First suspects in cigarette smuggling ring appear in federal court

ST. LOUIS - The first of 35 defendants in a contraband cigarette ring stretching from Missouri to the east coast appeared in federal court Tuesday.

The defendants are appearing in three groups over the next three days. Prosecutors claim they acted as couriers and purchasers in the cigarette smuggling ring.

None of the suspects would agree to an interview or make any statements on camera. However, one suspect, a North Carolina man, said he did nothing wrong; he claims he was simply delivering a new car for a friend when he was stopped.

Federal authorities raided more than 20 St. Louis area stores late month, seizing everything from computers and financial records to ATMs. Tuesday’s defendants are accused of buying thousands of cartons cigarettes in St. Louis, where the state cigarette tax is the cheapest in the country (17 cents per pack), and then taking them to states where taxes are 10, 20, even 30 times higher. The smuggled cigarettes were sold in, among other places, Illinois, where the state tax is $1.98 per pack; and New York, where the state tax is a whopping $4.35 a pack.

The seven defendants were all from out of town and have already posted bond.

The arraignments continue at federal court Wednesday. Thirty of the 35 defendants have been booked and processed thus far.