HOUSTON -- Investigators from Houston to Galveston are searching for a new round of cigarette thieves who target grocery and convenience stores in a pattern that is plaguing merchants across the country.
On Friday, Galveston police released surveillance video of a man attacking a clerk at an Exxon station, violently smashing his head on the counter.
The man, accompanied by a woman who had loitered with him in the store for about 45 minutes before the attack, escaped only with a handful of cigarettes.
On Friday morning at the Foodarama grocery store at Ella and 18th, thieves escaped with as many cartons of cigarettes as they could stuff into three trash bags.
"Oh it just makes me sick,” said store manager Coy Mayes of the 3am heist.
The thieves, dressed in black and with their heads and faces covered to escape identification by the store’s security cameras, pried open the front door and then went directly to the store’s locked cigarette cases.
The trio was only in the store a few minutes, but escaped with thousands of dollars in cigarettes before police could respond to the alarm system.
He was several thousand dollars sick. Thugs prying open his cigarette case and making off with at least three trash bags full.
"I've seen a lot of things,” Mayes said. “It's just sickening. It makes me sick to my stomach. It really does."
It's a sick feeling he certainly doesn't have all to himself. Dollar General recently reported to KHOU 11 News that its stores have been hit 40 times in the last two months alone and that large quantities of cigarettes are usually the only targets.
“This group is definitely not making it easy for business at all,” said Dollar General loss prevention manager Gus Castano.
Dollar General believes it is being targeted again and again by the same group of thieves.
Cigarette theft across the globe is a multi-billion dollar business -- everything from truckloads targeted by organized crime to individual thugs reselling individual packs on the black market.
According to public policy group Mackinac Center, Texas ranks 8th in a top ten list of states with the biggest tobacco smuggling and theft problem.
"Apparently there's a big market on it,” Mayes said. “At $67 to $80 a carton if they get half of that you figure, you know how many cartons they got, it's money in the bank for them."
The math is easy to figure out. Now retailers like Foodarama say they are working on making cigarettes not to easy to steal.