08/02/2007

N.J. police stop extensive car-theft ring

By Kareem Fahim
The New York Times

WEST TRENTON, N.J.  — It was a far-flung, multimillion-dollar luxury auto theft and fencing ring, the police said, the largest New Jersey had ever seen. A gleaming new Mercedes-Benz or BMW, sitting in the Port of Newark and destined for a driveway in the suburbs, would be stolen, stuck in a container, shipped across the ocean and sold — at up to double the retail price — on the streets of faraway cities like Cairo.

The cars included new models, stolen rentals or vehicles carjacked from towns throughout northern New Jersey. The car thieves shipped them — often with what appeared to be the proper paperwork — to Togo, Ghana, Jordan, Egypt and Greece.

“The scheme was elaborate, extensive,” the state attorney general, Anne Milgram, said at a news conference where the authorities announced eight arrests and the dismantling of the operation.

During the three-month investigation called Operation Auto Export, Ms. Milgram said, more than 72 cars were recovered by the authorities — including Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Audis, Hummers and Land Rovers — valued at more than $2.5 million. Over the years, the officials said, an untold number of cars were stolen and sold.

Col. Joseph R. Fuentes, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, which led the multistate investigation, said the police had arrested several men they described as leaders of the theft ring, including Troy Turner, of Newark, who they said headed the local street network responsible for the theft of more than half of the cars.

Another suspect, Solomon Owusu Asare, of Maryland, was said to have extensive contacts abroad. Both men were charged with leading an auto-theft trafficking network.

Colonel Fuentes said that Ashraf G. Seleman, of Avenel, N.J., who worked as a “freight forwarder,” arranged the shipment of the cars overseas. Charges against him included receiving stolen property.

The police said there were still 10 outstanding arrest warrants, including four for people abroad involved in the scheme.

In a parking lot at state police headquarters here, officers displayed the cars they had recovered, including a few BMWs, two Hummers and several cars with New Jersey dealer stickers on the windshields. In one car, a Volkswagen sport utility vehicle, there was a $22 ticket to something called the “World Cup Bull Riders” sitting in a coffee cup holder.

“One of the most notable things about this criminal organization is that they operated in a way that they would have the car keys,” Ms. Milgram said, adding that many of the cars were not damaged during the theft, increasing their resale value.

Most of the new cars were stolen from the Port of Newark, although the authorities would not discuss exactly how because the investigation is continuing. However, they noted that extra valet keys in new luxury cars are often put in the glove compartment, the owner’s manual or the first-aid kit.

Lt. Rick Nuel, an investigator with the state police’s auto unit, said that six cars were stolen from a dealership in Edison on Sunday, and seven more on Monday.

Some vehicles were taken from the long-term parking garages at Newark Liberty Airport, and others were stolen the old-fashioned way; they were hot-wired. Three cars were stolen in carjackings, the police said, but no one has yet been charged in those crimes.

And in a few instances, Lieutenant Nuel said, the thieves rented luxury cars in Texas using false identification from Florida, and simply kept them.

Operation Auto Export began in earnest in April.

The police said Mr. Turner led an operation in Newark and East Orange, presiding over a network of street thieves. They brought him stolen cars, for which he paid $500 to $2,000 and resold them for at least double the price, Colonel Fuentes said.

In some cases, Lieutenant Nuel said, the thieves would go to parties, steal guests’ keys and then take the cars.

He offered a bit of advice to owners of luxury cars: “You want to take your valet key out of your car.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times

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