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Flea market raided
Thousands of dollars worth of counterfeit merchandise seized

COVINGTON - Following an investigation spanning more than four months into the sale of counterfeit goods, the Covington/Newton County Special Investigations Unit, along with assistance from Newton County Sheriff's Office and Covington Police Department, raided the International Merchandise Mart on Salem Road on Friday evening.

A contingent of more than 100 law enforcement officers raided the flea market shortly after 5 p.m., making numerous arrests and seizing thousands of dollars worth of pirated goods.

According to SIU Commander Lt. Philip Bradford, numerous vendors at the flea market had been selling fake merchandise, such as bootleg movies and counterfeit clothing, for some time. Authorities used two large box trucks to transport the phony merchandise and used a portable jail vehicle to process those who were arrested.

NCSO Capt. Doug Kitchens said authorities had received numerous complaints from residents and manufacturers about the market. In some instances, Kitchens said deputies had to fill out incident reports after consumers, who realized they had purchased counterfeit items, went back to the flea market to confront the seller, who refused to make restitution.

Bradford said the SIU launched an undercover investigation into the flea market after two private investigators, one of whom works on behalf of numerous clothing companies, such as Nike, Polo and Gucci, and the other, who works for Paramount Pictures, approached them in September.

In more than 22 years as a law enforcement officer and 13 years working as a drug investigator, Bradford said this case was the most complex he has ever worked.

"This is one of the most in-depth cases we've done," he said. "Cases that are different, cases that we're not use to working is what SIU is all about."

According to Kitchens, 51 search warrants were issued for shops within the flea market.

The Citizen was able to accompany SIU agents on an undercover operation at the flea market earlier this month.

During the operation, two undercover operatives wearing hidden video cameras and microphones walked throughout the flea market cataloging and purchasing items from vendors who were selling goods that were purported to be authentic but were not.

The items purchased during the operation included DVDs of movies still showing in theaters, as well as various brand name clothing items. One movie was purchased for as little as $3.

According to Bradford, the items purchased will be used as evidence against the vendors responsible for their sale.

Those arrested will be facing charges of forgery or counterfeiting of trademarks, service marks or copyrighted or registered designs, which is a misdemeanor in most cases, Kitchens said. To be charged with a felony, a person must possess more than $10,000 worth of counterfeit goods.

"I appreciate all of the cooperation we've received from everyone involved," said Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols.

The sheriff indicated this is the biggest operation his office has been involved with since they helped break up a dogfighting ring on Baker Road in January 2004.

As of press time Friday, the names of those arrested at the raid were unknown.

Joel Griffin can be reached at joel.griffin@newtoncitizen.com.