Liquor stores along the I-95 corridor in Cecil County have been hit by law enforcers sporadically since at least the early 1990s for supplying out-of-state booze smugglers looking to make a buck from buying low-taxed Maryland hooch and selling it in their highly taxed home state, especially New York. The most recent rounds of crackdowns were prompted by a federal investigation started in 2011, which uncovered a scheme that appears mostly to benefit distributors Reliable Churchill and Republic National, and have since put a big hurt on distilled-spirits sales in Cecil County. Yesterday, the probe kicked into gear again, with federal wire-fraud charges against four New York men who allegedly purchased large quantities of Maryland-taxed booze at Vlamis Liquors in Elkton and transported it back to liquor stores in New York.
The four men were charged for two distinct sets of conduct involving Vlamis. In December, Bin "Chen" Luo and Bao Xion Zheng allegedly purchased 62 cases of liquor from Vlamis, paying $9,386 in cash, and then took them back to New York, where Zheng owns Bao Liquors in Flushing, Queens. The Homeland Security Investigations task-force officer who swore out the charges against them, Baltimore Police Det. Robert Gerace, wrote in his complaint that he has "previously observed" the two men "purchasing bulk quantities of liquor at Vlamis Liquors" and "unloading cases of liquor into Bao Liquors." The other two men, Ke "K" Yao and Yi Feng "Steve" Gao, earlier this month allegedly paid Vlamis $9,618 in cash for 35 cases of liquor, which they loaded into a 2007 Hummer H2, "concealed the load with blankets and sheets, and returned to New York." Gerace also had previously seen Yao and Gao making bulk purchase of liquors at Vlamis and "moving cases of liquor into retail liquor stores in New York."
Last year, another New Yorker was sentenced in Maryland for wire-fraud charges stemming from smuggling booze purchased at Northside Liquors in Elkton. Carlos Hernandez pleaded guilty to paying $160,180 in cash for 480 cases of liquor in 2012, thereby depriving the state and city of New York of a combined $9,942.75 in taxes. Northside's take came to $333 per case, a much higher price than Vlamis commanded from Yao and Gao ($275) and Luo and Zheng ($151), so it appears the economic climate is more favorable now for the smugglers than it was when the probe began.