Cigarette-smuggling suspects face charges in murder plot

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly attends a news conference NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly attends a news conference in which New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced the arrest of members of a criminal ring that imported more than a million cartons of untaxed cigarettes into New York State in Manhattan. (May 16, 2013). Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Two men already in jail facing cigarette-tax fraud charges have been indicted again for trying to hire a hit man to kill two people they believed were cooperating witnesses in the scam, officials said Thursday.

Basel Ramadan, 42, and Yousseff Odeh, 52, were charged with conspiracy to commit murder in a two-count state court indictment. They are accused of plotting from jail to kill the witnesses who were co-defendants in the cigarette fraud scheme. The names of the purported victims weren't released.

Ramadan, of Maryland, was accused of calling an undercover police officer posing as a hit man to kill at least one of the victims, the indictment stated. Odeh, of Staten Island, was charged with soliciting the foiled murder plots.

"These two individuals cheated New York taxpayers out of millions of dollars in tax revenue and then tried to cover up their dangerous and lucrative smuggling operations," said New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a statement.

Both Ramadan and Odeh were charged last May with taking part in an untaxed cigarette trafficking operation that allegedly brought millions of cartons of illegal cigarettes from Virginia to the New York metropolitan area.

When the cigarette trafficking scheme was first announced, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said that it stemmed from surveillance of people on the department's radar for links to known terrorists. Kelly specifically mentioned Odeh, who he said received investment money in the 1990s from Omar Adbel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheikh later convicted of plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

The alleged murder plot was planned between May 24 and Oct. 11, the date the grand jury voted to indict Ramadan and Odeh, court papers stated. Both pleaded not guilty to the new charges in Brooklyn State Supreme Court Thursday, said a spokeswoman for Schneiderman.

Mark Agnifilo, the Manhattan defense attorney for Ramadan, said that his client was surprised by the murder plot indictment and intended to fight it.

"I think at the end of the day this is going to turn out to be idle talk, borne out of frustration, rather than a plot," said Agnifilo about the murder conspiracy charge.

Agnifilo also said that despite earlier suggestions, the cigarette case had nothing to do with terrorism. While acknowledging last May that it was unclear where the cigarette money in the Ramadan case went, Kelly and others in law enforcement have said that similar cigarette schemes have in the past been used to fund terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.

An attorney for Odeh couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

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