Charles Lewis/Buffalo News
The petty thieves went out with shopping lists to steal for deli owners who offered to buy the stolen goods - everything from condoms to baby formula.
One deli owner's shopping list included "25 tubes of toothpaste." Another deli owner needed men's shavers, and yet another needed to replenish his supply of energy drinks.
The crooks then shoplifted from the big guys: Tops, Wegmans, Target.
The thieves returned to the delis and sold the goods to the owners - at cut-rate prices - who then resold the items at big profits.
Meanwhile, residents near the small stores complained that many of the city's corner delis were magnets for gang members, whose fighting, partying and drug dealing made life unbearable.
When police heard these complaints, several agencies got together and pulled off a sting dubbed "Operation Secret Shopper." The operation has resulted in the closing of 20 corner delis, though some have reopened under court orders while charges are pending; the arrest of 15 store owners and their workers; and the confiscation of synthetic marijuana, several guns, fake New Era baseball caps, bootlegged DVDs and untaxed cigarettes.
Just how profitable was this back-door way of stocking deli shelves?
The Cazenovia Mini Mart in South Buffalo purchased two cases of shavers, three boxes of Zig-Zag rolling papers, three boxes of candy bars, six boxes of chewing gum and three boxes of condoms, according to police.
The price? Fifty dollars.
"Items like that collectively could add up to $1,000," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said as he and Mayor Byron W. Brown provided an overview of the just-completed six-month sting.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment, Brown said, was that the delis have been put on notice that their illegal business practices will not be tolerated.
"Many delis provide a good service to the community, but those that are buying and selling stolen goods do damage to the community, and we will continue to shut them down," the mayor said. "When I'm out in the community, I get complaints all the time from residents about these delis."
Delis involved in illegal activities, according to citizens and police, provide money to drug addicts who steal and sell to support their addictions. They also attract gangs and lawlessness that can range from minor assault to murder, critics say.
The Comstock Deli at the corner of Comstock Avenue and Dartmouth Street in the Bailey-Kensington area is a good example, a neighbor said.
"The store is absolutely disgusting. It is an eyesore. You wouldn't have this in the suburbs. Customers from the store will go next door and sit on the porch and get high and drink beer. The man who lives there had to put a gate on the side so that they couldn't sit on the porch anymore. It's ridiculous," the neighbor said, requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation.
A worker at the deli said he frequently calls the police to disperse troublemakers.
"Sometimes two or three times a day," he said, refusing to discuss allegations of buying stolen goods.
There is no question police are frequently summoned to the delis or to intersections where the delis are situated.
In the last five years, police have responded to 18,786 "calls for service" at 46 delis that came under scrutiny in the sting. Undercover state troopers, working with Buffalo police, sold merchandise to 20 of those delis, while the rest expressed a willingness to buy the goods that were identified as stolen.
"It's an incredible amount of police time and resources that go into following up and investigating these stores," Brown said. "The cost to the taxpayers is probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Undercover officers approached 70 delis and stores throughout the city offering the stolen goods, Derenda said, in pointing out that more than 20 refused to be part of the illegal activities.
Tops, Wegmans, Target, Tripi Foods and New Era all donated merchandise for the sting operation, according to South District Police Chief Patrick M. Pascall, who coordinated the investigation.
Pascall cited Cazenovia Mini Mart at Seneca and Duerstein streets as one of the worst offenders.
"I can't tell you how many times I met with the owner and told him to cease and desist from selling stolen merchandise and allowing the kids to hang out inside and outside the store," Pascall said.
Adam Mohamad, a mini mart clerk, said the store has changed its ways since it was temporarily closed.
"People make mistakes. You buy something from the wrong person, and you learn from it," he said. "We now go to the block club meetings. We want to work with the police."
Devon Crosby, a customer, defended the mini mart.
"When they closed this store, I really didn't know where to go. Adam is a good guy. I come and get good deals. It's a full-service store. You can buy anything you need from T-shirts to bread and milk," Crosby said. "I was happy when the store reopened."
Pascall said that while the sting has been completed, police and City Hall inspections, licensing and permit officials will continue to focus their efforts on delis that refuse to operate legally.
The problems with some urban delis have persisted for decades.
In the late 1990s, the city formed a deli task force to crush illegal activity. A group of Arab-American deli owners responded by filing a federal lawsuit, alleging that the city was discriminating against them. By the fall of 2001, a jury exonerated the city.
Earlier this year, Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen called for stricter enforcement of laws at delis after an excursion to the local stores revealed illegal behavior, from the sale of loose cigarettes, loose baby diapers and outdated food, and the overcharging for check-cashing services.
Loose cigarettes often sell for $1 apiece and single diapers for $2. That's overpricing, authorities say, and it takes advantage of poor people, who are the delis' primary customers.
University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell said she is apprehensive of allowing more delis in her district.
"Maybe five have opened in the last eight years since I started serving. I watch the crime reports, and I have problems with the delis that are already there. You don't want to know how many there are in my district, practically one on every corner," Russell said. "Once they open, it is so hard, legally, to get them closed. If you do close them, they run and get a lawyer and file a State Supreme Court motion to reopen, and a judge who does not live in our district reopens them. My message to all deli owners is, please do not apply in the University District. We have enough."
Some of the delis targeted in the sting included those at 143 Walden Ave., 318 Hampshire St., 729 Sycamore St., 1069 Broadway and 778 Tonawanda St.
Derenda, who also pointed out how difficult it is to close delis with questionable business practices, said the city two years ago closed the deli at 143 Walden Ave. when a worker there was caught on surveillance video waving a loaded AK-47 rifle. The store later reopened.
In addition to State Police, agencies that assisted in Operation Secret Shopper include the Erie Crime Analysis Center; the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; the Cheektowaga Police Department; the Erie County District Attorney's Office; and the State Liquor Authority.
South District Community Policing Officer Anthony LeBron was given special recognition for his efforts in setting up the stings.
Individuals arrested on charges of possession of stolen property are: Abdilkarim Ali, 48, Nadeems Grocery Deli, 2082 S. Park Ave.; Adel Alkaldi, 25, Cazenovia Mini Mart, 2330 Seneca St.; Samir M. Khoury, 49, Ricotta's Food Market, 206 Elk St.; Dennis Mack, 32, and Abdul Kassem, 45, Seneca Deli, 1199 Seneca St.; Hamza Abdo, 55, Garang International Market, 325 Seneca St.; Bilal Mohamed, 24, and Jamil Nagi, 25, Broadway Mart, 1069 Broadway.
Also, Naji Alabbadi, 22, Charlies Food Market, 927 Broadway; Muafaq Majid, 28, Luckys, 729 Sycamore St.; Zaid Alhariri, 43, Super Market Express, 143 Walden Ave.; Moshin Almadrahi, 52, the Quick Stop, 1148 East Ferry St.; Omar Abdulrazak, 35, Mega-Mart, 778 Tonawanda St.; Ali Nasser, 23, M&N Mini Mart, 2360 Bailey Ave.; and Hamos Mohamed, 35, Langfield Food-Meat Market, 313 Edison St.