The two stores seemed like most family-owned and -run markets, places where neighborhood customers stopped by for milk and Pampers. But these entrepreneurs had an unusual way of stocking their shelves.
Their suppliers were thieves who stole goods from other grocery stores, authorities say.
In broad daylight, the owners of Fletcher Supermarket and Jack's Market in Tampa brazenly haggled with shoplifters over the price of stolen cigarettes, beer, even baby formula, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies said Thursday. The owners bought items for a fraction of the retail price, then resold them from their own shelves at regular prices, pocketing the difference, they said.
A monthlong undercover investigation into the illegal purchases resulted in five arrests, authorities said Thursday.
One of the stores involved, Jack's Market, 3215 N 29th St., formerly known as the Central Grocery, has been in the news before. Its popular owner, Palestinian immigrant Fathi Ali Ejak, was shot dead in May by a would-be robber. Ejak's daughter, Nufouz Hatel, 39, is the current owner, authorities said, and was charged Thursday with two counts of dealing in stolen property and racketeering. Her brother, Monther Ejak, 24, was charged with five counts of dealing in stolen property and trafficking in food stamps, racketeering, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
At Fletcher Supermarket, 1502 E Fletcher Ave., owner Abdelrahem Khaled, 56, his wife Wajiha, 52, and their son Abdallah, 24, were charged with at least two counts each of dealing in stolen property and one count of racketeering.
All five arrested have previous criminal records, and bail was set at thousands of dollars each, authorities said.
Authorities will seek to revoke the tobacco and liquor licenses of both stores, said Capt. Bruce Ashley of the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. Sparked by information from a source, the investigation also involved agents from the Tampa Police Department, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Revenue, because no taxes were paid on the purchase of the stolen items, Ashley said.
Officials said tentacles of the scheme affected whole neighborhoods surrounding the stores.
"It causes people to steal because they know they can peddle their goods," Ashley said. "Word on the street gets around pretty quick."
As a result, authorities said, they may file more charges against the owners, such as creating a public nuisance. Other arrests could follow, they said.
Undercover agents posed as thieves with stolen goods they wanted to sell, Ashley said. Often, the items were store brands such as Eckerd Drugs and Albertson's, they said. That didn't bother the owners, they said. A good portion of the goods sold in the stores were illegally obtained, Ashley said. Some may have been the result of warehouse thefts, transportation thefts or merely store thefts, he said.
Some of the items were special requests, such as Coors beer, size 4 diapers and canned baby formula. But the owners would buy just about anything for the right price, authorities said. Those who supplied the goods, none of whom have been charged, could expect about 15 cents on the dollar of the item's retail price, Ashley said.
When undercover agents approached the owners with the "stolen" goods, they would help unload trucks and cars of the purloined items right in the stores' parking lots, authorities said "I was shocked at how blatant it was," said Hillsborough Sgt. Ed Peeler.
Both stores are fixtures in the community, open for years, Ashley said. But the current ownership of both was limited to the last five or six years, he said. They are both family-run, he said.