Some of the half-million bucks’ worth of Hennessy VS cognac stolen on March 16 has been recovered. A northeast Baltimore liquor-store owner is charged with stealing less than $1,000 of it, buying liquor from an unauthorized distributor, and failing to pay the requisite state tax.
That amounts to $7.28.
For that, Sanjiv Suri faces up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
All this came to light publicly for the first time at the July 17 liquor-board hearing in Baltimore, which was helpfully blogged by the Community Law Center’s Becky Witt on the blog "Booze News." At the hearing, there were cases of two other liquor-store owners found in possession of stolen Hennessy, though neither of them has been charged criminally.
Here's the background, and a correction: According to the charging document in Suri's criminal case, the booze was taken from a Hale Transport yard at 7020 Quad Ave., in Rosedale—not the former F.P. Winner warehouse on that same block, as City Paper erroneously guessed in our first take on this caper, in March. (City Paper did call liquor wholesalers that day, including Reliable Churchill, as well as Winner and Mitchell Distributing, its new parent company, and got no response from any of them).
Reliable Churchill is the only Hennessy distributor in Maryland. The shipment came into Seagirt Marine on March 1 from France, stayed in customs until March 12, and then was picked up by Hale and taken to “their yard at 7020 Quad Avenue until arrangements could be made for delivery to Reliable Churchill,” according to the charging statement by agent James Olienyk of the Maryland Comptroller's Office.
Someone stole the whole trailer on or about the morning of March 16. There were 2,142 cases in a shipping container. Police found the truck and trailer a eight days later at the corner of Monroe and Mulberry streets, in West Baltimore, but no booze was inside.
Fortunately for law enforcement, booze is carefully tracked. While members of the Regional Auto Theft Team (RATT for short) were investigating the truck theft, state revenue agents were on the lookout for the stolen cargo.
On March 31 at 3:45 p.m., Olienyk and two other agents from the Comptroller's Office arrived at M & J Discount Liquors, 5500 Park Heights Ave., in northwest Baltimore, for a routine Retail Liquor Dealer Inspection. Suri let them in and gave him his invoices so they could check to make sure all his inventory had been purchased through licensed wholesalers. Olienyk says he spotted a few bottles of Hennessy VS Cognac in 375-mL bottles on a shelf behind the cash register, and more of the same product in a corner of the storage area. “I examined the invoices and it appeared there was more Hennessy VS 375ml bottles on the shelves than the business had ordered,” he writes in his charging statement.
Olienyk called Reliable Churchill to check how much Hennessy M & J had ordered. Reliable Churchill told him that store had not ordered any Hennessy that month.
Legally speaking, if you're a liquor retailer in Maryland, and you buy Hennessy from anyone other than Reliable Churchill, you are a criminal. As Olienyk recounts in his statement, “All licensed retailers are required to purchase alcoholic beverages from licensed Maryland wholesalers.” And Reliable Churchill is the exclusive wholesaler of Hennessy.
Olienyk got the lot numbers of the stolen booze shipment. They were 402810 and 402919.
The bottles at M & J had 402810 printed on the back of them, Olienyk says in his charging statement.
He writes that Suri “appeared to be nervous while I was asking him about the Hennessy VS cognac.” Suri at first told the comptroller's agent that he'd received the Hennessy in “a regular shipment,” but the state agent “explained to him that he did not purchase any Hennessy VS cognac 375ml bottles from Reliable Churchill in March of 2014.”
Suri had no reply, according to Olienyk.
“I further explained to him that the product did not enter the United States until March 1, 2014,” Olienyk writes. “Mr. Suri did not respond and contacted an attorney via cell phone.”
Suri's hearing at the July 17 liquor board meeting was postponed by request of his lawyer, Melvin Kodenski, who according to Booze News asked for the delay so his client “would not have to invoke [his] Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.” Kodenski did not return City Paper's call requesting comment. The case is scheduled for hearing in circuit court Aug. 4. He faces up to 18 months on the theft charge, two years for not keeping proper records, and five years and a $10,000 fine for failing to pay the $7.28 state tax on the 4.855 gallons of stolen cognac found in his store.
The two other liquor-board cases in which stolen Hennessy turned up were less Eliot Ness, but no less State Comptroller-related. In the first one, Agent David Hollingsworth found Ki Suk Kim, Myung Ja Nam, and Ok Suk Kim of Irvington Cut Rate Liquors at 4100 Frederick Ave. in possession of one of the stolen bottles on April 3. Irvington Cut Rate is in West Baltimore, about six miles from Suri's store. Ok Kim later explained that a customer came in with the bottle to exchange it for a smaller one and some cash—about $5 or $6, she said. Since the bottle was unopened, and because “the day in question was a slow day and she didn't want to give any trouble to the customer” (in the words of the BoozeNews blog), she exchanged the bottle without a receipt. The liquor board fine was for $1,000.
Booze News quotes retired Judge Thomas Ward of the liquor board: “I recognize the fact that there is only one bottle, but it comes from a hijacked truck. Little crimes can make big ones.”
The other case, involving Frederick Station Saloon at 4019 Frederick Ave., was much the same story. Hollingsworth went there on April 3 (either right before or right after he visited Irvington Cut Rate) for a routine inspection and found one bottle with the requisite stolen-lot number. At the hearing Soo Mi Kang, the license holder, told the liquor board that his employee made the exchange because the customer wanted a refund and was making “chaos.” His store is only 100 feet or so from Irvington Cut Rate so he speculated it was the same guy.
The liquor board fined him $1,500.
So far that makes 51 bottles of seized and accounted for. At 12 bottles per case, that means there are only 25,653 stolen 375-mL bottles of Hennessy still out in the wild.
Not counting those that have been drunk.