This bust should not be confused with the 43 non-resident Muslims arrested in cigarette/money laundering bust a few weeks ago in Virginia.
Last week, convenience stores across St. Louis were raided by federal and local law enforcement agencies, startling regular shoppers and neighbors who watched as agents removed merchandise and other items. Now, thanks to a 29-page federal indictment filed against 35 defendants, we know why.
The indictment alleges that some of the defendants conspired to shuttle low-tax Missouri cigarettes to high-tax markets in Chicago and New Jersey. Other defendants are facing charges for manufacturing synthetic weed and selling the product “on a daily basis” through convenience stores, according to a press release.
The cigarette scheme, though, appears to have been a longstanding conspiracy orchestrated through several local convenience stores, which the defendants “owned or operated to create the appearance of legitimate cigarette purchases.”
For instance, in early July 2015, Najeh Muhana and a second defendant were stopped in Indiana while driving a van, and police allegedly discovered 2,460 cartons of Missouri tax-stamped cigarettes, which had been purchased earlier that day. Four months later, Muhana was busted once again in Indiana, this time with approximately $240,000 in cash, with which he allegedly intended to purchase more Missouri cigarettes.
In a statement, James P. Shroba, special agent in charge of the DEA’s St. Louis division, touted the collaboration between local and federal agencies during the two-year investigation.
“These indictments and arrests reflect the commitment of the DEA and our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to dismantle these types of unprincipled business operations that are profiting from human frailty,” Shroba said.
If convicted, the 35 defendants could face from five to twenty years in prison, not to mention fines up to $1 million. Read the prosecutors’ full press release below.
THIRTY-FIVE PEOPLE INDICTED ON FEDERAL CONSPIRACY CHARGES FOR TRAFFICKING IN CONTRABAND CIGARETTES, DISTRIBUTING SYNTHETIC DRUGS AND MONEY LAUNDERING
St. Louis, MO – Thirty-five (35) people were indicted in St. Louis on charges of conspiring to traffic in contraband cigarettes, conspiracy to distribute synthetic drugs and money laundering.
Indicted were the following individuals:
Mohammed Almuttan, aka Abu Ali, 35, St. Louis, MO
Rami Almuttan, aka Abu Louay, 33, St. Louis, MO
Hisham Mutan, aka Abu Mohamed, 41, St. Louis, MO
Saddam Mutan, aka Abu Ali, 24, St. Louis, MO
Mazin Abdelsalam, aka Abu Mohammad, 38, St. Louis, MO
Najeh Muhana, aka Abu Yazan, 41, Fairview, NJ
Fares Muhana, aka Abu Yamama, 40, Cliffside Park, NJ
Ayoub Qaiymah, aka Abu Faysal, 23, Richmond, VA
Naser Abid, 23, Chicago, IL
Yadgar Barzanji, aka Abu Siver, 47, St. Louis, MO
Wafaa Alwan, 50, St. Louis, MO
Ahmed Abuali, aka Bazilla, 31, North Bergen, NJ
Mohammed Kayed, aka Mohammed Fayez, 21, Clifton, NJ
Momen Abuali, 20, Little Ferry, NJ
Firat Sevindik, 42, Cliffside Park, NJ
Mohammed Mustafa, 30, North Bergen, NJ
Mohammad Karashqah, Abu Yazid, 47, North Bergen, NJ
Fayez Sheikha, 46, Mishawaka, IN
Jihad Shihadeh, Abu Malik, 58, Chicago Ridge, IL
Ismael Abadi, 57, Carol Stream, IL
Abed Hamed, Abed Fawzan, 39, Greenville, NC
Maher Hamed, Abu Alazara, 33, Swansea, IL
Abdel Adi, 25, Oak Lawn, IL
Muhanad Khatib, Abu Alamin, 36, Chicago, IL
Eyad Awad, 38, Chicago, IL
Dale Garbin, 60, Kankakee, IL
Hayder Al Fatli, 40, St. Louis, MO
Kutlay Guvener, 35, Chicago, IL
Saad Al Mallak, 30, Dittmer, MO
Hassan Abdelatif, 29, Collinsville, IL
Mahajir Naz, 32, St. Louis, MO
Talal Abuajaj, 23, St. Louis, MO
Basem Hamdan, aka Abu Ramiz, 57, St. Louis, MO
Zainal Saleh, 29, St. Louis, MO and
Ibrahim Awad, 39, St. Louis, MO
Defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury on May 24, 2017. Defendants are charged with various counts of conspiring to traffic in contraband cigarettes, conspiring to distribute controlled substances/analogues and money laundering.
According to the indictment, defendants conspired for more than two years to buy contraband cigarettes in St. Louis, Missouri, a low tax market, and transport and distribute them in Chicago, Illinois and New Jersey, high tax markets. Defendants used several convenience stores which they owned or operated to create the appearance of legitimate cigarette purchases. Illegal profits from the contraband cigarette sales were laundered through accounts associated with the convenience stores.
In addition, synthetic drugs, commonly referred to as K-2, was sold on a daily basis from a handful of the convenience stores. Defendants not only purchased finished product from a national distributor but manufactured synthetic drugs themselves, importing precursor chemicals from China.
“The collaboration with our federal and local law enforcement partners is the key to breaking criminal enterprises in this area,” said Special Agent in Charge James M. Gibbons of HSI Chicago. “HSI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to seek out and dismantle criminal organizations that deal in contraband products and sell synthetic drugs in our communities.”
James P. Shroba, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA St. Louis Division stated, “These indictments and arrests reflect the commitment of the DEA and our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to dismantle these types of unprincipled business operations that are profiting from human frailty. Synthetic drugs that are sold as purportedly legal substitutes for cannabis and stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, are neither legal nor safe. These substances were never intended for human consumption and only serve to satisfy the avarice of the seller.”
If convicted, defendants are facing maximum penalties of 5 years to 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $1,000,000. In determining the actual sentences, a judge is required to consider the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which provide recommended sentencing ranges.
This case was investigated by the Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Illinois State Police, Illinois Department of Revenue and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
As is always the case, charges set forth in an indictment are merely accusations and do not constitute proof of guilt. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent unless and until proven guilty.