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2 smuggling rings targeted

Federal agents raid homes and businesses linked to purchases of 35-million purported black market cigarettes.

Published December 12, 2003

[Times photo: Libby Volgyes]
Jim Vouris, left, of Palm Harbor looks on as an unidentified federal agent enters the Tobacco Discount store at 760 East Lake Road during a raid Thursday.
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EAST LAKE - Sixteen people in three states were arrested Thursday in a series of raids that followed a 21/2-year investigation of what federal agents say are two Pinellas-based cigarette smuggling organizations.

Undercover agents sold what were purported to be 35-million black market cigarettes at cut-rate prices to the organizations during the sting, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said. The organizations that bought the cigarettes believed they were stolen and failed to pay more than $1.3-million in federal and state taxes on them, the agency said.

The sting began when members of two different groups initiated the illegal sales by soliciting an undercover agent about 21/2 years ago, said ATF spokesman Carlos Baixauli.

ATF officials believe the organizations were also buying contraband cigarettes from other dealers, Baixauli said.

The organizations sold cigarettes out of at least four Tampa Bay area storefronts and helped to arrange sales of what they believed were stolen cigarettes to people in Miami, Los Angeles and Cleveland, federal officials say. As a result, agents served search warrants at three stores in Palm Harbor, one in Largo and a Tampa business. They also searched homes of three suspects, one in Clearwater and two in Palm Harbor.

Eleven of the cigarette smuggling suspects were arrested in the Tampa Bay area, three in Cleveland, one in Miami and one in Los Angeles.

Ten of the suspects arrested are Pinellas County residents and included the man who was the contact for ATF's undercover agents: Gezim Arapi, 44, of Clearwater. Arapi introduced his associates in the smuggling organizations to the undercover agent, Baixauli said. Arapi was charged with federal racketeering. That charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

Most of the other suspects were charged with federal racketeering or trafficking in contraband cigarettes, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison. Fatmir Kalemi of Clearwater was charged with selling undercover ATF agents large quantities of the drug ecstasy.

"We reached a certain point where we felt we had all the major players" Baixauli said. "We felt we got what we need, and we took this thing down."

ATF agents armed with high-powered rifles and pistols started their raids at the Tobacco Discount store in the Shoppes of Boot Ranch in East Lake Thursday morning.

Members of the organizations had come expecting to buy stolen cigarettes, Baixauli said.

Dennis McVeen, who works at the Radio Shack a few doors down from Tobacco Discount, heard the commotion just after 10 a.m. Agents blocked off an area around his store and apparently waited until some customers left the tobacco store before entering, he said.

"They just swooped in like nothing I've ever seen before," McVeen said.

Agents handcuffed someone from the tobacco store on the sidewalk just outside his door. "It was quite exciting," McVeen said.

A handful of agents in blue jackets with ATF lettering remained at the tobacco store for about two hours, carrying out several large boxes, before locking and closing the store.

Cigarette smuggling costs the nation $25-billion in lost tax revenue, Baixauli said. Last year, about 250 people were investigated in connection with the crime, he said.

The sting was the ATF's Tampa division's first against cigarette smuggling rings in at least five years, Baixauli said.

The two groups targeted in Thursday's raids consumed half of those five years because they were particularly difficult to crack, he said.

"They were very cautious," he said. "The more time that goes by from an illegal act the more their awareness drops. Not as much countersurveillance. Not as much searching of agents."

Tobacco Discount, wedged between a Little Caesar's pizza shop and a jewelry store, sells cigarettes, cigars and pipes. One whole wall of the store is stacked with cartons of cigarettes. In the back of the store is a walk-in humidor.

Patrons of the store peered through the ad-cluttered glass facade Thursday afternoon, trying to piece it all together. Six stopped by in one five-minute span.

"Closed?" said Lisa Breen, 44, of Oldsmar, as she tugged on the locked door. "Bizarre, huh?"

Tobacco Discount's owners did not raise the alarm of workers at many neighboring businesses, either.

"All I ever saw was people walk out with cigarettes," said Joe Shumate, owner of T.J.'s Shoe Repair, which is a few doors down from the smoke shop.

"They were very good neighbors," said Anh Ma, a saleswoman at Jensen Jewelers.

Tiffany Bradley, assistant manager of Payless ShoeSource, which is a few doors down from Tobacco Discount, witnessed the agents cart boxes out of the store and escort two handcuffed suspects outside.

"It was shocking," she said. "I have no idea what they did."

- Staff researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report.

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