As a federal trial opened for a Pennsylvania Liquor Control Enforcement officer accused of extortion, a Bucks County bar owner testified Tuesday that he finally contacted police after getting a runaround from the woman, who owed him more than $3,000.
The officer, Gina Marie Kepler, 35, of Salem, N.J., is accused of using her position at the bureau, which is run by the state police, to scam $13,000 in cash from nine bar owners in Montgomery and Bucks Counties.
Troy Garr, the first witness, told the jury that he and a partner bought the Chill Bar & Grill in Holland in October 2006. He said he met with Kepler right away because he was unfamiliar with state liquor laws and wanted to learn the proper procedures.
He said that Kepler offered to purchase an electronic ID-checker for him and that he agreed, paying her $1,100 in cash. Some time later, he accepted an offer from her to split Eagles season tickets and gave her $1,100 or $1,200, he testified.
After a couple of months with no ID machine or football tickets, he said Kepler dropped off a machine but later took it back. She also came into his bar on Christmas Eve and told him a relative had been arrested and she needed a $1,000 check cashed for use as bail - a check that bounced, Garr testified.
Garr said he had been "definitely intimidated" by Kepler, but the check-bouncing incident emboldened him.
"That was maliciously stealing from me," he testified. "When she bounced the check, that rubbed me the wrong way; at that point, I had had it."
Garr testified that he warned Kepler that he would file charges in small-claims court. He said the bounced check was quickly repaid, but he testified that Kepler called him to say that someone had been involved in an accident after drinking at Garr's bar and that she would make sure he wouldn't get in trouble.
After a year of trying to get back the scanner, Garr said, he got tired of Kepler's myriad excuses - from accidents to family problems - for not delivering what she promised, and he contacted authorities.
In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlene D. Fisk said the jury would hear from representatives of each of the nine establishments and see a pattern of how Kepler "used and abused her position."
Defense attorney William R. Spade Jr. disputed Fisk's characterization.
"There are always two sides to every story," he said in his opening.
Spade acknowledged that Kepler's selling of the ID scanners violated state police procedures - an infraction that cost Kepler her job of nearly 10 years - but he suggested that her efforts "to help these businesses protect the public" were not criminal.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell will continue Wednesday. If convicted of all charges, Kepler would face a maximum possible sentence of 180 years and $2.25 million in fines.