Up in Smoke 

The owners of Wicked tangle with Attorney General Ashcroft and then face a truly fearsome opponent. Plus, Soul Beat lumbers back to life.

First the owners of Wicked on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue had to fight US Attorney General John Ashcroft. Now, they're fighting an even more fearsome opponent: Ken Sarachan, the prickly proprietor of Rasputin Music and Blondie's Pizza.

First, let Feeder recap Wicked's losing battle with General Johnny. It started in February 2003 when federal prosecutors named Wicked's owners, Nesser David Zahriya and Waleed A. Zahrieh, in their "Operation Pipe Dreams" indictment that snared fifty people including thespian Tommy Chong for selling bongs across state lines. The fierceness of the sting raised the National Stoner Paranoia Alert Level to Buzz-Kill status. Chong got nine months in prison, but the Wicked guys managed to avoid prison time. After all, these two were law-abiding family men, if you believe Zahrieh's lawyer. They did, however, get eighteen months' probation.

Enter Ken Sarachan, the shrewd, successful and, as his rivals might say, ruthless Telegraph Avenue mogul. Ten years ago, when his competitor Amoeba Music planned to expand across the street in a joint venture with a nonprofit housing developer, Sarachan swooped in at the last moment and ruined the deal. According to a city manager's report, Sarachan paid $800,000 in cash and assumed all the liens against the property, a vacant lot at the corner of Haste and Telegraph. Councilman Kriss Worthington, who represents the Telegraph area, says Sarachan paid well above market value for the site. A decade later, the lot is still vacant. In hopes of getting something built there, the city council offered last year to forgive $500,000 in liens against the property if Sarachan submits a project application by September 21. But that's another story.

With the federal case hanging over their heads, Wicked's owners began negotiating with Sarachan around Thanksgiving to sell him the building, which happens to be right next door to Rasputin Music. Rasputin's attorney John Capron said in court papers that Sarachan didn't want to pay Wicked's asking price or comply with their demand to subsequently lease the space back to the store -- which now deals only in reputable things such as hipster clothes, tattoos, and body piercings. Talks broke down on hostile terms. On December 15, Wicked put up a locked gate around its employee parking area behind the store with the apparent purpose of keeping Sarachan out. The Rasputin owner had parked behind Wicked for free and without permission for years. Sarachan turned around and sued Wicked, claiming that his years of hostile and open use of the parking area entitled him to what is called a prescriptive easement. Wicked's lawyer Stephen Pappas retorted that Sarachan's claim to the property was bogus. His true "evil motive," a court filing alleged, was to falsely throw the property title into question and thereby scuttle another offer to buy the building for $500,000 and leverage Sarachan's own offer. Last week Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick gave Wicked tentative approval to countersue Sarachan for slander of title and abuse of process.

Unfortunately, none of the players would talk about the dispute, forcing Feeder to rely on court records. Consequently, it's unclear exactly how Wicked's owners hoped to unload the property since the government controls its fate. Earlier this year, Judge Terrence F. McVerry ordered the pair to forfeit to the feds $173,845 and the title to the Wicked store on 2431 Telegraph Ave.

Feeder did go to Rasputin looking for Sarachan, only to be politely shooed away by a fellow named Steve who gently explained that it was unlikely his boss would want to chat with a reporter. "I'm the general manager," Steve said, "and he doesn't even want to talk to me."

Beating Again

Six months after cable giant Comcast pulled the plug on Soul Beat for not paying its bills, the station still isn't back on the air. But its soul proprietor, Chuck Johnson, says he expects to be back on TV in the near future, maybe even this month. Of course, this comes from the man who stubbornly dismissed rumors that Soul Beat was going off the air shortly before the 26-year-old station went off the air.

The 65-year-old Johnson still insists he was in the right in that fight. Comcast claimed he owed around $350,000 in back payments for airtime; Johnson argued that he was a local-access provider and therefore got to broadcast for free. Anyway, CJ says that's all in the past. He is now formally agreeing to a "leased access" contract where he pays a monthly fee for airtime. He modestly reports that after Soul Beat went off the air, his loyal viewing audience suffered withdrawal symptoms. A lot of them, he says, switched over to satellite during the six-month hiatus.

If Soul Beat returns as planned, it will air on channel 76 (not Channel 26) with six hours of programming a day instead of round the clock. It also will share the airwaves with a new black-owned station, KBLC on channel 78, which debuted two weeks ago. The head of the new TV station happens to be a former Soul Beat programmer. No, not ex-news director and Oakland Tribune moonlighter Chauncey Bailey, who unsuccessfully tried to launch his own station. It is Kelvin Lewis, whom Soul Beat viewers might remember as the mysterious man who appeared only in silhouette on Pilgrim's Progress, a religious show. Lewis says KBLC will be family-oriented and boast Christian values, though it won't just target religious audiences, or African-American audiences for that matter. Beyond that, Lewis didn't have much to add -- especially about himself. He reluctantly agreed that he could be described as a businessman, but asked Feeder not to say what kind of business he's in. Asked if he used to have a show on Soul Beat, he answered, "Let's not mention that." Oops, I did it again.

Gas-Price Check

Every time gas prices skyrocket, Joe Ayres gets more calls from car drivers complaining about faulty pumps overcharging them. Ayres is the chief deputy sealer for Alameda County's weights and measures division. The obscure county agency is responsible for testing equipment such as grocery store price scanners, taxi meters and, yes, gas pumps, to see whether they are accurately charging consumers. So with gas prices now hovering around $2.40 a gallon, ol' Joe has been seeing a predictable rise in gas-pump complaints. And, as usual, Ayres and his crew are finding the usual 3 to 5 percent error rate -- which, by the way, often favor drivers, he says. He says a typical complainant calls in grousing that he filled his tank a week before with $20, but couldn't fill it with $20 this week. Wonder why that could be? Ya think maybe 'cause gas prices went up a quarter since the week before? Do people really ask such dumb questions? To quote the famous Chevron commercials, people do.


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