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LGA workers allegedly stole tiny liquor bottles: DA

Police smashed a liquor-theft ring that operated out of LaGuardia Airport, arresting 11 airport workers who allegedly "stole to order" miniature bottles for local grocery stores, Port Authority police officials and the Queens district attorney announced last week.

All but two of the suspects are from Queens, Queens DA Richard Brown said.

Speaking at an April 23 news conference at the airport, surrounded by scores of boxes containing the tiny 1.5-ounce bottles of Dewars scotch, Bacardi rum and Courvoisier cognac, Brown said the operation "should send a message to both the professional criminal and the casual thief."

The defendants worked for LSG Sky Chefs, an airline food and beverage supplier, and North American Aviation, an air cargo company. They are charged variously with grand larceny, possession of stolen property and conspiracy and face up to seven years in prison if convicted, the DA's office said.

In a month-long investigation dubbed Operation Swig Swag, Port Authority police detectives observed the men as they loaded crates of liquor from the LaGuardia warehouse where they worked into their own cars and drove them to nearby homes in Queens, officials said.

"This was good, old-fashioned police work," said PAPD Deputy Superintendent George Johansen, noting that the operation entailed "long nights of surveillance."

The defendants are alleged to have stolen about 400,000 mini bottles over the past year, depriving American Airlines of more than $1.5 million in revenue, the DA's office said. It is alleged that the men sold the bottles to local stores for about $1 each.

"The defendants blatantly broke the law, systematically taking liquor orders from retailers in addition to stealing the merchandise," said PA Inspector General Robert Van Etten.

Brown emphasized that the public was also victimized by the pilferage ring because the sale of untaxed liquor deprived the state and city of much-needed tax dollars.

Among the nine defendants who worked for LSG Sky Chefs were five Queens residents. According to the DA's office, they included beverage assembler Ramon Cruz-Reyes, 39, of 108-24 39th Ave. in Corona and truck drivers Servio Herrera, 34, of 56-29 Van Doren St. in Corona, Carlos Nunez, 28, of 92-13 91st Ave. in Woodhaven, Mario Quinones, 41, or 135-48 125th St. in South Ozone Park and Julio Vasquez, 31, of 40-15 102nd St. in Corona.

The two employees of North American Aviation allegedly involved were Lenny Carmona, 36, of 130-22 Atlantic Avenue and Daniel Cotto, 36, of 112-15 95th Ave., both of Richmond Hill, the DA's office said.

Two Manhattan men and one Brooklyn resident were also charged, in addition to the alleged ringleader, supervisor Luis Valdez, 36, of 3 Rott Kamp St. in Valley Stream, Long Island, according to the DA.

Texas-based Sky Chefs said in a statement that the company was cooperating fully with the investigation. The company also said employees with access privileges at airports were subject to security screening but did not specify what particular measures the arrested men had undergone.

In April 2001, three Sky Chefs employees at Kennedy Airport were arrested in a similar pilfering operation.

Brown said his office would also try to crack down on the grocery stores buying the stolen merchandise "to the extent possible," but he admitted that such an undertaking was "not easy to do."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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