Comptroller’s Supervisory Agent Mike Madison peered through his binoculars, eyeing the black Toyota Camry as it pulled up to the Woodbridge tobacco shop. A man in a polo shirt got out, laid down a mat in his trunk and went inside. He emerged carrying several grocery bags — 10 to 12 cartons of cigarettes, Madison guessed — and drove away.
It sounds innocuous. But tobacco smugglers like these, officials say, are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost tax revenue to Maryland each year. On Thursday, Prince George’s County prosecutors announced that they had indicted nine people — allegedly responsible for nearly $30,000 in lost tax revenue — on criminal charges of transporting and conspiring to transport unstamped cigarettes.
The charges, officials say, are meant to send a message: Prosecutors and tax agents are cracking down on those who want to make a living selling black-market smokes.
“We want to send the message out that we take this crime very seriously,” Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said at a news conference Thursday. “This crime really does work against businesses in our county.”
All but two of those indicted are from New York and New Jersey, which carry among the highest cigarette tax rates in the country. The others were from Maryland, which carries a $2-per-pack tax rate, compared with 30 cents a pack in Virginia, authorities said.
Officials think the smugglers buy the packs in Virginia and sell them close to home at a slightly discounted rate, sometimes to retailers and sometimes to individual buyers from the trunks of their cars. They pocket the money that should have been paid in taxes, authorities said.
“They’re the tip of the iceberg,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said. “There is an explosion of cigarette smuggling going on.”
Prosecutors identified those charged as Alicia Walker, 34, of Bloomfield, N.J; Jose Gilberto Perez, 53, of Baltimore; Eredania Perez-De-Hernandez, 41, of Baltimore; Maoze Abdallh Ibrahim, 26, of East Orange, N.J.; Abdoulaye Akmoudou, 41, of Newark; Livingus Agubu, 39, of New York; Felix Cruz, 46, of New York; Feby Pledger, 45, of Far Rockaway, N.Y.; and Bernard Cribbs, 58, of Far Rockaway, N.Y. The nine represent five criminal cases. They were indicted Tuesday and issued criminal summons to appear in court in the coming weeks, authorities said.
All nine suspects were stopped in late July and early August in the same way — pulled over by Maryland authorities after they allegedly were caught buying massive quantities of cigarettes at tobacco shops and discount stores in Virginia. If convicted, each could face up to two years in prison, plus a $50 fine for each carton they were caught smuggling, Alsobrooks said.
Last fiscal year, which ended in June, Maryland comptroller’s agents recorded 115 violations, amounting to about $378,000 in lost tax revenue, authorities said. Tobacco smuggling also made news when two Prince George’s County police officers were indicted last year on federal charges related to the practice.
One of those former officers, Richard J. Delabrer, pleaded guilty in May to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and to a federal firearms violation. Another officer, Chong Chen Kim, pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring with others to commit extortion while transporting and distributing untaxed cigarettes from Virginia into Maryland.
Secretly watching the Woodbridge tobacco shop from an unmarked SUV on a recent day, Madison, the comptroller’s agent, said the man in the polo shirt was likely part of a less-organized operation. His 10 to 12 cartons, or 100 to 120 packs, were too much for one man to use, but he did not move with the precision of a seasoned tobacco runner, Madison said.
The man spent nearly 10 minutes inside the store and did not pull away quickly. After he bought the cigarettes, he and a woman who was with him ate lunch at a nearby gas station.
But seasoned runner or not, the man managed to lose agents tailing him, first by making a right turn out of the left lane, then by cutting through a shopping center parking lot and heading toward Interstate 95. Madison tried to catch up to him but was stopped by two traffic lights before the highway.
“We lost 200-plus dollars,” Madison said as he tried unsuccessfully to catch up. “He knows he’s doing it, too.”