Isaac Enginda, 51, says he doesn't know how two packs of counterfeit Newport cigarettes may have ended up in the liquor store he owns in an industrial neighborhood in northeast Denver.
"This is the biggest problem I have had in my life," he said.
Enginda fled Ethiopia's civil war in 1983. Business has never been good at his I & G Liquors. So he spends most of his time driving a taxicab. Now, two packs of cigarettes may break him.
On Jan. 31, two employees of Greensboro, N.C.-based Lorillard Tobacco Co., maker of Newport cigarettes, came into his store and bought two packs of smokes that they say were fake.
On Feb. 9, Lorillard filed a lawsuit against Enginda in Denver's federal court, alleging trademark infringement and counterfeiting. The suit seeks thousands in damages, plus information as to where Enginda got the phony smokes, and an agreement not to sell them again.
On Feb. 10, Enginda was hit with several court orders that, given his difficulties with English, were impossible for him to understand. One was a temporary restraining order allowing federal marshals to search his store.
On Feb. 14, marshals raided Enginda's store, finding no counterfeit cigarettes.
On Feb. 24, Enginda appeared in court without a lawyer. He told Judge Lewis Babcock that he bought his cigarettes from Sam's Club and the Cigarette Store.
Babcock took pity on Enginda. He appointed him two lawyers - Stephen Peters and John Chanin of Linquist & Vennum - who are now working for free. He also lifted the restraining order.
The judge then asked Lorillard to reconsider. "You went fishing, and you came back empty-handed," he said. "Perhaps you ought to find a better small fish." He then turned to Enginda: "I don't mean to call you a fish. It's a metaphor."
Despite Babcock's warning, Lorillard - the nation's third-largest cigarette company - continues its claim against Enginda, who likely couldn't pay a judgment. Lorillard has even challenged Babcock's ruling to end the temporary restraining order in an appellate court.
In a telephone interview, Lorillard's associate general counsel, Hanna Hasl-Kelchner, said her company takes a "zero-tolerance" approach.
"If you saw those two packs, you would realize they weren't some high school art project," she said. "They are extremely well-done. And ... those two packs came out of a carton, that came out of a case, that came out of a container load - and that's what we're trying to get at."