3 are charged for bootleg cigarette ring in eastern Missouri

**EMBARGO: St. Louis, MO** Michael De Silva, Shenita Howard, 23, and 25-year old Trenaya Blackburn are suspected of using counterfeit credit cards to buy thousands in cigarettes at three local convenience stores.
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WASHINGTON, Mo. (CNN) -- City police arrested three people suspected of using counterfeit credit cards to buy thousands of dollars in cigarettes at three local convenience stores.

Michael De Silva, Shenita Howard, 23, and Trenaya Blackburn, 25, were arrested early Saturday morning.

"We obtained warrants on them for fraudulent use of a credit device with a $100,000 cash-only bond on all three," said Washington Police detective Sgt. Steve Sitze.

According to the probable cause statement used as the basis of the charges, a clerk at the Fas-Trip Mobil convenience store became suspicious after De Silva made separate purchases of cigarettes for $915 and $776 and Howard purchased $375 worth of cigarettes.

The probable cause statement says Howard admitted to investigators she was paid more than $2,000 to "go out and buy large quantities of cigarettes" with counterfeit credit cards.

Police believe the trio purchased thousands of dollars in cigarettes using fraudulent credit cards at convenience stores in Washington, Union, Cape Girardeau, Farmington and Perryville. Sitze said he believes the suspects are part of a large bootleg cigarette ring based on the East Coast.

"They normally take those back east to sell them for even more of a profit, because they're using fraudulent credit cards so they're basically getting them for free and they take them back to sell them because our cigarette taxes are so low," Sitze said.

Taxes on a pack of cigarettes in Missouri runs 24 cents but in New York City taxes are $.585 a pack. Last March, a federal grand jury in St. Louis indicted 14 people suspected of involvement in a bootleg cigarette ring that allegedly avoided paying more than $20 million in cigarette tax in New York by purchasing cigarettes in Missouri.

A representative of the Fas-Trip convenience store chain said this kind of crime hurts locally owned businesses and consumers too.

"Increasing prices for everybody and our bottom line. We're a small chain, it impacts us more than it would, respectfully, your larger corporations."