A Howard County couple who own liquor stores and commercial properties throughout the Baltimore region have been indicted in a scheme to illegally distribute untaxed cigarettes and alcohol, federal authorities announced Monday.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein indicated that the probe was connected to a broad investigation that led to the arrest of Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, a Democrat, and his wife last week on corruption charges. Officials declined to discuss the relationship, however, and an attorney for one of those charged denied any link to Johnson.
Indicted Monday were Amrik Singh Melhi, 51, and his wife, Ravinder, of Clarksville, along with two Prince George's County police officers accused of conspiracy to commit extortion. The couple, natives of India, have over the past three decades snatched up vacant buildings and transformed them into food and liquor stores, including one near the Harford Mall in Bel Air that was searched by the FBI on Monday.
In Prince George's, problems with one of the Melhis' stores near the University of Maryland College Park helped spark a push to ban sales of alcohol after midnight. In 2007, the county shut down the bar portion of their liquor store in Hyattsville, Tick Tock Liquors, due to crime problems.
As the business faced pressure from the community and government to curb violence at the establishment, Melhi noted the large number of off-duty police officers who worked security for him and referred to his store as a "mini-police station."
Two of the Prince George's officers who worked off-duty details at Tick Tock have been charged with helping the Melhis to "ensure safe transport and distribution" of untaxed cigarettes and alcohol in Maryland and Virginia, according to the indictment. Sgt. Richard Delabrer, 45, of Laurel, and Cpl. Chong Chin Kim, 42, of Beltsville, are accused of conspiracy to commit extortion.
In all, nine people, including a third county police officer charged in a separate case, were taken into custody on Monday during an operation that involved 150 law enforcement officers and the execution of search warrants.
Last week, authorities called the arrest of Johnson and his wife, who was found with $79,000 in cash in her bra, the "tip of the iceberg" in a corruption probe. An affidavit filed in court said real estate developers and their associates were "regularly providing things of value to public officials" in exchange for favorable acts for their companies. The Johnsons have only been charged with witness tampering and destruction of evidence, however.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on Monday, Gabriel Christian, an attorney for Ravinder Melhi, denied any connection to the Johnson probe.
"The timing makes it appear that there is a link, but there is no link," Christian said.
Federal authorities moved to seize $3.5 million in cash and several properties owned by the Melhis, including their $2.3 million Clarksville home on Narrow Leaf Court; a liquor store in Dundalk; a home in Aberdeen; an industrial park north of Riviera Beach and a commercial strip in Columbia that state records say is valued in the millions. The family's assets are $26 million, according to David S. Harvis, an attorney for a homebuilder that sued the Melhis for not paying a construction loan and won a $914,000 judgment against them earlier this year. He said he learned the figure through the legal discovery process.
Edward Leyden, an attorney for Amrik Melhi, said after the hearing that his client was "a hard-working family man, who came to this country with very little and by working hard and with the support of his family, he's been very successful.
"To this point, he's lived the American dream," Leyden said.
The Melhis were featured in a 2005 Washington Post article that described a couple who worked long hours in convenience stores and later began buying abandoned retail spaces to open fast-food, liquor and grocery stores. They are Sikhs and do not drink alcohol, but said such stores seemed like a good business option.
Their most ambitious purchase came in 1995, when they paid $1 million to purchase Tick Tock Liquors in Hyattsville, a package store and restaurant a few miles from the University of Maryland campus. Its location near the D.C. border, where liquor stores have to close earlier, brought additional clientele but also problems.
Johnson argued before the state legislature in 2005 that liquor stores such as Tick Tock should not be allowed to sell after midnight. The legislature passed a bill that year requiring stores to stop selling alcohol after midnight. Melhi raised concerns that such a prohbition would encourage illegal alcohol sales and "bootlegging."
For years, community members also pushed the county to revoke the store's liquor license, leading to meetings involving council members and liquor board commissioners, according to news reports. Melhi had said that he had worked hard to make his store safe by employing police officers.
"My store is like a mini police station. I pay [off-duty] police officers $30 an hour to be in my store," Melhi told the Post, adding that he paid more than $100,000 in the preceding year to officers working at his store.
Court records show Melhi has twice been charged, most recently in July, with selling cigarettes and doing business without a trader's license, with the charges dropped each time.
One of the properties listed among those authorities are looking to seize is Cut Rate Liquors on North Point Boulevard in Dundalk. Owner Narinder Toor, 46, said he bought the business from the Melhis in 2004 and that he pays rent.
As two men purchased cans of Four Loko alcoholic energy drinks, Toor criticized the Melhis' business practices. He said he pays too much for his 1,200-square-foot store and that the couple have increased his rent steadily, to more than $2,900 a month plus water and property taxes. "We don't have any business," he said, noting the decline of the nearby Sparrows Point steel mill.
As of early afternoon, he said, agents had not visited his business, but the FBI did visit a liquor store in the 400 block of Baltimore Pike in Bel Air that is among the properties owned by the Melhis and which authorities are looking to seize, authorities confirmed.
Charged with the Melhis are Amir Milijkovic, 39, of Bowie, who officials say is the owner of an auto glass store in College Park; Chun "Eddy" Chen, 34, of Bowie; and Jose Moreno, 49, of Alexandria, Va.
Each faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, officials said.
In a separate indictment unsealed Monday, authorities said a third Prince George's County police officer was arrested and charged along with a Woodbridge, Va., man with drug-conspiracy charges. Officer Sinisa Simic, 25, and Mirza Kujundzic, 30, face a minimum of five years in prison on the drug-conspiracy charge. Details of that case were not provided.