It wasn’t neighborhood complaints about possible drug dealing at the store, or that the owners were selling untaxed cigarettes.
What finally got Ahmed Alshami arrested and closed down the IGA Community Express Mart on Ludington at Davey street was a shopper who called police when someone used her food benefits card at a Tops market. The caller told police she didn’t shop at Tops.
That investigation led police to Alshami, according to District Attorney john J. Flynn, and to Alshami’s practice of buying government food benefits from people for perhaps 50 cents on the dollar.
Alshami made it easy, the DA said, because when he used the woman’s food stamp card, he also decided to save even more money by swiping his own Tops bonus card. The two parts of the transaction were matched up and it took police to the small Lovejoy market, which was stocking its shelves with products purchased at other stores with its customers’ benefits cards.
Thursday afternoon, Alshami, 37, pleaded guilty in Erie County Court to one count of the misuse of food stamps and electronic benefit cards, a class D felony.
Assistant District Attorney Gary Ertel said the benefits abuse took place between October 2014 and March 2016, and that Alshami also is expected to pay $3,811 in restitution – the amount that could be documented – to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Alshami also pleaded guilty to attempted burglary in a second, unrelated case. He reportedly broke into a vacant property in his Lovejoy neighborhood with the intent to remove items left there and use or sell them.
Defense attorney Emily Trott noted that her client may face consequences more serious than the possible prison term of 3 2/3 to 11 years. Although Alshami is legally in the United States, he is a Yemeni national who now has two felony convictions. Alshami had 10 prior arrests, many of them for drugs.
“I’ve offered my client no guarantees of what the U.S. government might do,” Trott said. “Nothing is for certain regarding his immigration consequences.”
The store, which was licensed in the name of Alshami’s wife, has since been closed. The Buffalo Common Council had received numerous complaints about possible licensing violations at the business.
According to neighborhood residents, the Alshamis did the business no favors when they became belligerent and abusive online after people objected to some of the practices they saw going on there.
At one point Alshami posted a photo of himself on Facebook giving his middle finger to the neighborhood and writing there was nothing they could do to get him out. He eventually apologized.
After that a fire was set outside the store. It caused minor damage, and no arrests were ever made.
The couple’s daughter, who joined her mother in court to observe the plea on Thursday, was known to defend her family online and end posts with “(Expletive) you! (Expletive) America!” She also shouted “(Expletive) America” in the courthouse hallway last summer when her father was arraigned on the food stamp charges, an action that garnered the case national attention because the family is Muslim. The family was particularly upset because Judge David Foley set bail at $2 million, citing Alshami’s lengthy criminal record and the fact that he had missed previous court appearances and hearing dates before the Common Council.
After accepting the plea on Thursday, Judge Michael Pietruszka agreed to lower the bail to $50,000 on each conviction, as long as Alshami turns in his passport.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 12.
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