Arrests made in cigarette theft ring

cigarette theft mugs.jpg

Fresno police have arrested three people who they say terrorized convenience store owners for the past month, targeting cigarettes.

Police say they would case out their victims at Sam's Club in North Fresno.

They were looking for people buying thousands of dollars worth of cigarettes – that will be worth even more once a tax hike goes in to effect next month.

"We know that this would have continued. This series would have undoubtedly continued," says Jerry Dyer, Fresno Police Chief.

Dyer says the three— two men and a teenager—would drive from Stockton to Fresno, using different cars each time.

Police say they carried out their first robbery February 8th at Village Liquor in North Fresno.

The owner had just returned from buying $8,000 worth of cigarettes at Sam's Club.

Detectives say the men followed him from the distributor and took the cigarettes at gunpoint -- in broad daylight -- before speeding away.

One month later, officers say the three targeted JK Cigarettes.

The owner had just bought $10,000 worth of cartons, also from Sam’s Club.

"He said he had maxed out his credit card to purchase them because they were going up in cost to $8 a pack, wanted to get as many as he could in advance of that increase," Dyer said.

Police say a witness at the third heist gave them the break they needed.

"[He] watched them pull hoodies over their head and approach the business. He watched the robbery occur, saw the suspects get into the Mercury Sable and drive away. The witness decided to follow the suspects," Dyer said.

The man told police the car had paper plates from BabaCars, in Stockton.

Detectives followed up and called the dealership.

A worker helped police identify the owner – who was one of the accused thieves.

He was supposed to return the car the following day.

Fresno Police began to carry out surveillance at a Stockton address, and followed the car to Fresno on Friday.

The men drove to Sam’s Club.

Police moved in, before they had the chance to hit again.

"It's not uncommon for individuals to be making significant purchases of cigarettes from Sam's club, in some cases every 15 minutes people are walking out of that store with significant amounts of cartons of cigarettes,” Dyer said. “Not that difficult to find somebody who is gonna be a potential victim."

Dyer adds that three warrants have been served, but police have not found the cigarettes.

A $2-a pack tax hike is set to take effect April 1st.

Voters approved the tax in November.