Smuggled cigarettes found during an inspection at a corner store in Long Island City
As six armed officers pour out of two unmarked Ford Explorers on a Long Island City street corner, you can see the confusion on the faces of gawkers and passersby. One woman looks up from her phone and does a sitcom-worthy double-take when she notices their windbreakers, embossed with the word “SHERIFF” in big gold letters, front and back.
That might be because few have ever heard of the New York City Sheriff’s Office. But those who have know what happens next. And, not surprisingly, when they burst into a corner store near 40th Avenue and 21st Street, the clerk seems not at all shocked, nor particularly concerned, to see them. This is not his first rodeo, as it were.
The team, part of the department’s tobacco inspection detail, is suddenly everywhere inside the store. They immediately head behind the counter, where cigarettes are displayed in plastic racks on the back wall.
They shoo the clerk from his perch by the register; he saunters over to lean on the edge of the ice cream cooler at the center of the store, already looking genuinely bored. He doesn’t even watch the action — he peers at his phone, taking occasional bites out of the sandwich in his other hand or sipping Pepsi through a straw from a can. One of the deputies tells him to stay right there, and to put his phone down.
The inspection crew is quick and efficient. One uses an iPad to snap pictures of the store’s interior while the others begin to rummage behind the counter. They’re looking for one thing — untaxed cigarettes smuggled in from out of state. Within moments they find what they’re looking for, in the form of several cartons tucked underneath the counter. In all, they discover 56 packs of Newports and Marlboros, all of which bear small tax stamps from states outside of New York, which means they cannot be sold here.
Even many smokers don’t take much notice of these little emblems, known formally as tax indices, but they’re the focus of all this excitement. New York tax stamps are a burnt-orange color, but most of the packs on the counter today bear gray stamps that say “Virginia.” There’s one from Georgia, too. This does not bode well for the clerk. Since this is Queens, and not Arlington or Savannah, offering those cigarettes for sale is a misdemeanor.
Behind the counter, deputies are knocking on every surface, searching for anything that sounds hollow. The more careful owners, deputies say, often have “traps” where they stash larger quantities of cigarettes. Soon one of the deputies pulls up a plank on the lowest shelf, just behind the register. It’s not nailed down, and underneath there’s a small space with room enough for a few cartons of smokes. It qualifies as a trap, but it’s not very impressive. Some of the traps the team discovers are outfitted with hinges or sliding drawers, elaborate camouflage. But not here. The space is empty.
No matter — the 56 packs are enough to land the clerk in some bit of trouble. He takes a bite of his sandwich as one investigator, “Leticia” — since the team often operates undercover, the Voice is changing the names of deputies at the request of the sheriff’s department — begins putting the screws to him. The clerk says he doesn’t know how the out-of-state cigarettes got into the store.
You work here — she asks, in a voice thick with disbelief — and you don’t know where they come from?
Leticia is 26 years old, with two years on the job, a Glock on her hip, and hair smoothed back in a tight ponytail. She’s wearing body armor and her silver badge is clipped in the center of the vest, just below her chin.
I’m just an employee, the clerk says, and makes a gesture with his sandwich. I just sell them. Everybody sells them in this neighborhood. He glances again at his phone and Leticia tells him, for the third or fourth time, to put it down.
The clerk is right. Every corner store and bodega in the city seems to be selling untaxed cigarettes. And not just in this neighborhood, but all over New York City. It’s a veritable epidemic of tax-avoidance. By some estimates, 60 percent of cigarettes sold in the five boroughs are untaxed, ill-gotten by one avenue or another. And this is certainly no secret. As far as black markets go, the smuggled-cigarette trade in New York City is as open as they come.
As Leticia babysits the clerk, the other deputies keep looking for hidden stashes. Increasingly, the cigarettes they uncover during their inspections bear counterfeit markings — stamps that look like they’re from New York but are actually fakes. So part of what the team does on each operation is to examine even legitimate-looking packs, typically on the rack behind the counter.
As one member of the team methodically pulls the packs from their plastic homes, another deputy uses a small penlight with a special beam to inspect the stamps. The ink on each marking should reflect pink if it’s genuine.
In this case, they all come up clean, and Leticia starts recording the clerk’s information. He’ll receive a summons, but won’t end up in handcuffs, although sometimes people do. He keeps messing with his phone, and Leticia finally plucks the thing out of his hand.
Who knows whom he might have been trying to call, she would reflect later. Store owners often keep their main stash offsite. He could have been signaling someone to hide more cigarettes that were tucked away in the store’s basement or in an employee’s car outside. The clerk’s phone call might also have posed a safety issue, she says. No, they’ve never had an inspection turn violent. But you never know. Occasionally, they find more than untaxed cigarettes. Not long ago, one deputy says, they found some heroin, a few pills of molly, and a loaded .38 in a bodega not far from here.
The clerk is handed his summons — he’ll have to appear in court in a month or so. Asked what he thinks about all this — the armed agents barging into his store and pawing through his merch — he gestures again with the sandwich and shakes his head wearily. “I hate it,” he says with a deep sigh.
An investigator with the New York City Sheriff’s Office uses a special penlight to check the authenticity of a tax stamp.
The sheriff’s office is especially busy these days, and they’re not the only ones. All over New York State, tax authorities have begun trying to tamp down a growing problem. While smuggling cigarettes is not new — not by a long shot — it has become immeasurably worse in the past few years.
“Immeasurable” is literally accurate, too, because the precise size of the untaxed cigarette trade in New York State is devilishly hard to quantify. Like any black market, it’s tough to penetrate. But unlike other illegal trades, the product itself, paradoxically, is perfectly legal. It makes it a difficult problem to study and, for those tasked with stemming the tide, a very difficult problem to stop.
What is clear is that the smuggling problem in New York is now the worst in the country. While states like Michigan and Massachusetts have some activity, according to the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, New York accounts for about half of tax losses nationwide. In dollar figures, the best estimates suggest that New York loses about $1.5 billion in revenue every year to tobacco tax evasion in its various forms.
This is sort of a mind-boggling figure. By comparison, New York City’s Department of Homeless Services spends just under $1 billion per year. You could fund New York City’s entire Parks and Recreation budget nearly four times over with the money lost to untaxed smokes.
And for smugglers, the rewards can be huge. With a van and some start-up money, a day trip to Virginia — where cigarettes are taxed 30 cents per pack, compared to $5.85 in New York City — could net a smuggler more than $40,000 in profit when the goods are resold in the city. All for a few relatively low-risk hours along I-95.
Penalties exist for anyone who sells untaxed cigarettes, but they’re minor compared to narcotics, for example, and the underground cigarette market is much easier to enter. The numbers are significant on the consumer side, too. By law, the minimum price for a pack of premium-brand cigarettes in New York City is $10.50, but averages are closer to $12.50. For a pack-a-day smoker, that adds up to about $375 per month. But out-of-state cigarettes — like the ones for sale at the corner store in Long Island City — typically go for $7 or $8. A smoker with steady access to untaxed cigarettes could save as much as $210 a month. And because one can legally possess up to two such cartons for personal use, a smoker with the odd out-of-state pack is immune from any penalties at all. In other words, the end users who actually buy the illegal cigarettes aren’t breaking any laws.
That’s a powerful financial incentive on both sides of the counter. And the authorities have been responding.
The current sheriff, Joe Fucito — the agency’s top official — has been with the organization for more than two decades, but just took over the top spot in June of 2014, having been appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Stout and wry, with a military haircut and a goatee flecked with gray, he knows the sheriff’s department isn’t often in the limelight. But he takes pride in doing a relatively unglamorous job extremely well.
“It’s almost like narcotics,” Fucito says of the department’s approach to illegal cigarette sales. In the same way cops pursue street dealers to get to the bigger fish upstream, store inspections are designed to lead to the suppliers. “We want to get to that top layer, to find out who’s coordinating this,” Fucito says. That’s why Leticia was pressing the reticent store clerk for his source.
In a conference room at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Queens — a squat, antiseptic building in the shadow of the Long Island Expressway — First Deputy Maureen Kokeas explains the evolution of the untaxed-cigarette economy.
“Years ago, they used to just go to Virginia,” she says of the smugglers. “Then there were some enforcement efforts there, so they went to the [upstate and Long Island] Indian reservations. Then there were litigation and enforcement efforts there. And now they’re back to going down south.”
The tax authorities have, to some extent, become victims of their own success, she says, and as New York’s cigarette taxes keep climbing, there’s ever more incentive to find new ways to get the smokes into town, creating a circular game of whack-a-mole.
Because of their status as sovereign nations, Indian reservations, clustered mostly in upstate New York, have been a source of untaxed cigarettes since time immemorial. They’re not required to collect state taxes, so as far back as the 1970s, outlets on the reservations have done a brisk business selling to outsiders looking for cheap smokes.
But they, too, eventually became too successful for their own good. Over the last decade the Indian tribes have begun attracting the attention of authorities, the mail-order and internet markets they had established coming under aggressive targeting by the state.
Some are still operating, or were until very recently. In February, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman filed a $180 million lawsuit against UPS under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — which you might remember from The Sopranos as the “RICO statutes” — for shipping millions of cigarettes from vendors located on reservations. A similar action against FedEx came in 2014.
But for the most part, the old sources — reservation buys and Web-based outlets — are starting to dry up. And as those avenues are shuttered, cigarette smugglers are getting more creative.
The purpose of the sheriff inspections, which have increased dramatically since 2011, is to get to the suppliers. And other agencies, like the state’s Cigarette Strike Force — a combination of local, state, and federal agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — are doing the same by other means.
Robby Michaelis, who heads up the strike force, is a 25-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and he, too, says they approach cigarette trafficking the same way they would a narcotics investigation — start low and aim high. He thinks there’s been something of an evolution, from small-scale “mom and pop” smugglers to more organized groups. “There are definitely some bad actors that have seen the profit potential” in the trade, he adds.
Fucito, for one, sees lots of variations within that business. On the lowest end are the street sellers, doling out loose cigarettes — loosies — or cartons out of a backpack. Last year, Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. But those kinds of arrests are fairly rare — Kokeas says the payoff is too small for the sheriff’s department to waste time on independent operators.
The bodega owners who sell smokes out of their stores are a much more frequent target. The scheme comes in two basic forms, Kokeas says; blatantly smuggled cigarettes with out-of-state stamps are probably most common. But there’s also a bustling market in counterfeit stamps. A few states don’t require tax stamps at all, notably North Carolina, so smugglers bringing product in from those areas might buy a strip of fake New York indices — at up to $10,000 a roll — and hope to pass them off as the real thing. In some cases, packs with counterfeit indices are sold at the regular price, so the end user doesn’t even get the benefit of a discount.
Kokeas says the out-of-state and counterfeit stamps make up the vast majority of what they uncover during their busts. A rarer find is the seller who tries to trick buyers by selling them lower-quality cigarettes under the logo of a more well-known brand. Counterfeit cigarettes like these are more commonly sold overseas. The problem with the strategy in the U.S., where genuine brands are readily available, is that people catch on almost immediately.
A corner store selling fake Marlboros risks a backlash, Fucito says, and he sees it mostly as a one-off “sucker crime” perpetrated by someone looking for quick cash. Kokeas was involved in one sting where investigators purchased what they suspected were counterfeits through a Craigslist ad. They successfully scored about ten cartons, but wanted to see if they could get their hands on a bigger load. So they went back and ordered an additional sixty cartons, and made a bust. “This kid was in high school,” Kokeas recalls. “He was about seventeen, and he goes, ‘Oh man, I’m such an idiot. I should have known. You’re the first customer that ever came back.’ ”
One could be forgiven for not knowing of the existence of the New York City Sheriff’s Office. Few people do. To just about everyone, law enforcement in this city means the NYPD. A New York City sheriff? It doesn’t even sound right. Sheriffs are Deadwood and the O.K. Corral. Cowboys. They’re mirrored lenses, “license and registration,” and a Stetson pulled down low. Sheriffs mean the West. Wide-open spaces. They don’t make much sense here.
In New York City, the relatively modest force, made up of 124 deputies and 18 investigators (the NYPD has about 34,000 sworn officers), tends to get the oddball assignments. It also handles the mundane, like serving eviction notices and court orders. They also, however, have what has to be among the most delicate and potentially dangerous tasks in law enforcement: apprehending people with adjudicated mental illness and taking them safely to treatment facilities.
The agency’s other responsibilities are a hodgepodge of sometimes comically obscure or anachronistic tasks, like the recovery of shipwrecks and Army deserters. It’s part of a legacy that comes with being the oldest law enforcement organization in New York City, first established in 1626 and predating thatother agency by more than two centuries. Until 1942 there were five separate sheriff’s departments in the city, one for each borough — that year the five were combined into a single agency.
Despite existing on the fringes of the city’s law enforcement community, at least in terms of policing the illicit cigarette trade, the deputies have a huge task. The thousands of stores in New York City present an inspection nightmare. And there’s a fundamental difference between cigarettes and other illegal products. “There’s a law that says you can’t use cocaine,” Fucito says. “There’s no law that says you can’t smoke a cigarette.” The crime comes down to a form of tax evasion, he explains, and for otherwise law-abiding people, tax evasion doesn’t carry the social costs that might come with drug use.
The other challenge — and it’s a big one — is that until recently the fines associated with violations amounted to only $150 per illicit carton. New legislation passed in 2014, but not yet in effect, will give the effort more teeth. Stores will face $600 in fines per carton, and repeat offenders may be forced to close down their businesses. But for now, the stakes are low.
“Right now it’s a summons, he goes to criminal court, he comes back to work,” Fucito says. “That’s part of the problem; it’s become the cost of doing business.”
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At around 10 a.m. on a cold Wednesday in March, there are about fifteen packs of cigarettes on display behind the register at a bodega in north Brooklyn. They sit alongside the other usual bodega standards: moisture-sealed blunt wrappers, little travel-size Advil and DayQuil packets, and a sign advertising the halal menu at the deli counter at the back of the store.
Nearly twelve hours later, most of those packs of legal, New York–stamped cigarettes are still on the rack. Ali, the store’s owner, sells very few from the stock on display.
Ali — not his real name — has promised to explain to me how the illegal cigarette trade works. Just before the store closes, he takes me to the back of the store, sets down the case of Hawaiian Punch he’s taking home for his two kids, and asks, “What do you want to know?”
Do all bodega owners sell untaxed cigarettes? “Everybody,” Ali says with a grin, like it’s the most obvious question in the world. He has green eyes and perfectly white, straight teeth. “Yes, yes. Everyone. Everybody.”
A few years ago, Ali says, his store didn’t sell untaxed smokes. Few stores did. It just wasn’t worth the risk, and people rarely asked for them. Back then, they were still getting them online, from Indian reservations or out of state, Ali speculates. But after the latest tax hike, in 2010 — signed by former governor David Paterson, intended partly to close a $9 billion budget gap — and especially in the past few years, people started coming in asking for “specials.”
It’s not a particularly clever codeword, but it’s become more or less universal; any corner store in Brooklyn will know what you’re asking for. And almost all the illegal trade happens at small independent retailers of that kind, the sheriff’s department says — it almost never finds cheating at major chains. The manager of the corner Duane Reade doesn’t have the same personal interest in the branch’s bottom line.
At first, Ali says, he told those customers he had nothing to offer. He wasn’t interested in taking a risk that seemed unnecessary. Business was good back then, he says, so why bother?
But to hear Ali tell it, these days, notselling illegal smokes is, at least in this neighborhood, something of a liability. Corner stores like his become de facto grocery stores, liquor stores, and pharmacies, for their customers. And once someone decides on their regular corner store, they’re likely to spend money on all kinds of things.
So in a sense, Ali regards cheap smokes almost as an amenity, something that helps him maintain a reliable customer base. But it’s not about profit, he insists. The margin on a single pack of untaxed smokes is about the same as on legally acquired ones — roughly a dollar and change. Selling a full carton of illegally obtained cigarettes might net him fifteen dollars. It’s not make-or-break money, in other words.
“Me? I prefer not to sell it,” Ali says. It’s just not a significant source of revenue for his relatively small store. Plus, he knows full well the risks from law enforcement, and the fines can be costly. But he makes a somewhat different calculation.
“It’s because we want to keep the customers. If we don’t have them?” He shrugs. “Then they go to another store. You lose that customer.”
Anyone in his potential customer base has options, Ali says. And for a smoker with a bodega at the end of each block, if one place is selling cheap smokes, that’s enough to make that bodega their go-to corner store. Since smoking is an addiction, there’s a good chance you’ll see that person regularly, and on every visit you have a chance to sell them something else.
“They could buy soda, they could buy beer, they could buy a sandwich,” Ali says. And, now that the word is out about “specials,” the pressure is even greater. “Now, 100 percent, they [smokers] know about it. If you don’t have it” — he makes a gesture with his hands, like a baseball umpire calling safe — “they leave.”
Unprompted, Fucito, the sheriff, explains the allure for store owners in almost exactly the same terms. He knows the kind of pressure the owners are under. He even mentions the “soda and beer” purchases that keep these small businesses alive.
“They feel that they have to do this to stay competitive,” Fucito says. “A person comes in to buy a pack of cigarettes, he’s also buying a soda, he’s buying his ham sandwich, so he needs to do this in order to have the rest of his business working.”
But the sheriff is quick to point out that the black market is unfair to the stores that do follow the law. Many of the tips that guide their enforcement efforts actually come from other business owners.
Still, Ali doesn’t like the idea of evading taxes. He thinks it’s bad for the economy. “We want to make the economy strong. This is my country. This is where my wife and my kids live.” For him the solution is simple. Lower the taxes. “People still smoke,” he says. “And they don’t want to pay $11, $12. If they take 30, 40 dollars out of the tax, that’s it, we’d still sell the New York ones.”
There are few complex problems with clear solutions, but cigarette smuggling is one of them. New York has, by a wide margin, the highest per-pack cigarette tax in the country. But it’s not necessarily the high taxes that drive the problem. It’s the tax rate differentialamong the statesthat makes room for smuggling to occur.
It’s for that reason that smuggling has tended to wax and wane in the U.S. over the years. The trade didn’t exist in any significant way until the 1970s, because tobacco taxes had only recently come into vogue across the country.
As a 1982 report from the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR), a now-defunct federal research agency, explained it, smuggling was “practically nonexistent” until after 1964. That was the year that the landmark surgeon general’s report on smoking — which finally put to rest the “debate” about smoking’s harmfulness, obfuscated for decades by the tobacco industry — changed the way governments, and the public, viewed the habit.
Suddenly, it seemed plausible to levy a “sin tax” on what was now widely accepted as deeply harmful and dangerous behavior. While tobacco taxes were relatively small at first, and “not a major revenue source,” even after the surgeon general report, the increasingly negative view of the habit suddenly made it “politically convenient for states to fill small gaps in their budgets with increased cigarette tax revenues,” the commission wrote. Soon the taxes gained popularity in state legislatures, and even local municipalities got in on the action, putting sin taxes up as ballot issues in an attempt to fund any number of local initiatives.
New York State quickly instituted some of the highest cigarette taxes in the country, doubling the per-pack rate from five to ten cents in 1965. Most other states followed suit; in 1960, the tax rate ranged from zero to eight cents across the country, but by 1970, that gap had widened from two to eighteen cents. Eventually, a smuggling economy began to emerge.
Like today, the mechanics of smuggling cigarettes 40 years ago were fairly straightforward. Someone looking to make a few extra dollars could simply drive across state lines and legally load up on cigarettes in a place with a lower tax rate, bring those cartons back to New York, sell them at a smaller markup, and make a profit.
As the ACIR report noted in 1982, solving the problem was a challenge partly because of relations between the states. In New York today, as then, there’s strong incentive to do something about smuggling. But the incentive is exactly reversed for a state like Virginia, where out-of-state buyers contribute tax revenue the state wouldn’t otherwise receive.
By 1977, the problem was considered significant enough that the federal government stepped in, creating legislation that made it illegal to cross state lines with more than a few cartons. And much academic evidence pins blame on tobacco companies themselves, which for decades have knowingly shipped huge quantities of cigarettes to Native American reservations, fully aware that they would be distributed illegally.
But tax “harmonization” — eliminating the disparity between tax rates in various jurisdictions — economists will tell you, is the first and last step in putting a stop to the problem. A reduction and alignment of provincial taxes in Canada, beginning in the mid-Nineties, dramatically reduced the smuggling problem that once existed there, though it has been creeping back up in recent years as the rates have again become unbalanced.
But just because a fix is clear and simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. Taxes are something of a touchy issue here in the U.S. And some states are a little less enthusiastic about taxes than others, as you may have heard. Fucito says Virginia has generally been a good partner in stanching the flow of cigarettes up north, and there’s an ongoing effort there to institute a licensing system for wholesalers — something most other states have already done — in the hopes of keeping closer tabs on the movement of tobacco products. Last year, New York authorities filed suit against a Virginia wholesaler they said was knowingly supplying smugglers.
But while taxes were originally viewed as a revenue opportunity, recent evidence shows — rather unequivocally — that higher taxes significantly reduce the number of smokers continuing the habit. Numerous studies show that for every dollar increase in the tax rate, there’s a corresponding drop in the number of people who actively smoke. And that effect is even more profound among smokers under eighteen years of age, who are considered to be especially sensitive to price changes, and who are also the focus of most anti-smoking efforts.
When Michael Zekry was arrested on November 5, 2014, on Staten Island, NYPD officers found 500,000 Virginia-stamped cigarettes in the back of the white Ford Econoline van he was driving. It was one of the largest cigarette seizures within the five boroughs in recent memory.
The more than 2,000 cartons of cigarettes were worth about $300,000 at retail. According to prosecutors, he was stopped in New Springville a little after midnight, on his way home from a run he made about every ten weeks. A search warrant executed at his home turned up 551 additional cartons of smokes, a cash-counting machine, and $40,000 in cash.
“You got a good one!” Zekry allegedly told the NYPD officers who arrested him, sounding remarkably cheerful for a guy facing four years in the clink. “I’m out of business now.”
Zekry is still in court facing tax evasion charges and, through his lawyer, he declined an interview. But his alleged statement brings up another hazy aspect of the cigarette-smuggling business — it’s not clear what a “good one” really is.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge that often, cigarette smugglers are merely weekend warriors — those who might, while traveling, pick up a trunkload of cigarettes here and there as a quick way to make a few hundred bucks. The trade is not like, say, dealing cocaine, which would require a certain level of connectedness to even get started.
But they insist that a significant portion of the smuggling is happening through well-organized criminal networks. One New York City prosecutor describes the building of cases like these as being like a drug investigation. If there are patterns of small seizures, they may indicate a larger network. They use all of the methods that narcotics cops would: electronic surveillance, stakeouts and the like.
From what Ali, the bodega owner, has seen, his suppliers are not terribly well organized. When he calls someone for cigarettes, he says, he is sometimes passed off to others, but he doesn’t believe they’re working together in any formal way. If one person doesn’t have the brand he needs, someone else might. Sometimes people simply come in off the street and offer to sell a few cartons. “They’re regular people,” Ali says. “They just want to make a little money.”
Academic research also suggests that organized and relatively sophisticated cigarette-smuggling groups exist. There’s less agreement on whether the trade involves significant levels of violence. Some authorities say smugglers can be just as violent as drug dealers, and that makes logical sense; cigarette smuggling is, for obvious reasons, a cash business, and any illegal cash business has the potential for violence. Kokeas says that in some cases, there’s direct overlap, with drug dealers opting to diversify or even switch businesses, because of lower penalties and comparable profits.
But Peter Reuter, the lead editor on the National Research Council study, which examined cigarette smuggling in detail, said they found few instances of violence associated with the business. Their report itself states plainly that “the trade has been nonviolent.” And the researchers likewise found no evidence that cigarette smuggling has been credibly linked to the funding of terrorism, another risk commonly cited by law enforcement. In 2013, the NYPD announced that it had disrupted a large smuggling network linked to more than $55 million in ill-gotten smokes. The men arrested were all Palestinian nationals, and press releases at the time hinted darkly that some of the suspects had “links to known terrorists” and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
While the accusations were couched in fairly vague terms, they made for good headlines, even if the links themselves were somewhat dubious. One piece of evidence cited at the time was that one of the arrestees was closely associated with Rashid Baz. Baz was convicted in a 1994 terrorist attack on a group of Hasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge in which one, sixteen-year-old Ari Halberstam, was killed. But Baz had been in federal prison for nearly twenty years by the time the ring was busted, and none of the men arrested in 2013 were subsequently charged with any terrorism-related offenses. An attorney involved with the case told the Voice the accusations were an attempt to drum up publicity and make the cigarette-smuggling business seem more dangerous than it actually is. In another case, from 2002, a member of a smuggling ring operating out of North Carolina was convicted of providing material support for terrorism when it was found that he had donated $3,500 to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. But when a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring yields only $3,500 for a designated terrorist entity, it’s something of a stretch to portray it as a fundraising operation.
Still, there have been instances of armed robbery linked to the cigarette trade. Reuter says he can’t explain why violence isn’t more prevalent, except that penalties are so low that the stakes may not be dire enough for such conflict to occur. Reuter also says it’s “stunning” that there hasn’t been more of an effort to stem the tide, something with which Fucito and his crew would most certainly disagree.
The sheriff’s team has made four visits; the first spot is the only one that turned up “dirty.” It’s been an unusually unproductive outing; so far this fiscal year, they’ve conducted 255 inspections, and found contraband at 155.
At current rates, the 56 packs they recovered from the bodega in Long Island City represent about $328 in lost tax revenue. But that doesn’t mean the state gets that money back — the cigarettes confiscated that day would be added to a literal heap of others in a storage room at the sheriff’s headquarters, and when the heap grows large enough, somewhat ironically, they’ll be burned.
Near the end of the day, the crew is in good spirits, crammed into the Explorer, trading stories. Tom — not his real name — a jovial, bearded, broad-chested tree of a 26-year-old, relates an incident the whole team witnessed a year or two back, somewhere in the Bronx.
They’d uncovered some untaxed smokes in a corner store and locked the doors, when a customer walked up and rapped on the door, insisting to be let in. Usually, when someone sees their uniforms, they get the message. But this guy wasn’t catching on.
As they tried to tell him, through the glass, that the place was closed, one of the deputies noticed that he had a plastic bag in his hand, stuffed with eight or ten cartons of cigarettes. So they let him in.
As the owner looked on in disbelief, they checked the cigarettes in the bag: not a New York stamp to be found. He was issued a summons along with the owner.
The deputies all laughed recounting the story, and Leticia chimed in. “I asked the owner, ‘So what, is this guy new?’ ” She pantomimes the owner’s glare at his courier. “And the owner goes, ‘No. He’s just stupid!’ ”
One of the last stops of the day is a bodega in Queens that had come up dirty once before. The team makes its rounds and finds nothing of interest. All the cigarettes on the rack have legitimate New York stamps, and there doesn’t seem to be anything tucked away in hidden corners of the store.
Riffling behind the register, Leticia comes up with a pack of Newports, dented and caked with dust. She takes out her penlight and shines it on the New York stamp on the bottom of the pack. There’s no pink reflection. It’s a fake.
Technically, they could bust the store owner, a soft-spoken man in his sixties with a fine white ring of hair clipped short around a bald pate. Leticia converses easily with him in Spanish, as he speaks limited English. The clerk says they’ve stopped selling the out-of-state ones. Maybe the inspections have had their desired effect.
“It probably just got missed last time,” she says of the beat-up old pack. There’s no reason to ruin his day. So the deputies fill out some paperwork, smile, say thank you, and head for the Explorers parked outside.