HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — At least three people were arrested and more arrests are expected after police raided two locations in Huntington as a result of a yearlong investigation of a West Huntington gas station officials allege was an “organized retail theft operation.”
The multi-agency investigation alleges Basim Tallozi, 61, his brother, Samir Tallozi, 63, and Latischa Debord, 25, Basim Tallozi’s girlfriend, all of Huntington, and others engaged in an organized criminal enterprise since June 2014 involving benefit fraud by exchanging cash for a fraction of the value of at least $5,000 in government food benefit cards at the Save Way gas station in the 1300 block of Madison Avenue in Huntington.
According to criminal complaints filed in Cabell County Magistrate Court, beneficiaries of government food benefit cards would be given a list of items to purchase from retail stores and asked to return with the requested items with accompanying receipts to the brothers. Samir Tallozi would also escort some beneficiaries to the stores and pick the items out himself, the complaint said.
Samir Tallozi, Basim Tallozi and Debord are each charged with engaging in an organized criminal enterprise, conspiracy to commit benefit fraud and unauthorized use of benefits. In addition, the Tallozi brothers are charged with recruiting members for an organized criminal enterprise.
Basim Tallozi was also charged with four counts of delivery of a controlled substance. Three counts allege on three different occasions he sold two grams of marijuana for $20. A fourth delivery charge alleges he sold half a gram of meth for $10 to a customer.
He was recently released from federal prison after being convicted in a large “Smoking Aces” tobacco smuggling operation in Huntington, after admitting to transporting 17,112 cartons of cigarettes into the area.
According to criminal complaints, Joy Black and Teresa Samson, who is listed as the president of the business on the West Virginia Secretary of State website, no ages listed, also participated in the alleged criminal enterprise.
The criminal complaint states Samson was a former employee and Black is a current employee and have been known to direct participants to the Tallozis for the purpose of conducting the purchases.
Additional arrests are expected with the investigation. The engaging in criminal enterprise statute states at least five individuals must be involved for the charge.
Before the sun rose Tuesday morning, Cabell County Prosecutor Sean “Corky” Hammers and assistant prosecutor Joe Fincham were on scene with the property crimes unit of the criminal investigations bureau and other Huntington police officers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and officials from Kroger at the gas station and at the Tallozi home in the 400 block of 8th Avenue in Huntington.
Throughout the day, three vehicles and all the stock from the gas station were seized. Investigators on scene said the store would be left bare, except for fixtures throughout the store.
A box truck and several boxes sat near the station doorway as officers removed and inventoried every item in the shop.
Several convenience store items — drinks, chips, medicine, etc. — sat in the hot sun waiting to be boxed and placed on the truck as investigators took time to inventory. The items will be stored in proper conditions pending the outcome of the case, Hammers said.
Several passers-by cheered seeing police swarming the area. One woman said the brothers were always kind, but she knew the closure would be forthcoming based on shady practices. Another man said he would not stop at the shop due to outrageous prices.
Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli said the investigation was in correlation with fighting drug addiction in the area.
“There are various businesses around the city which serve as the economic engine for the drug epidemic in our community,” he said. “Law enforcement and the prosecuting attorney have been aggressive in targeting such businesses for prosecution.”
Ciccarelli pointed to the closure of Gary’s Place, a bar in the Fairfield neighborhood that Huntington City Council recently declared a “nuisance property,” recent raids within the Marcum Terrace community and the closure of West End Recycling as examples.
The West End Recycling case, prosecuted by Fincham, resulted in the first engaging in a criminal enterprise conviction in the state earlier this year.
“I think this should serve as a warning to anyone that if you engage in such a business, regardless of your claims of legitimacy, we will be coming,” Ciccarelli said.
Hammers, who recently said he would take a stand against property crimes, said the business owners were just as bad as drug dealers.
“This is part of the drug problem. These types of businesses who prey on drug addicts to steal property and sell stolen property is part of the bigger problem,” he said. “(The dealers) are providing money to our local addicts to go buy drugs from the other end of town from a drug dealer.”
The brothers do not own the property, Ciccarelli confirmed, but leased it. He said an investigation into the relationship between the brothers and the property owners is ongoing.
According to records on the Secretary of State website, Samir Tallozi filed a business license for Save Way in June 2015 as the incorporator of the business. Gas station signage indicates the business name as Save Mart, although the business license says otherwise.
“I don’t know that this has been the focus in that regard,” he said. “But we certainly know that because that business exists, there are problems far and wide in West Huntington that are caused by an outlet like this.”
Neighbors said prostitution plagued the gas station for months. Ciccarelli said it was all connected to the drug epidemic.
“We know the prostitution problem we have in this community is directly tied to drug addiction,” he said. “When you have a business that is preying on drug addicts, and the fact that there are prostitutes in that area, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.”
Basim Tallozi has a history of fraud, Hammers and Ciccarelli confirmed. He was released last year from federal prison after being sentenced in 2011 to three years in federal prison, followed by a three-year term of supervised release for conspiracy to transport, receive, possess, purchase and sell contraband cigarettes and for a controlled substance offense. His supervision commenced in July 2015 after his release.
He admitted in 2011 that from July 2010 to January 2011, he conspired to purchase and transport about 17,112 cartons of cigarettes, representing a loss of more than $94,000 in excise tax to the state of West Virginia.
He also admitted to selling in three separate incidents about 165 oxycodone tablets to undercover agents with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.
In March of this year, a non-compliance violation was filed against him in federal court after a Cabell County criminal complaint charged him with transferring and receiving stolen property. No action has been taken on that, pending further outcome of that case.
The defendants are expected to appear in Cabell County Magistrate Court for a preliminary hearing within 10 days. Although Hammers would not confirm the case will be presented to the September Cabell County grand jury, an indictment could be returned as early as next week against the trio, and the preliminary hearing would not be needed.
Investigators said they do not believe the gas station has any relation to the former Sunoco station at 1954 9th Ave., which was declared a public nuisance in 2012. The station was turned over to the city and demolished shortly after.
Bonds were set by Cabell Magistrate Mike Woelfel at $300,000 for Debord, $400,000 for Samir Tallozi and $600,000 for Basim Tallozi. All bonds are cash-only.