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A 16-year-old girl asked a bowling alley operator for change and received it, prompting Tonawanda city police Saturday to charge the operator with selling cigarettes to a minor.

The girl, accompanied by two boys, one 11 and the other 12, was a decoy working with police who had targeted 13 retail businesses in the city.

William T. Howell, 42, owner of Delaware Lanes at 337 Delaware St., was among four people caught in the operation.

Police said the girl had explained to Howell that she would use the money to buy cigarettes from a vending machine; he said he never heard that explanation and thought she wanted the change for video machines.

Hours after the charges were filed, Howell said he had been caught off guard when the girl asked him for change. Still, he seemed more contrite than bitter.

"I assumed the change was for the video machines," he said. "That's the reason we have a change machine here. But regardless, it was our responsibility."

Howell faces a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully dealing with a minor under the state law prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18 years old.

While he never has had a problem with his regular junior league bowlers, youths off the street occasionally have attempted to buy cigarettes at his establishment, Howell said.

Usually, he added, he's on his toes.

"We are not in the business to promote cigarette smoking," he said. "The cigarette machine is here only for the convenience of our adult bowlers."

Police Capt. David Fill and Officer Dan Reinbolt accompanied the decoy team to the targeted businesses Saturday. Fill said all the retailers had been warned about the Police Department's intentions.

"We went to each retailer and explained the law," Fill said. "We gave them an information packet and advised them that we were going to start enforcing the law. We educated them. The word was out. Some of them took it lightly, and some of them did not."

At nine of the businesses targeted, Fill said, the girl was turned down or asked for identification.

A convenience store clerk and two supermarket clerks accused of selling the girl cigarettes face the same charge as Howell. They are Norma J. Toy, 45, of the Uni-mart at 750 Young St.; Jackie A. Sidoti, 19, of the Tops Market at 750 Young, and Brian A. Young, 16, of the Bells Supermarket at 2 Young St.

Ronald Eldredge, the manager at the Bells market, said Young quit his job after he was charged Saturday. Eldredge said the owner of the market, Tom Galuski, declined to comment. Ms. Sidoti was unavailable for comment Saturday, and a manager at the Tops market referred all questions to the public relations director for Tops Friendly Markets.

All of those charged Saturday are scheduled to appear in Tonawanda City Court sometime in January, Fill said.

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