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U.S. Customs Drug Warning Goes to the Matter of a Sole

Retailing: Costa Mesa company's trendy shoes are featured in alert on smuggling.

October 06, 2000|MARC BALLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes a shoe is not just a shoe--at least not to the U.S. government.

Sha Sha shoes sport iridescent colors and funky designs in an effort to appeal to alternative rockers, clubgoers and other night crawlers, but they also feature a secret storage compartment beneath the insole.

The company, Sha Sha Fine Shoes Inc., says the 1-inch-deep slot can be used to store keys and maybe a few bucks. Or perhaps drugs, the U.S. Customs Service says.

Indeed, U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Ray Kelly has sent a warning to agents throughout the nation that the Costa Mesa company's shoes also have been used to hide drugs, especially Ecstasy.

He also posted a message on the Customs Service's Web site informing parents about the shoes.

"Decorated with colorful stars, flames, and other designs often associated with raves, these shoes appear to be designed specifically to conceal Ecstasy or other contraband," he said.

A picture of Sha Sha shoes appeared in the commissioner's Internet message, although it did not identify the footwear by name.

The unusual warning notwithstanding, the Customs Service has never seized drugs hidden in Sha Sha shoes, spokesman Dean Boyd said. He noted, however, that heroin smugglers have long hollowed out their shoes to hide their drugs. "We had an obligation to alert our people and parents about this," Boyd said.

Billy Ruff, Sha Sha's chief executive and co-founder, said the customs commissioner's actions caught him off guard. He said his only contact with the authorities occurred when a customs agent and an Orange County sheriff's deputy requested the company's catalog recently.

"With all the publicity about Ecstasy, I think customs was looking for a scapegoat," Ruff said. "We're just here to sell our shoes and pay our bills."

The company has never advocated storing drugs or any other illicit substances in the inch-deep pocket, he said.

She Sha also has no intention of phasing the feature out, Ruff said. In a fiercely competitive industry, the compartment helps distinguish the shoes, he noted, just like blinking lights distinguished LA Gear shoes in the 1980s.

Sha Sha sells 25 styles of shoes in 837 outlets in the U.S. and abroad. They retail for $80 to $100. The company plans to add a line of golf and skateboard shoes, as well as motorcycle boots. All will have these compartments, he said.

The tiny company, which was founded two years ago, earned $100,000 on sales of $1 million last year. The company expects to double profits and revenue in 2000, Ruff said.

Sha Sha has generated buzz by giving shoes away to alternative rockers Lit and the Offspring, which have worn the footwear on stage.

Ruff, a former skateboard champion, took a philosophical approach toward the brouhaha. "This hasn't hurt our business," he said, with a laugh.

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