Thursday, April 30, 2009

Richmond Hill - Queens Customers Find White Powder in Their Produce by James Angelos -

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Banana Country in Richmond Hill. Rob Bennett for The New York Times

WHEN sliced open, fruits and vegetables purchased in the city’s produce stores often yield unexpected discoveries. Usually, those discoveries involve rotten spots or, worse, worms.

But a few weeks ago, the surprise found inside bitter melons bought from Banana Country, a produce store on Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, was little plastic bags filled with white powder.

The first call to police came on March 7, according to Detective Cheryl Crispin, a Police Department spokeswoman. The caller had bought a bitter melon, a green gourd that is grown in the Caribbean, China and elsewhere and is used in the cuisine of the neighborhood’s large West Indian and South Asian populations. The gourd looks like a cucumber, but it has a rough, bumpy surface.

Inside some items purchased at Banana Country, a produce store in Richmond Hill, an unexpected discovery. Rob Bennett for The New York Times

Cutting open the bitter melon, the caller was shocked to find the bags of powder inside. Within a day, the police received two more calls from other Banana Country customers complaining of having found the same thing in their bitter melons; a fourth call came a week or so later.

Soon after the first call, two dozen officers descended on Banana Country, searched the store with dogs and cut open the bitter melons there, according to the store’s owner, Tae Hyun Kil. But, he said, no other bags had been found.

Mr. Kil said that no one from his store had anything to do with the powder, and that he was just as perplexed as everyone else.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Police didn’t give me much information.” But he added, “No problems with bitter melons since then.”

No arrests have been made. Although news reports referred to the white powder as cocaine, the police described the substance only as a white powder.

On a recent afternoon, the sound system at Banana Country was playing pulsing Indian music as a stream of shoppers inspected the produce. The bitter melons lay innocently near squash and eggplants.

A woman wearing a blue head scarf who said she was from Guyana picked up four bitter melons; when thinly sliced, she said, they go very well with a shrimp and rice stir-fry.

“Maybe I should cut them and see what’s inside first,” she said after being told of the recent events. She added, “Hey, that’s a good way to smuggle!”

Although cocaine smuggling is a plausible explanation for the white powder in the bitter melons, whether melons have ever been used as drug “mules” is unclear. The possibility of such a smuggling method did not, however, surprise Paul Gootenberg, a professor of Latin American history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of a recent book about the history of the cocaine trade.

“Cocaine smugglers are very sophisticated and versatile,” Professor Gootenberg said. “They are continuously learning new methods.”

But if smugglers were behind the melons in Richmond Hill, it is uncertain how sophisticated they were. Professor Gootenberg added.

“They obviously didn’t get all the melons to the right person,” he said.