Friday, October 3, 2003

Police shut down crime ring

Markets gouged the poor, laundered money

By Sharon Coolidge and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Jack's "Best for Less" market on the corner of Vine and McMicken is closed Thursday by members of a multiagency task force.
([name of photographer] photo)
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Law officers swept through Cincinnati Thursday, shutting down a massive theft ring they say fenced stolen goods through a dozen corner markets, oppressed poor neighborhoods by gouging customers and possibly sent at least $37 million to bank accounts in the Middle East.

Led by Cincinnati police, officials from federal and state agencies served 47 search warrants simultaneously at the markets, at more than 20 banks and nine residences from Over-the-Rhine, West Price Hill and Mason to alleged ringleader Omran Saleh's home near Canton, Ohio. Saleh, who is of Palestinian descent, was among those arrested.

By afternoon, 19 people were arrested, five of the stores were padlocked and a total of 23 people indicted on 105 charges, from receiving stolen property to money-laundering and engaging in corrupt activity.

For 20 months, officers watched the markets and bought items inside, said Capt. Paul Humphries, who helped organize the bust. They said they learned that Saleh and other market owners made huge profits by paying people 5 cents to 10 cents on the dollar for stolen goods like Crest Whitestrips, over-the-counter painkillers and cigarettes. Professional thieves also worked for the store owners, hijacking trucks filled with merchandise, police said. A Hamilotn County grand jury handed down the 105 indictments Thursday.

Officers started the surveillance because they were trying to find the broadest way possible to address the constant quality-of-life complaints they get about some corner markets. At some of the markets, drug dealers hang around outside and inside, and owners take as much as 10 percent out of every check they cash. Their work ended Thursday morning with an elaborate plan involving dozens of officers, Arabic translators and locksmiths on standby to open safes.

"This was an overwhelming criminal enterprise that was ripping people off," Humphries said. "I want to see the effects of this in Over-the-Rhine, in Westwood, in English Woods. I really hope we see these neighborhoods get better."

One example of the markets' effects: District 1 officers take many complaints from around the Ensemble Theatre area about two markets at 12th and Vine streets, where people complain about things like stepping on the bones of chicken wings sold by the Bank Carryout and drugs being sold around the Bank and Glossinger's market across the street. Both markets were hit Thursday.

Federal authorities are following up on the $37 million to see if it funded any terrorism, Humphries said. Officials here believe it did, Chief Tom Streicher said, but have no proof.

Alleged ringleader Saleh, 55, owner of Best For Less market in Over-the-Rhine, was indicted on charges of tampering with records, money laundering, conspiracy and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.

The other 22 people were indicted on charges ranging from receiving stolen property to money laundering.

"It's the classic bad guy's notion of the American dream: Purchase stolen property, underreport income, and launder money under the assumption that no one is watching," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen. "If that is the case, then these people were dreamers indeed."

Investigators found dozens of bank transactions for $9,995, just below the $10,000 that would trigger an automatic report to the government.

According to property records, Saleh owns more than $1.2 million worth of property in Cincinnati. In June, he bought an industrial warehouse for $287,000 in Queensgate. In April of 2002 he bought a store at 1829 Vine St., opening Best for Less there.

At Khaled "Kevin" Aboud's house on a quiet West Price Hill street, officers tagged and removed dozens of items from the house and garage - things like boxes of tools and dusty saws. Aboud, 41, is accused of buying merchandise from undercover officers and destroying records.

Neighbors watched as officers filled one police Suburban, with still more left over.

Humphries, a 17-year veteran, said officers could not remember any operation so elaborate and orchestrated - "nothing to this scope and size."

Officers padlocked Best for Less and four other stores they had the most evidence against. The other four: Glossinger's in Over-the-Rhine; Quality Foods, Westwood; English Woods Market, and Kevin's Market, Winton Terrace.

"These stores were all in neighborhoods made up of the poorest people in the city," Streicher said. "They were the victims."

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