Alcohol sales in Whiteclay are headed for a historic halt.

Lawyers for the state played a trump card against the village's four embattled beer stores Thursday, a dramatic turn that effectively forces them to close this weekend with no promise of reopening.

The store owners' attorney, Andrew Snyder of Scottsbluff, said he advised them not to sell any alcohol after their licenses expire at midnight Sunday.

"That's about all I can tell them right now," he said.

It was a complete reversal of fortune following a judge's decision hours earlier that the stores should be allowed to stay open.

The Nebraska Attorney General's Office quickly challenged the judge's ruling, citing a section of law that puts decisions by lower courts on hold for up to six months whenever a state agency appeals to the Nebraska Supreme Court or Court of Appeals.

That allowed the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to revert to last week's unprecedented decision to deny renewal of the beer stores' licenses.

"It's definitely a roller-coaster ride," said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma liquor regulator and documentarian who has fought to end Whiteclay beer sales.

Millions of cans of beer and malt liquor are sold each year in the tiny, unincorporated village in northwest Nebraska, home to about eight permanent residents. Much of that beer ends up on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

Now, for the first time in decades, that river will run dry.

The sudden change of fortune appeared to leave the beer stores out of options leading into the long weekend.

Most courts and state government offices are closed Friday in observance of Arbor Day, and Snyder said the soonest he could respond to the appeal is Monday.

The state's appeal superseded Lancaster County District Court Judge Andrew Jacobsen's decision from earlier Thursday morning, in which he ruled that the Liquor Commission overstepped its legal authority by denying the stores' liquor licenses.

Snyder had asked Jacobsen to simply delay the commission's unanimous April 19 decision and allow the beer stores to stay in business while a full appeal could be considered.

The judge went a step further, calling the commission's action "void on its face" and ordering regulators to let the beer stores automatically renew their liquor licenses.

That ruling was immediately hailed by the stores, while activists responded with fury.

Frank LaMere of Winnebago, who has fought against Whiteclay beer sales for almost two decades, accused the judge of throwing "grease on the fire."

Hours later, the state's appeal doused Whiteclay in cold water.

Activists were reluctant to celebrate the twist, for fear that the stores could somehow stay open.

Maisch said their priority is to make sure help is available to people in Whiteclay as soon as it's necessary.

"If the stores close this Monday, there's going to be somebody who was sleeping under a tree or behind a building in Whiteclay, and they're going to go to a beer store to get beer because their mind tells them they need beer ... and they're not going to have it," Maisch said.

Even if Jacobsen's ruling is temporarily blocked, lawyers for the state must still respond to his legal reasoning in their appeal.

His order didn't offer a sweeping endorsement of Whiteclay beer sales. Instead, the judge took issue with the Liquor Commission's legal grounds for refusing to renew the licenses of Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and Jumping Eagle Inn.

The three liquor commissioners cited a lengthy list of concerns about Whiteclay — including its connection to rampant alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome on Pine Ridge — but their decision was based on what they called a lack of adequate law enforcement in the village itself.

Jacobsen said that standard may only be applied to new licenses, not existing ones. He cited a 1996 case in which the Nebraska Supreme Court sided with the Grand Island Latin Club after its license renewal was denied by the Liquor Commission.

In that case, the Supreme Court said renewal of a license is a constitutionally protected interest that can only be denied if license holders themselves are caught breaking the law.

Asked Thursday if he agreed with Jacobsen's order, Gov. Pete Ricketts declined to weigh in.

"Everybody is entitled to their due process, and this is part of that process," he said.

Ricketts and Liquor Commission officials have denied repeated claims by Snyder that the actions taken against the beer stores are politically motivated.

The stores also face allegations from the Attorney General's Office that they sold alcohol to bootleggers and violated other state liquor laws. A hearing on those citations is expected to take place in coming months.

Separately Thursday, Ricketts signed into law a measure forming a task force to examine public health issues in Whiteclay. The task force plans to hold its first meeting May 19-20.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who is expected to be named the group's co-chairwoman, said its members hope to make an immediate visual difference in Whiteclay through steps such as adding public restrooms and fixing up old buildings.

In the longer term, the task force will work with public health experts and economic development officials on setting broader goals for the area.

"The sky's the limit," Pansing Brooks said. "We're trying to think outside the box, and trying to bring some hope and healing to Whiteclay."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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