‘Operation Southern Lights’ breaks up NC cigarette trafficking, money laundering ring

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WNCN) – A cigarette trafficking ring based in Cumberland County was busted in what U.S. Marshals are calling one of the largest operations of its kind.

U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon said “Operation Southern Lights” worked to track cigarettes being smuggled to New York where they were sold illegally.

The cigarettes were bought in large quantities from FreeCo. in Fayetteville.

Those cigarettes were then moved to Richmond, Virginia and then onto Syracuse. From there they were smuggled into New York City where they were sold without a tobacco stamp illegally.

The combined amount of money taken in by the illegal sale of the cigarettes amounted to more than $12.3 million, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

U.S. Marshals say the operation is one of the largest operations in the history of the Eastern District.

Agents simultaneously performed 26 raids in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and New York.

At least 31 people were indicted on tax fraud charges in relation to the operation, Higdon said.

Click here to see list of those arrested

Some of those arrested are from Smithfield, Dunn, Lumberton, Hope Mills and Fayetteville.

At least six people are still on the run, officials said.

Cumberland County Ennis Wright spoke at Monday’s press conference.

“Criminal elements think we sleep, but we don’t, we never sleep. These guys worked nights and days following these guys. If you’re trying to get past the law but sooner or later we’re going to catch you,” Wright said.

“Operation Southern Lights” included work from Homeland Security Investigations, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Marshals Service, Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, and the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office.


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