Robert Comenout Sr. is done selling cigarettes at his family store in Puyallup.
“This business was operating for decades, and the state is really interested in it closing,” assistant attorney general Josh Choate told the court Friday at the sentencing of Comenout and his extended family.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Jerry Costello sentenced the 87-year-old patriarch of the Comenout family to 240 hours of community service.
The octogenarian, a member of the Tulalip Tribe, pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges he sold smokes without required tax stamps, without a license and conspired to commit first-degree theft.
Costello gave the same sentence to the elder’s sons, 61-year-old Robert Comenout Jr. and 57-year-old Lee Comenout Sr., and to 61-year-old Marlene Comenout (Comenout Jr.’s wife) and extended family member Dennis Harris Jr., 37.
Another relative, 25-year-old Grant Wyena, was given 232 hours.
The family argued that the Indian Country Store at 908 River Road is on Indian trust land, and as such, the state had no jurisdiction there.
When it was Robert Comenout Sr.’s turn to speak at the sentencing, the judge told him he was welcome to remain seated in his wheelchair, if he wished.
But Comenout stood as he addressed the court.
“We’ve suffered for eight years in this case,” he said. “... All of this case is contrary to what the federal law said.”
The land was meant to bring tribal members into mainstream society, “to be treated as a white man,” he said. “This has never happened, and this case well proved it.”
He entered a Alford plea when he pleaded guilty, which means he maintained he was innocent, but admitted there likely would be enough evidence to convict him at trial.
It’s true the Comenout store is on Quinault Nation trust land, the prosecutors said. And the tribe could sell cigarettes there by following its agreement with the state, which includes collecting tax.
But individuals, regardless of their tribe, cannot, prosecutors said.
Investigators seized about $2 million and found thousands of cartons of unstamped smokes when they searched the business multiple times between 2008 and 2015.
To be sold legally, cigarette packs in the state must have a tax stamp.
The store probably will reopen, selling snacks and other goods. But no smokes, Comenout Sr. said outside court.
The elder sat by the building’s smoking area as he spoke, though apparently by coincidence. He didn’t light up himself.
“We can have nothing to do with cigarettes,” he said.