Thursday, August 31, 2000

Smokes the lure for fast robbers


Smash-and-grab thieves go for quick profit

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Smash-and-grabs, police call them. Somebody smashes through a store's front glass and grabs all the cigarettes he can carry.

        Nearly 60 times in the past six months, cigarette thieves have hit convenience stores in Greater Cincinnati after closing hours.

        Investigators first noticed the crime trend in March. They have few leads and only hunches about where the stolen loot is being sold.

        But someone clearly is making a lot of cash in the Tristate selling stolen smokes.

        “It's low overhead — the gas it costs to drive to the store and the rock you pick up to smash the window,” said Joe Lally, a Cheviot police officer investigating a July smash-and-grab there. “Then everything you sell them for is profit.”

        Selling cigarettes on the black market is a national crime problem. Officials expect it will only worsen as tobacco companies continue to raise prices to cover the national $246 billion tobacco settlement.

        The more cigarettes cost — an average of $2.80 a pack today — the more money there is to be made on them illegally.

        “There's definitely a black market going on here,” said Lt. Alan March, who oversees the Cincinnati Police Division's property crimes unit. “I think, essentially, the word is out in the criminal underground that this is a crime you can do.”

        A smash-and-grab changed the way Sheri Keidel does business at the Ravine Street Market in Clifton Heights.

        A robber busted through the store's front window early one morning in May. In seconds, he grabbed about $2,000 worth of cigarettes and lottery tickets.

        But that was only the initial cost for Ms. Keidel. She also spent more than $600 to board up the window immediately and then repair it.

        Now, an electronic monitor tucked into the produce area points toward the front door. If glass is broken again, the monitor will automatically notify police. Ms. Keidel now moves lottery tickets to the back at night, making them harder to steal. And she's considering locking up cigarette cartons, a theft-prevention move larger stores like Kroger and Wal-Mart already take.

        Police investigators aren't sure exactly where all these cigarettes are being sold. It could be on street corners or in small independent stores, they suspect.

        Officer Lally said he thinks some smoke thieves are selling hot cigarettes for money to buy crack. The street value, officers said, is whatever the thief can get.

        Most of the robberies have taken place in the city. But robbers also have hit in Deer Park, North College Hill and in several Northern Kentucky communities. Several stores — including a Westwood Walgreens — have been hit more than once.

        Investigators initially thought a group of four or five men was responsible for all of the burglaries. Now, detectives think many people are likely involved, with no single mastermind behind it all, said Specialist Roger Robbins, burglary/robbery coordinator for the Cincinnati Police Division.

        “It's just happening everywhere,” he said.

        Meanwhile, in Louisville, an Illinois couple faces federal charges for allegedly buying cigarettes in Kentucky and selling them in Chi cago, avoiding higher tobacco taxes.

        They're the first people indicted on charges of cigarette smuggling in the Western District of Kentucky since 1983. Prosecutors say they bought more than $120,000 worth of cigarettes in about a dozen batches, then resold them for a total of about $200,000.

        Kentucky is a good source state for cigarette smugglers because the commonwealth's per-pack tax is only 3 cents. Only Virginia is lower, at 2.5 cents.

        In Charlotte, N.C., ATF investigators last month linked a cigarette-smuggling ring to the radical Islamic group Hezbollah. They arrested 18 people, who stand accused of buying vanloads of cigarettes in North Carolina and smuggling them to Michigan, where tobacco taxes are higher. Officials said they made 70 cents profit on each pack, amounting to as much as $10,000 per vanload.

        The ATF has not gotten involved in the Cincinnati-area thefts. By law, it investigates only smuggling operations involving at least 60,000 cigarettes, or 3,000 packs.

        Those often are interstate deals. Smaller amounts are being stolen here — usually whatever the thief can stuff into a garbage bag or two.

        They smash the window with whatever they have — baseball bat, rock, trash-can lid — and spend no more than 30 or 40 seconds inside.

        It's a quick crime, Specialist Robbins said, because they know exactly what they're looking for. And the cigarettes often are lined up on shelves just inside the door.

        “I'm just glad they haven't come back and hit us again,” said Ms. Keidel.

        At a Cheviot United Dairy Farmers store, a surveillance camera caught a man on tape who picked up a rock and threw it through the window to get inside. But the tape isn't clear enough to help much. In seconds, he stuffed as many packs as he could into a large garbage bag and ran out of the store.

        Police thought they caught a break in this one when the suspected thief was stopped later that night by Cincinnati officers who had noticed an unrelated problem with his car. They found the garbage bag full of cigarettes, but the driver bailed out of the car and has not been found. Police returned the cigarettes to the store.

        The thieves often steal lottery tickets too, for the immediate money they can provide.

        To try to prevent more smash-and-grabs, police officials asked all Cincinnati's neighborhood officers to visit any possible target stores in their areas and explain extra security measures, Lt. March said.

        “We've tried to attack it from that point of view, too,” he said. “We're talking to the owners about making themselves harder targets.”

       



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