Feds Snare Oak Lawn, Tinley Residents in $20 Million Tobacco Sting
More than a dozen people have been arrested in connection with an illegal tobacco warehouse that unbeknownst to them, was being managed by federal agents. Authorities have said more than $20 million in cigarettes were sold tax-free.
A two-year tobacco sting recently netted more than a dozen suspects—several of whom are from the Southland—for reportedly paying a total of more than $20 million to buy about 100 million cigarettes without paying state or local taxes.
The transactions took place at an undercover warehouse in suburban Hickory Hills, according to a news release sent Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice. Suspects allegedly brought millions of dollars in cash, firearms, narcotics, and counterfeit cigarette tax stamps beginning in March 2010 to buy millions of unstamped, untaxed cigarettes from two people cooperating undercover with federal agents.
Those selling cigarettes in Illinois must get a license from the Illinois Department of Revenue to do so. Licensed distributors are then required to buy tax stamps from the state and Cook County to affix to each pack of cigarettes they sell. Those stamps serve as proof that the necessary taxes have been paid.
“The distribution of untaxed cigarettes deprives the state and county of significant revenue and this investigation shows that we will work aggressively to ensure that those who allegedly traffic in contraband cigarettes are prosecuted,” stated Andrew Traver, special agent-in-charge of the Chicago office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The Hickory Hills sting has led to federal charges against a handful of defendants, one of whom is Lawrence A. Draus, a veteran Cook County sheriff's police officer, and another who is his son, Lawrence E. Draus, or "Eric."
Among those nabbed was a 32-year-old Oak Lawn man with seven counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes, one count of money laundering, two counts of illegally possessing firearms as a felon and one count of dealing firearms without a license.
Agents said Aiman Othman took part in 44 transactions in which he paid more than $34 and 161 firearms in exchange for about 23 million unstamped cigarettes. His indictment seeks forfeiture of the firearms that were seized during the investigation and a 2008 Cadillac Escalade.
Also joining the bunch was Mustafa Mohd Shaikh, 47, of Tinley Park, who faces 17 counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes, two counts of money laundering, and two counts of filing false federal income tax returns in a 21-count indictment. The indictment was one of six that was returned Wednesday by a federal grand jury, authorities said. Ten people were charged in those indictments.
Federal agents allege that between March 2010 and February 2012, Shaikh conducted at least 66 transactions in which he paid the two people who were secretly working with authorities more than $9 million for more than 32 million unstamped cigarettes.
The indictment seeks forfeiture of at least $680,000, including $600,000 that was found when Shaikh was arrested, as well as an additional $37,200 that was seized a day later from two bank accounts and his home, and two vehicles that were also taken into federal hands.
Police say that two other Tinley men, Firas el Matari, 37, and his brother, Ammar el Matari, 33, also played a role. Each was charged with one count of conspiracy to traffic contraband cigarettes in an 11-count indictment. Firas el Matari was separately charged with seven counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes and one count of possessing and selling counterfeit tax stamps, while Ammar el Matari was charged with six counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes.
Together, the duo allegedly conducted about 25 transactions in which they paid more than $3.3 million for about 23 million unstamped cigarettes, according to the news release.
Also charged were:
- Zulfiqar Alvi, 62, of Justice, who faces four counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes and two counts of filing false federal income tax returns.
- John James, 66, of Bourbonnais, was charged with three counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes and one count of possessing and selling counterfeit tax stamps.
- Mohammad Al Sakhleh, 27, of Merced, Calif., and Mahmoud Al Qaisi, 41, of Justice, were each charged with one count of conspiracy to traffic contraband cigarettes. Al Sakhleh was also charged with one count each of trafficking contraband cigarettes and money laundering, while Al Qaisi was also charged with two counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes. The charges allege that Al Sakhleh obtained contraband cigarettes bearing counterfeit New York and New Jersey tax stamps, and that Al Qaisi would find buyers for the cigarettes. Together, they allegedly purchased about 3.6 million cigarettes for more than $450,000.
- Chicago residents Victoria Jaber, 30, and Chadia Abueid, 32, were each charged with one count of conspiracy to traffic contraband. Jaber was additionally charged with five counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes, two counts of possessing and selling counterfeit tax stamps, and four counts of distributing cocaine. Abueid was also charged with four counts of trafficking contraband cigarettes and three counts of possessing and selling counterfeit tax stamps.
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