The alleged food stamp fraud amounted to less than $4,000 and the burglary involved a vacant apartment with no threats to human life. But when it came time for Erie County Judge David Foley to set bail at a Lovejoy store owner’s arraignment Tuesday, he looked at the bigger picture.
It’s going to take $2 million to get Ahmed Alshami out of jail.
In setting the high amount, Foley noted that Alshami, 37, arrested Friday on four nonviolent felony charges, has 10 previous arrests – including two felonies.
The defendant also has a history of not showing up for court appearances – or for disciplinary hearings at City Hall regarding his family’s operating license for the IGA Community Express Mart, at Ludington and Davey streets. He most recently missed a Council hearing on Aug. 15.
Assistant District Attorney Gary M. Ertel asked the judge to consider Alshami a flight risk and have him held without bail, noting that after the defendant missed a recent appearance in Buffalo City Court, he allegedly said “he was too busy to bother coming that day.”
“He has shown a wanton disregard for the justice system,” Ertel argued.
Foley partially agreed, setting the unusually high amount of bail. But even that may not keep the shopkeeper behind bars.
Alshami’s wife, Nadia Alhaj, who was in court with the couple’s daughter, yelled outside the courtroom, “We’ve got the million dollars!” after also shouting profanities several times toward the television cameras.
Alshami also faces possible deportation to Yemen should he be convicted.
Buffalo Council Member Richard Fontana has been tangling with the Alshami family for years, he said. He represents the Lovejoy area and lived two doors away from the store for a long time. He said at a news conference after court that the Express Mart license is in Alhaj’s name and that the family has owned the business for about five years – much to the dismay of their neighbors, he added.
Prosecutors outlined for the court the offenses that finally brought Alshami into custody.
Under one indictment, Alshami is charged with three felonies: second-degree criminal possession of public benefit cards, misuse of food stamps and criminal use of a public benefit card.
In a second indictment, he is accused of third-degree burglary for allegedly breaking into an unoccupied flat near his store on March 16 and stripping the property of its kitchen cabinets, baseboard heating units and hot water tank. Some of that activity was allegedly filmed on video camera.
The charges each carry sentences of up to seven years in prison.
“This defendant purchased New York State benefit cards from patrons of his store, giving them pennies on the dollar, and then used (the cards) to stock his store,” Ertel said.
Investigators reportedly were able to document transactions worth more than $3,800. According to prosecutors, Alshami used the cards to shop at larger groceries such as Walmart or Tops; other times they would have the original cardholder shop for them. Typically they reimbursed their customers for about half the value of the benefit cards, Ertel said.
Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. said in the news conference that Alshami was taking advantage of both the taxpayers and his customers – “and that hurts all of us.”
Fontana was more outspoken, saying that the flouting of the law by the store owners was far worse than the indictments indicate. He said he personally witnessed the sale of untaxed cigarettes in the store and has numerous reports from his constituents of drug dealing going on there.
“This store has been a major problem,” Fontana said, and he admitted the battle over it is personal because of how it has affected the neighborhood.