Business was slow for bartender Melissa Wendt at the New Princeton Tavern, a corner sports bar in Northeast Philadelphia.
But just after 10:30 p.m. Thursday came a rush. More than a dozen police officers and state liquor agents charged through the door, flashing badges and demanding that she and the dozen patrons put their hands on top of the bar.
The New Princeton was one of three bars shut down late last week by the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and the Philadelphia Police Citywide Vice Unit, backed by district officers and an inspector with the city Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Such raids are a rite of the holiday season and have a lot to do with the calendar. Liquor licenses in Philadelphia expire on Oct. 31, and it is illegal to sell alcohol if a license has not been renewed. Authorities pounce first on the now-unlicensed bars with previous L&I issues or neighborhood complaints.
The raids, at which alcohol and cash are confiscated, often uncover other illegal activity.
In a raid Thursday at the Sultry Lounge in Strawberry Mansion, a loaded rifle was found in the basement and officers found evidence that the building's gas meter had been bypassed.
At the New Princeton, a fugitive from Florida had picked the wrong place to meet a buddy for a drink.
At the Triada lounge in Old City where four bartenders and an owner were arrested Friday for serving without a license, police noted that the bar menu listed $200 for a bottle of Absolut and $450 for a bottle of Grey Goose. But in the back room, investigators said, they found empty bottles of the premium vodka near full bottles of Banker's Club, a rot-gut vodka purchased for $7 in New Jersey.
Sgt. William La Torre of Liquor Control Enforcement said he questioned the owner, Gregory J. Wright, who told him he substituted the cheaper liquor because "times are tough."
Wright, 38, of Mount Laurel, faces four charges, including unlawful sales of liquor and criminal conspiracy. He could not be reached for comment.
As often occurs, the bartenders at the three bars were arrested, as they were the ones accused of breaking the law by selling alcohol without a license.
The license for the New Princeton, at Princeton and Rising Sun Avenues, was in the names of John Bell and Barbara B. Kelly, but no addresses were available. They were not at the bar and were not charged. La Torre said they could face sanctions, however.
The New Princeton had been cited multiple times in recent years for operating without a license, serving minors and visibly intoxicated persons, serving insufficient food, and playing loud music, records show.
While officers combed the New Princeton's long, U-shape bar Thursday, a man who identified himself to police as an owner and another man who identified himself as the owners' attorney phoned the bar several times.
After being told that officers were confiscating alcohol, cash and televisions, neither one asked about "that poor girl," said Sgt. Irvin Riley of Citywide Vice, motioning to Wendt, sitting in a chair in handcuffs. "They always let the bartender take it."
Wendt, 28, nodded toward the wall, gesturing to the 2007-08 liquor license. "I knew that was hanging up there, but I didn't look at the [expiration] date," she said. She was charged with unlawful sales of liquor; an arraignment was set for Jan. 28.
Authorities spent nearly four hours removing more than 141 gallons of beer (in kegs and cans), 95 liters of liquor, and 4 liters of wine.
Agents confiscate the televisions to make it harder for owners to simply reopen before a state hearing. "You can't be a sports bar without TVs," said La Torre, who oversaw the three raids.
Thursday's raids began about 7 p.m. outside the Philadelphia Zoo, where more than a dozen LCE and Citywide Vice officers set up a staging area with uniformed officers from the 23d District.
First, two undercover agents were sent five blocks away to the first target, the Sultry Lounge at 30th and Stiles Streets.
Standing in the rain, Capt. Laurence Nodiff of the 23d District described the Sultry as a legal nuisance - creating noise and serving visibly intoxicated people. He said that when he took over the 23d in May, he left his business card and asked the owner to call. "He never did," Nodiff said.
When the undercover officers at the Sultry text-messaged that they had been served, the assembled officers drove to the bar in a caravan and rushed inside.
A young woman was the lone bartender.
Based on the undercover officers' reports, police arrested a woman who had bought beer for her 20-year-old son. The son was cited for underage drinking.
Police checked the driver's licenses of the half-dozen other patrons and let them go. La Torre and his plainclothes team set out emptying the bar, corking the open bottles, and taking an inventory of everything they carted away.
L&I inspector Ken Gassman went into the Sultry's basement, where he found a .22 rifle in a cutout in the brick wall and the bypassed gas meter.
A round was in the chamber and 14 rounds remained in a clip.
The bartender, identified as Keisha McClendon, was arrested and charged with serving alcohol without a license.
The Sultry's owners, listed on records as Bonnie Fischer and Santosha McGough, both of Philadelphia, were not on the premises. Reached yesterday, Fisher declined to comment. McGough could not be reached.
The bartender told police it was her first day of work.