From: Charlotte Observer
11 men face conspiracy charges; some accused of money laundering.
By Gary L. Wright
Eleven men have been indicted in Charlotte and accused of conspiring to pay more than $7.5 million in cash for over 400,000 cartons of cigarettes they believed had been stolen.
Some of the suspects also are accused of laundering money through legitimate businesses they owned or controlled.
The men are charged with conspiring to receive and transport across North Carolina and South Carolina Marlboro cigarettes they thought had been stolen in Virginia and Tennessee.
But unknown to the defendants, they were dealing with undercover law enforcement agents and officers.
The cigarettes purchased during the sting had a wholesale value of more than $15 million.
Among the details outlined in the indictment:
In September 2011, undercover agents sold 48,600 cartons of cigarettes to one of the suspects at a warehouse in Columbia, according to the indictment. The suspect paid $1,093,500 for the cigarettes.
Between October 2010 and August 2011, one of the defendants met with undercover agents in Charlotte on nine occasions to launder cash, the indictment says.
During that time, the agents gave the suspect $250,000 in cash – money they represented to be proceeds of their sale of stolen cigarettes. The suspect gave the agents six personal checks, 20 business checks and three third-party checks totaling $212,500. He kept $37,500 as his money laundering fee.
In December 2010, two of the suspects gave undercover agents $349,900 in a black suitcase in the parking lot of Carolina Place Mall in Pineville. The agents had delivered 19,800 cartons of cigarettes.
“The illegal sale of cigarettes was a recognized law enforcement problem because criminal organizations were known to purchase large quantities of cigarettes from low tax states such as North and South Carolina and illegally transport them to higher tax rate states and sell them without paying the sales tax for a considerable profit,” the indictment says.
Criminal organizations also were known to obtain cigarettes by theft and fraud, including hijacking tractor-trailer loads of cigarettes, the indictment says.
Federal prosecutors in 2000 dismantled a cigarette smuggling operation that eventually uncovered a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte. The cell was accused of smuggling millions of dollars worth of cigarettes from North Carolina to Michigan and sending some of the illegal proceeds from the cigarette sales to Lebanon to help finance Hezbollah’s military operations.
The cell’s suspected leader, Mohamad Hammoud, was convicted in 2002 of conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization and was sentenced to 155 years in prison. Hammoud’s sentence was slashed in January 2011 to 30 years’ imprisonment.
The undercover sting investigation that led to the indictment of the 11 men now being prosecuted in Charlotte began after authorities learned in August 2009 that one of the suspects was interested in purchasing cigarettes at prices far below market wholesale value for resale in local stores in the Carolinas.
The indicted defendants: Ahmed Samy Hosny Kareem, also known as “Sammy,” Kamal Zaki Qazah, also known as “Keemo,” Tha’er Ismail Ayyad, also known as “Old Man” and “Wild Man,” Wael Mahmoud Salem, also known as “Tony,” Zafer Ramadan Kafozi, also known as “Uncle Jack,” Ziad Hashem Najjar, also known as “Z,” Murad Ayyad, also known as “Mike,” Nasser Kamal Alquza, Khaled Fadel Ibrahim, Jose Calderon-Silver and Hesham Rahman.
Four of the men live in Charlotte. The others live in Matthews, Monroe, Greensboro, Kernersville, Columbia, Mount Pleasant, S.C., and South Ozone Park, N.Y. Their ages range from 31 to 56.
All 11 are charged with conspiring to receive stolen property and transport stolen goods across state lines. Some also face money laundering and receiving stolen property charges.
The money laundering charges are punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Receiving stolen property carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. The conspiracy charge is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The defendants have all pleaded not guilty.
The 22-page, 30-count indictment provides details about the cigarette sales by the undercover agents and of conversations between the agents and suspects during the sting.
Between January and April 2011, two of the suspects purchased more than 90,000 cartons of cigarettes in Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro. They paid about $1.8 million in cash for them.
During a dinner meeting in Charlotte in January 2011, one of the suspects explained how he purchases cars in the United States and ships them overseas as a way to launder money.
The suspect had previously spoken by telephone with one of the agents. He asked the agent if he could get 60,000 cartons of cigarettes. The agent told him that the cigarettes were stolen – not purchased.
The suspect told the agent they needed to keep a low profile. He was worried that if one got arrested, they all would get caught.
“If this thing goes down” he told the agent, “we all go down.”