TAMPA — Law enforcement agents announced a crackdown Monday on the coordinated theft and illegal trade of cigarettes, accusing two Hillsborough County men of racketeering and 15 store operators of buying bootleg smokes out of greed.
Christopher Booker Jr., 29, of Temple Terrace, and Quentin Moore, 24, of Tampa, each face 50 counts, including grand theft, racketeering and burglary with a mask, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The investigation, dubbed "Operation Up in Smoke," spanned at least 15 counties and multiple agencies, with 17 people arrested in Hillsborough County on 135 charges. One more Hillsborough arrest was expected.
"These suspects were busy but law enforcement was even busier," said Mark Brutnell, FDLE special agent in charge for the Tampa region.
The newly-formed Tampa Bay Regional Intelligence Center was first to pick up on a pattern of cigarette thefts at convenience stores, gas stations and Sam’s Club stores beginning in July 2017, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said.
Thieves worked in teams of two or three to steal cigarettes — sometimes by force — ranging in value from $150 to $7,000, he said. The operation was based in Hillsborough, he said.
Meanwhile, authorities also arrested owners or clerks at 15 shops in the Tampa Bay area, alleging they knowingly purchased stolen cigarettes at a fraction of the ordinary cost.
During the investigation, undercover detectives sold 170 cartons for $3,620, when the retail value was $10,880, the Sheriff’s Office said.
"They unequivocally knew they were stolen," Chronister said. "Most of the shops that considered and purchased the cigarettes were mom and pop type stores who put their own greed above the law. It didn’t take much convincing."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 546-6611. Follow @adawsonwrites.