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Police arrest man stealing bulk cigarettes from Costco customers

Members of the Greater Victoria Regional Crime Unit arrested a Langley man  on Wednesday who they believe is responsible for a rash of cigarette thefts targeting Costco customers.

According to Staff Sgt. Gary Schenk, with the RCU, in August police in Greater Victoria identified a pattern in high-valued cigarette thefts.

"The suspects appear to be watching people make purchases (of cigarettes at Costco), then follow them to see if the opportunity presents to make a theft," Schenk told the News in August. Most often, the suspect would break in to a vehicle left unattended after being loaded with the cigarettes.

An investigation revealed 28 nearly identical incidents throughout B.C in 2012., occurring in Saanich, Langford, Nanaimo, Burnaby, Abbotsford, Coquitlam and Kamloops.

Since August, more than $20,000 in cigarettes were stolen in half a dozen incidents on Vancouver Island. In total, more than $100,000 worth of cigarettes were stolen.

In December 2012, RCU members identified a vehicle suspected of having been used in a number of the thefts, Schenk said. They traced the vehicle, and determined its travel patterns to and from the Island lined up with at least one of the thefts.

On Jan. 23, RCU members observed a suspect follow a vehicle from the Nanaimo Costco to an area restaurant.

"When the unsuspecting driver entered the restaurant (the suspect) donned a disguise, smashed the window out of the vehicle and stole approximately $3,200 worth of cigarettes which the victims had just purchased at Costco," Schenk said.

RCU members followed the man to the Costco in Courtney.

Once stopped in the parking lot, he was arrested without incident.

Christopher Sharafi, 46, was charged this week with four counts each of mischief under $5,000 and theft under $5,000, two counts of possession of stolen property, and one count each of disguise with intent, possession of break-in instruments, and fail to comply with conditions of recognizance.

The investigation continues, and Schenk says more charges are anticipated.

"We've linked all 28 event by the fact the cigarettes were recently purchased from Costco and were stolen, and it appears the victims were followed. We're actively working to charge him with as many of them as the evidence will allow," he said.

Given the amount of cigarettes that were stolen, along with "past experience and street-level intelligence," Schenk says RCU members believe the smokes were being sold on a cigarette black market.

"We're talking about cigarette volumes too great for any individual use or consumption. We definitely think they're being resold," he said. At this point, however, that hasn't been confirmed and only the cigarettes stolen on Jan. 23 have been recovered.

"This is avery significant arrest, just by the scope of the investigation, the  dollar value of the stolen property, and just the fact that this guy's been offending in the province for the length of time that he has," Schenk said. "We're very pleased to have finally made an arrest on an offender that was  preying on innocent and unsuspecting small business people."

kslavin@saanichnews.com

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