— From July of 2000 to April 2001, a new kind of crime wave hit San Diego County. Boiled down to penal-code labeling -- 211 for armed robbery, 459 for burglary -- the crimes weren't anything new. It's what was being robbed and burgled that made the series of crimes interesting.

Cigarettes were the target of a team of three thieves who raided convenience stores, gas stations, and tobacco shops around the county. "We put together a series sheet of about 23 cases through San Diego, La Mesa, El Cajon, Santee, and down to Imperial Beach and Chula Vista," says Lieutenant Jim Collins, who heads San Diego Police Department's robbery and special-investigations unit. Court documents put the number in the series at 24 and added Lemon Grove and Spring Valley to the list of locations.

The City of El Cajon was the first hit by the cigarette bandits. "The pattern started July 26, 2000, at a liquor store on the 1200 block of North Second," says Joan Bond of the El Cajon Police Department's crime-analysis unit. "The next was on the 1700 block of Greenfield Drive -- that was a gas station on August 8. The loss was the $15,000...it was 500 cartons of cigarettes. September 21, they hit a cigarette store in the 1100 block of Avocado. There were 300 cartons of cigarettes taken, valued at over $10,000. In October, in the 1700 block of Greenfield Drive, it was a gas station. November 15, it was in the 1000 block of Washington at a liquor store, and there were 150 cartons of cigarettes, a few bottles of liquor, and some cash taken."

All of these burglaries in El Cajon were committed after stores were closed. The burglars gained entrance employing a simple method. "They were using either a concrete block or trash cans to break through the front doors. They would break through the glass, run in, pile the cigarettes into trash cans or cardboard boxes, and then run out," Bond says.

The three men committing the robberies got in and out quickly, leaving no clues. They wore dark ski masks or nylons on their heads as well as dark clothing. All of the crimes were committed between midnight and dawn when few potential eyewitnesses were likely to be around. "I don't think we had any videotape," says Detective Petrzak of the El Cajon police. "I had just one witness who said he saw three black dudes speed away from one of the convenience stores. But it was dark, and they were speeding away. So I never had any good leads to go on or any good specific information."

With the coming of the new year, 2001, the cigarette bandits apparently resolved to embolden their operation. Instead of chucking concrete blocks and trash cans through the windows of closed establishments, they started robbing businesses while they were open. On Tuesday, January 9, 2001, at 3:30 in the morning, two men clad in black clothing and ski masks entered the Arco-Thrifty gas station and convenience store on Avocado Road in El Cajon. One of them pointed a handgun at the clerk and told him to get in the bathroom and stay there for 15 minutes. The clerk obeyed and while he was in there, the masked robbers took 50 cartons of cigarettes -- about $1500 worth -- and some money from the register.

Two Tuesdays later, January 23, again at about a quarter to four in the morning, a 7-Eleven on Jamacha Road was robbed. Again, the clerk was told by an armed, masked man to go sit in the bathroom. Again, the robber grabbed cigarettes and some cash before speeding off in a car with two other men.

At about 4:00 a.m. on January 30 -- another Tuesday -- two masked men brandishing handguns ordered the employees of a 7-Eleven on Sandrock Road in Serra Mesa into the bathroom and stole cigarettes. No money was taken.

On February 1, 2001, an Exxon station in Kearny Mesa was robbed in the early-morning hours. Again, the employees were sent to the bathroom while the masked crooks grabbed cigarettes, this time 160 cartons. "Sometimes," Collins comments, "they would use a chain with a padlock to lock the front doors. They'd put a sign up that said, 'Back in ten minutes,' put the padlock on the door, then they would take off through the rear doors. Apparently, that gave them more time to get away."

The cigarette heists baffled law-enforcement agencies in San Diego County. The fact that the robbers wore masks, often damaged video-surveillance cameras during robberies, and performed the crimes in the wee hours with few witnesses left police and sheriff's detectives with few clues. And the series was something they'd never seen before. "We've had people steal a carton or two of cigarettes before. But we've never seen anybody steal anything close to the volume of cartons these guys stole."

"The $64,000 question is, 'What's happening to the cigarettes?' " San Diego police robbery lieutenant Mary Cornicelli told the Union-Tribune in February. "Are they being taken to Mexico, resold here, or sold back on the streets?"

Lieutenant Collins suspects they were being resold. "Cigarettes are easy to sell," he explains, "and they're going for, what, $40, $45 a carton now? That's a pretty good profit margin."

Detective Petrzak agrees. "Taxes are getting so high on them, and it's easy to steal them and sell them at your own liquor store. There are no identifying marks on them or anything."

Both Collins and Petrzak admit they can only speculate on where the cigarettes were going. "We don't know what, exactly, they were doing with them," Collins says, "whether it was selling them in another store, selling them on the street, or what. We might never know unless the three suspects decide to tell us what they were doing with them."

Collins says "suspects" because on April 2, 2001, at 4:10 in the morning, three Chaldean men were arrested in connection to the crime. Kosa Rabah Nouri and Nawzad Alexan Suleiman -- both 23 -- and Steven Silewa Georges, 20, were arrested by Sheriff's Deputy Joe Arispe behind a 7-Eleven at 2441 Jamacha Road in El Cajon. Arispe was patrolling behind the convenience store because he'd heard reports that another 7-Eleven, on Mission Gorge Road in Allied Gardens, had been robbed of cigarettes after the lone employee had been locked in the bathroom and the front doors chained shut -- the 24th in the series of cigarette robberies. Court documents tell the story of the arrest. "The area behind the store was dark. [Arispe] observed a vehicle backed into a parking space, two spaces from the 7-Eleven's back door. Deputy Arispe noted one male was outside the vehicle with his back toward the deputy, and two males were inside the vehicle. In order to safely contact the individuals, Deputy Arispe shined a light into the area.

"The suspect outside the vehicle, Kosa Nouri, turned his head in the direction of Deputy Arispe and then appeared to say something to the males in the car. Nouri kept his back toward the deputy. The defendant Nouri began shoving something into the waistband of his pants, and Deputy Arispe could not see that object.

"Deputy Arispe drew his weapon and ordered Nouri to turn around and face him, with his hands in view. After a few seconds, the defendant Nouri turned around. Deputy Arispe was still unable to see his waistband area. Deputy Arispe called for additional units.

"Deputy Arispe could see the rear passenger, defendant Georges, moving and ducking down in the seat.

"The defendant Nouri then began to walk away from the vehicle. Deputy Arispe told him to stand next to the vehicle and face him. In spite of the deputy's directions, the defendant Nouri walked toward the rear of the vehicle. Deputy Arispe told him to stop and face him. Nouri stopped just past the rear tire, turned and faced the vehicle, and then reached into his waistband. Deputy Arispe saw a black object fall to the ground. As Nouri turned toward the deputy, he kicked the object under the vehicle. Other police units arrived about one minute later. The passengers were told to get out of the car and were placed into patrol cars."

According to court documents, one of the deputies who arrived to back up Arispe received permission from Nouri to search the vehicle, which was a rental car. In plain view inside the car were sweatshirts, gloves, packs of cigarettes, a sledgehammer, and a ski mask. Under the car, where Nouri had been standing, the deputy found another ski mask. Outside the car, a padlock and chain and walkie-talkie were found by deputies. Robbery detectives who arrived later conducted another search of the vehicle and found "numerous items located inside the vehicle, including dark clothing, gloves, ski masks, a walkie-talkie, and a semi-automatic handgun."

Nouri, Suleiman, and Georges have been charged with 31 crimes, all felonies, between them. The most serious are robbery, burglary, and false imprisonment, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 16 years. The three are scheduled to be tried January 15, 2002, in Superior Court.

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