Wednesday, July 25, 2012 | 3:51 p.m.
Customers seeking cigarettes from Sunny Market — a convenience store on West Lake Mead Boulevard near D Street — were turned away Wednesday morning by local and federal authorities swarming the modest building.
The store’s owner, 54-year-old Amer “Sunny” Ramo, wasn’t behind the counter at his neighborhood business. Instead, he was in federal custody on a charge of receipt, possession and purchase of contraband cigarettes.
Authorities say Ramo bought 12,000 contraband cigarettes from an undercover police officer during a five-month investigation of organized retail theft by Metro Police, North Las Vegas Police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
ATF investigators served a search warrant and arrest warrant Wednesday at Sunny Market, 600 W. Lake Mead Blvd., and in the process, hauled box after box of evidence from the store. Metro planned to serve a local search warrant at the store afterward, department spokesman Bill Cassell said.
Authorities said Ramo was one of several small-business owners purchasing stolen goods from teens and young adults, who were shoplifting the items from local, large retail stores. In turn, the suspects would mark up the prices and sell the goods in their own smaller stores for financial gain, said North Las Vegas Police Sgt. Tim Bedwell.
The investigation began in late February when Metro officers responded to a routine shoplifting call at a Vons grocery store, 7405 S. Durango Drive, where two men had stolen bottles of liquor, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The complaint alleges the men told officers they regularly stole liquor from local large retail stores and then resold it to a person later identified as Ramo.
Metro’s special investigations section began an undercover investigation and sold items purported as stolen to Ramo on multiple occasions, according to the criminal complaint. The undercover officer started selling Ramo liquor with intact security caps, baby formula and cartons of cigarettes that contained tax stamps.
ATF officials joined the investigation and, with the help of the undercover officer, sold Ramo 12,000 cigarettes in cartons without tax stamps, which state law requires, according to the criminal complaint.
Meanwhile, Metro detectives were investigating similar but unrelated cases elsewhere in the valley, Cassell said.
Those investigations led to the arrest of Nabiail Nage Dhalai, 35, and the issuance of an arrest warrant for 47-year-old Mazen “Mike” Hamou, who remains at large, Cassell said. Both face local charges, he said.
Police said Dhalai was arrested Tuesday on three counts of attempted possession of stolen property. Hamou is wanted on three counts of attempted possession of stolen property, eight counts of trafficking a controlled substance and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to sell, police said.
Authorities described Hamou as white, about 5-feet-8-inches tall and 185 pounds. He has black hair and brown eyes.
Hamou, whose last known address was in the 4600 block of Madera Way in southeast Las Vegas, is the owner of M-R Beauty Supply and 99 Cent Store, 1935 Fremont St., police said. He also co-owns the Hookah Palace, 1030 E. Flamingo Road.
The investigation underscores the burgeoning problem of organized retail theft, Bedwell said. Authorities estimate thieves steal $15 billion to $30 billion worth of merchandise each year from major retail chains across the country.
Authorities said these recent contraband cases troubled them, in part, because of juveniles’ involvement in the initial shoplifting.
“It’s a way to make money easily, particularly on a bottle of top-end liquor,” said Bedwell, acknowledging teens’ motivation to participate. “It’s somewhat of a simple crime on the front end and, unfortunately, people fall victim to that desire for easy money.”
Police said these cases have heightened their radar to these crimes, prompting them to issue a warning to other business owners.
“We’re going to be coming (to look) for you,” Bedwell said. “We’re not treating these shopliftings of alcohol as just a simple shoplifting; we’re looking at it as the potential for part of a bigger problem.”
At Sunny Market on Wednesday morning, one onlooker paced back and forth staring at the business surrounded by police tape. He identified himself as Tom Binna, brother of Ramo.
Binna said he came immediately after family members contacted him about the situation. He called the allegations shocking. Binna said his brother has owned Sunny Market for 16 to 18 years.
“It’s impossible,” Binna said, shaking his head. “The business was making good money, so it’s not worth it to make extra money and go to jail.”
If convicted of the federal charge, authorities said Ramo faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.