26620 Old 41 Rd, Bonita Springs, FL
BONITA SPRINGS — Customers come to Buffalo Chips Restaurant for its hot wings and hamburgers. On Thursday, cops came for the cooks.
In an early evening raid that caught customers and management by surprise, Lee County deputies descended on the popular restaurant and arrested four men — two cooks, a kitchen manager and a bartender — on charges that they sold cocaine and marijuana openly in the restaurant. State agents suspended the restaurant’s alcohol license.
“Just plain as day,” is how Lt. Christopher Reeves of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Unit described the deals. “And a lot of people were here to eat and drink and have a good time and didn’t know what was going on.”
Others did. Their tips to the Sheriff’s Office and the anonymous Crime Stoppers hotline sparked the investigation, in which undercover deputies made 14 drug buys over the past six weeks, Reeves said. All but one of the deals were made within the restaurant in the open, he said, and exchanges were rarely concealed.
“Sometimes the drugs were placed right on the bar,” Reeves said. “Sometimes they were placed in blue cheese containers they send with wings.”
Those arrested were Matthew Rutkowski, 40, a bartender; Angelo Gutierrez, 45, a kitchen manager; Juan Vasquez, 38, a cook; and Paulo Vasquez, 28, a cook. All are charged with selling cocaine. Rutkowski was charged with two counts of selling marijuana. A half ounce of marijuana and roughly an ounce of cocaine were found inside the restaurant and confiscated, Reeves said.
At the scene, deputy cruisers blocked entrances and exits to the property, their lights flashing. Masked agents with the state division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco posted notices of the suspended license on doors and windows. Customers present during the raid were forced to leave the restaurant, and those who arrived in the aftermath were turned away. Employees, including those arrested, were kept inside, where deputies could be seen speaking to them.
Owner Al Greenwood has run Buffalo Chips for 27 years. He declined to speak to the press on Thursday.
Customers arriving for dinner were surprised to see the commotion. Eileen Ravally, 61, and her husband were hoping for hamburgers when they approached the restaurant. Instead, they were forced to look elsewhere. Ravally said she never saw evidence of drug dealing.
“No, we’ve been here a few times...We’ve never seen anything going on,” she said. “Seemed fine to us.”
Bonita Springs City Councilwoman Martha Simons was inside the restaurant when the bust occurred. She said patrons were surprised, but deputies were polite. She hoped the alleged sales didn’t extend beyond those arrested.
“They’ll find out if it’s limited to the employees, and I hope that’s the case,” she said. “I just feel bad for everybody.”
Reeves said the deals appeared limited to those arrested.
Capt. Sabrina Maxwell, the Fort Myers district commander for Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, said her agency suspended the alcohol license under an emergency order. Agents accompanied undercover deputies multiple times to ensure the sales were an ongoing threat.
“It’s important to show that this kind of act is continuing, and then protect the public,” she said.
Restaurant owners, served the formal complaint on Thursday, will have 21 days to go before a judge to get the license back.
Thursday’s scene was a near perfect replica of the 2008 raid on Miller’s Ale House in San Carlos Park. In that case, 19 people — four of them employees — were arrested before the restaurant was raided. Charges in the case included selling cocaine, prescription pills and marijuana. Most of those arrested received probation, although a few with prior offenses received prison time. The employees were fired.
The Buffalo Chips investigation appeared to unfold in the same way. Customers called the Sheriff’s Office and the anonymous Crime Stoppers hotline to complain of brazen sales. Deputies investigated, made buys and eventually swooped in for the bust. Reeves said the dealers inside Buffalo Chips touted their goods.
“We had comments made to undercovers in the restaurant that this was the place to go to buy good weed,” he said.
Rutkowski faces 9 counts of possessing and selling cocaine, a felony. Gutierrez faces 3 counts on the same charge, Juan Vasquez faces two and Paulo Vasquez, one. Rutkowski is charged with two counts possessing and selling marijuana, also a felony.
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Staff writer Matt Clark contributed to this report.