Members of a family accused of a long history of illegally selling cigarettes have pleaded guilty to dealing contraband smokes.
Investigators found thousands of cartons of contraband cigarettes during searches of the Comenout family’s business, the Indian Country Store at 908 River Road, between 2008 and 2015.
To legally sell smokes to non-tribal members, businesses need to have a Washington tax stamp attached to the packages.
Robert Comenout Sr., the 87-year-old head of the family, pleaded guilty Tuesday to six charges, including that he had cigarettes without the stamps, that he sold smokes without a license and that he conspired to commit first-degree theft.
His attorney, Robert Kovacevich, said he entered an Alford plea, meaning Comenout maintains his innocence, but admits there’s probably enough evidence to convict him at trial.
Kovacevich said his client is a part owner of the store, the land for which was purchased by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1926, with trust money of the Comenout family.
“Only Congress can govern that site,” Kovacevich said. “It’s the same as an Indian Reservation. We say that the state had no right to go onto the property and arrest people.”
Comenout’s sons, 61-year-old Robert Comenout Jr. and 57-year-old Lee Comenout Sr., entered Alford pleas to the same charges. Robert Comenout Jr.’s wife, 60-year-old Marlene Comenout, pleaded guilty with an Alford plea to two similar counts.
An extended family member, 37-year-old Dennis Harris Jr., pleaded guilty last week to the same charges as the head of the family. Another relative, 25-year-old Grant Wyena, pleaded guilty to two similar charges.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the case, said the two most recent raids of the store, which since has closed, found 15,824 contraband cartons, which amounts to $478,676 in missing tax revenue.
State and federal authorities investigated.
The six who pleaded guilty are to be sentenced later this year.