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Cortez Waters sold thousands of fake Nike sneakers.

Even more important, perhaps, he did it as part of a counterfeiting ring that stretched all the way to China.

The Buffalo man eventually admitted his leadership role in the conspiracy and became a key witness in the prosecution of 22 other defendants across the country.

On Wednesday, a federal judge rewarded Waters by sparing him prison time.

“He was the first defendant to plead guilty,” said Federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano. “And his cooperation led to the successful prosecution of all the other defendants, except one.”

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara agreed and sentenced Waters to four years of probation.

Waters’ sentence – he pleaded guilty in 2008 to trafficking in counterfeit goods – is one of the last chapters in a five-year-long prosecution that began when Niagara Falls police started noticing fake Nike sneakers popping up in several local stores.

Before long, the investigation took Falls police and federal agents to New York City and eventually China.

In 2007, they arrested 23 suspects and charged them with running a multi-million-dollar counterfeit sneaker ring.

Waters, one of the primary targets of the investigation, was arrested at his home in Buffalo and identified by police as the man “controlling the Buffalo-Niagara Falls counterfeit sneaker trade.”

It later became evident that he was one of the lead distributors in an international network that had its roots in a factory in China and a warehouse in New York City.

Arcara said the crime was serious enough to warrant sending Waters away. Waters faced up to six years in prison.

“This is a real problem," Arcara said of the counterfeiting industry. “It’s cost industry millions and millions of dollars.”

The judge changed his mind after learning more about Waters’ cooperation with the government. He also noted that the prosecutor in the case did not oppose a sentence of probation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Rogowski pointed to Waters’ criminal history and said it would have been easy for the government to ask for jail time.

“Quite frankly, judge, those occurred 20 years ago,” he said of Waters’ two prior convictions.

“It’s an unusual position for the government,” Arcara answered.

“It is, your honor,” Rogowski said.

The sneakers Waters bought and sold were often available at small mom-and-pop stores around the region, as well as street corners where people sold them out of their cars or trucks.

Not surprisingly, they sold for prices well below the normal retail cost for Nike sneakers.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com