Guilty plea entered in cigarette smuggling case
OXFORD — Federal prosecutors say a Florida man who took part in a multi-state cigarette-smuggling operation was once paid with a box containing $350,000 cash that was tossed over the fence of a northern Mississippi airport.
Mitchell Sivina, 38, of Doral, Fla., pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court in Oxford to money laundering and transporting stolen cigarettes.
Records show Sivina remains free on $15,000 bond, and sentencing has not been set. Prosecutors said he faces up to 20 years in prison on one count and 10 years on the other.
Calls to two of Sivina’s attorneys were not immediately returned yesterday.
Authorities said about $2 million worth of cigarettes were stolen in 2006 from the parking lot of a Flying J truck stop in Walton, Ky., and were taken to Florida before being trucked to a Mississippi warehouse.
Prosecutors said Sivina acted as a broker for nine transactions between the people who stole the cigarettes and wholesalers who bought them in Mississippi and Kentucky.
Others have pleaded guilty in the case, and prosecutors said an investigation continues.
“It’s a nationwide investigation involving tens of millions of dollars,” John Alexander, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Mississippi, said yesterday.
Court documents show Sivina has cooperated with investigators.
Prosecutors provided a narrative of their case in court documents, based on information gathered by investigators. The narrative said cigarettes were stolen from manufacturer Philip Morris in a series of warehouse burglaries and truck hijackings from 2004 to 2006, including the theft of the $2 million of cigarettes on Oct. 16, 2006, from the truck stop parking lot in Kentucky.
Prosecutors said that days after the cigarettes were stolen, Jerry Burke, a wholesaler in Tupelo, tried to buy the cigarettes from Sivina for about $850,000, with $205,000 coming from Charles Wells, a tobacco wholesaler in Hopkinsville, Ky.
Prosecutors said the cigarettes were taken from Kentucky to the Miami area, then were driven from Florida to Peppertown, which is near Tupelo.
“Agents learned that 1,026 cases of the stolen cigarettes were received from Sivina,” prosecutors said in the court documents. “This matched the number of cases stolen in Walton, Kentucky.”
Prosecutors said the stolen cigarettes awaited transfer to Indiana and Kentucky, and federal authorities intercepted the ones destined for Indiana.
Prosecutors said in court papers that if Sivina’s case had gone to trial, Burke was prepared to testify that in one transaction, Sivina “flew into the Tupelo, Miss., airport on a private airplane and received a box of cash totaling $350,000, which was thrown over the fence at the airport to Sivina.”
Court records show Burke pleaded guilty in Nov. 2009 to defrauding the federal government and states’ governments out of millions of dollars in taxes and fees because of the cigarette smuggling.
Records also show Wells pleaded guilty May 7 to money laundering, making false monthly tobacco reports and defrauding the federal government and three states’ governments of millions of dollars in taxes and fees.
Burke and Wells await sentencing. Burke is out on $10,00 bond, and Wells was released on his own recognizance, records show.
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