Daniels approached Stepnick.
"After looking at her identification, she was served a beer, which I recall was a Bud Light, for $7," the former officer testified.
A few moments later, at 6:50 p.m., Pasquale joined a crowd that had gathered around McNeil, whom Ritschel said he hadn't otherwise heard of. He later admitted he wasn't much of a sports fan.
Ritschel claimed McNeil sold a Michelob Golden Light beer to Pasquale without asking for any identification.
On cross-examination, Wold asked about the firing, and he also struck at a couple of inconsistencies between the former officer's records and his testimony. Ritschel had originally written down McNeil's name as "Moner" (he said he corrected it the next day), and on one form the police used, he checked a box indicating that McNeil had checked Pasquale's ID.
The trial continues today.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.
-- Copyright (c) 2011, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.