NYT: In New York, a Nose for Hidden Compartments and Cigarettes


Deputy Sheriff Donel Davis, who prides himself for having a nose for this sort of thing, walked into a bodega in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, one day this week and looked around: cramped aisles, Boar’s Head cold cuts, candy, the morning papers, sticky buns, cold beer. He walked behind the counter to a small shelf next to the cash register.

Upon closer inspection of the shelves, he noticed that the rear wall stopped short, a couple of inches from the other side, suggesting a gap in between. He peered lower. There was a pinpoint hole in the rear wall. Below it, a toothpick lay on the shelf. Deputy Davis, 43, stuck the toothpick in the hole.

16 Accused of Smuggling Cigarettes Worth MillionsMAY 16, 2013

The toothpick pressed a hidden button that released a large magnet that kept a secret compartment locked. Deputy Davis lifted the front of the row of shelves like you would the trunk of a small car, and inside were rows and rows, all different brands, of contraband. Not narcotics or pills, but unopened packs of cigarettes, perfectly legal in the state in which they were bought, but not here. Hence the secret compartment.

“It’s an art form,” said Kyle Williams, an undersheriff with the New York City Sheriff’s Department. “They’re building better and better traps.”

That’s because cigarettes not taxed in New York are bringing in better and better profits.

A pack of Marlboros purchased at Virginia’s low prices and sold at New York City’s going rate can put five or six dollars in the seller’s pocket. These smuggled cigarettes are not hard to find — the city’s Department of Finance said inspections yielded these cigarettes in 48 percent of bodegas visited in recent inspections. They are tucked away in compartments and camouflaged with fake tax stamps.

In early 2002, the city, the state and the federal government collected a combined $15.80 in taxes on every carton of cigarettes sold here. Today, that number is $68.60, or almost $7 a pack. With the increases in taxes, more packs flowed up from the South, in cars and overstuffed minivans and in the underside luggage compartments of passenger buses, said Maureen Kokeas, director of the office of tax enforcement for the city’s Department of Finance. The cigarettes are kept in storage units and quietly sold, a carton or three at a time, to bodegas.

A bodega owner caught last week with 10 cartons of smuggled Marlboros and Newports explained the math. He had bought them the day before from a man he did not know. “He charged me $65 a carton,” he told deputies. That is far cheaper than cartons bought or sold in New York. He shook his head in despair as the deputies took the cigarettes away, his $650 cash investment headed to an incinerator on Long Island, up in smoke.

The issue of untaxed cigarettes came to the forefront with the chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. He was believed to be selling untaxed cigarettes on the street when he was confronted by the police. Bodega cigarette inspections fall to the sheriff’s department, and arrests are relatively few.

The sheriff’s officers try to get the low-level players — the bodega clerks — to roll over on their suppliers. The inspections can lead to arrests and fines. Clerks, pleading ignorance, are practically untouchable, and just stand there and watch the deputies tally the packs.

Deputies visited several bodegas in Brooklyn this week, including the one in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They seized cigarettes at the vast majority.

Some stores kept the smuggled cigarettes in the same overhead racks as the legitimate ones, mixed together. Of those, some packs bore Virginia tax stamps, but most had counterfeit New York stamps, usually slapped on by whoever sold them to the bodega. The stamps are there to fool customers into paying the $12 or $13 or more in New York prices. Deputies need a special penlight to tell a fake stamp from a real one, but with practice, some can do it with the naked eye. “The coloring, the numbers,” said an investigator, Nicholas Rose-Meyer.

Other places use compartments worthy of a Bond villain. Sometimes toothpicks are the trigger; sometimes the stick from a lollipop works better.

“Sometimes it takes forever to figure it out. Sometimes we don’t figure it out,” Mr. Williams said. “You just take a step back and stare for a while. Why would they build a cabinet this way? It doesn’t make sense.”

Mr. Williams plays the role of jocular interrogator, quizzing the clerks upon arrival. Any illegal cigarettes here?

“All New York,” a clerk named Ahmed, looking tired on a hot day, replied in his dingy Bedford Avenue bodega on Wednesday. As if on cue, a deputy started making a small pile of smuggled packs he had found in the display rack.

“Ahmed,” Mr. Williams said, “this is no way to start a relationship.” Ahmed shrugged.

Then another investigator looked down at an electrical outlet and cables in a strip of floorboard. He bent and pulled on the outlet, and the entire floorboard opened to reveal a long, thin drawer hiding about a carton of cigarettes from Virginia. All eyes turned to Ahmed.

“You want to start over?” Mr. Williams asked.

“My friend,” Ahmed said, shaking his head, “I don’t even know about it.”

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