By Joe Beck
A new batch of documents in a cigarette smuggling case could be closed to the public under a sealed motion filed by a defense attorney on behalf of two defendants facing a combined total of 50 charges.
The motion, accompanied by four exhibits, also under seal, was filed by David Downes on behalf of his clients John Taveras and Thaer Nimer Khashman, after a contentious hearing last week.
Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp refused to sign a proposed order to close the hearing and also rejected a motion by the prosecution for a gag order on Downes.
Hupp gave the news media until 5 p.m. Aug. 18 to object to Downes' motion before deciding whether to allow it to remain under seal. The sealed motion is an addition to sealed documents Downes filed earlier this year seeking evidence from the prosecution that he considers potentially helpful in gaining acquittals for his clients.
The nature of the motion and the exhibits, like those filed earlier this year, remain unknown to the press and public while they are under seal.
"It wouldn't be proper for me to comment any further on it other than what you've heard in court," Downes said in a brief interview Monday.
The case against Taveras and Khashman is a product of a much larger investigation by the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office spanning at least four years, jurisdictions up and down the East Coast and millions of dollars exchanging hands between undercover law enforcement agents and suspected cigarette smugglers.
The successful prosecution of one case led to the Sheriff's Office collecting $855,000 from the U.S. Justice Department last year as a result of property and cash seized from the defendants.
Details of the cigarette smuggling investigations remained largely secret until earlier this year as Downes began to assemble his defense of Taveras and Khashman and Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly announced his intention to challenge Sheriff Timothy Carter in next year's election.
Carter has said little about the investigation, citing the need to protect law enforcement agents operating undercover and a policy of not commenting on pending criminal cases.
Sutherly has criticized the scale of the Sheriff's Office's anti-cigarette smuggling project and argued that the money and personnel committed to the investigation would be better spent on stopping the flow of heroin and other illegal drugs into Shenandoah County.
Sutherly has also criticized what he describes as a lack of transparency in a sprawling undercover operation involving the handling of vast sums of money.
Downes called one undercover investigator from the Sheriff's Office to the witness stand at last week's hearing and elicited information from him about his interactions with another man linked to Khashman in the alleged cigarette smuggling operation.
Downes also sought unsuccessfully to subpoena documents from another undercover agent who Downes identified as an agent for Mountain View Wholesalers LLC.
Downes said Mountain View Wholesalers, a business registered in Nevada, is the owner of a warehouse building at 317 Tisinger Road, Mount Jackson, that was the site of the undercover operation targeting his clients.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or email@example.com