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Authorities Crack Overseas Car Theft Ring

Vehicles Obtained in Jersey shipped to West Africa, US Attorney says

More than a dozen law enforcement agencies have smashed a ring that shipped stolen cars through Port Newark/Elizabeth for sale in a number of West African nations, the US Attorney’s Office announced today.

The ring handled about 200 cars -- 10 percent of which were carjacked -- with an estimated value of $6 million, said First Assistant US Attorney Gil Childers. The cars were stolen out of a number of New Jersey communities, including Newark, Union City, Hoboken, West Orange, Roseland, Elizabeth, Manalapan, Englewood Cliffs and Hillside.

Most of the stolen cars were luxury vehicles, including brands like Audi, Land Rover, Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes, although less expensive models, including a Honda Accord, were also taken. Both types of cars are prized in West Africa, the luxury models because there are few or no dealers there and the less expensive models because replacement parts are readily available, Childers said.  

“Today is simply a good day for law and order in New York and New Jersey,” said John Morton, the director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who traveled from Washington to attend the press conference in Newark.

The ring is believed to have 19 members, 11 of whom were arrested this morning. A twelfth suspect was already in custody on an unrelated charge, Childers said. The arrests came after an 18-month investigation that involved a slew of law enforcement agencies, including Newark police, sheriff’s officers and prosecutors office personnel from Essex, Hudson, Union and Middlesex counties, the US Coast Guard, Port Authority Police and the New Jersey State Police.

The operation involved the purchase of stolen vehicles by a fence who would pay just a small fraction of the vehicle’s worth. Many of the thieves were members of or affiliated with gangs, the US Attorney’s office said. In some instances, thieves were instructed to procure certain types of vehicles, and in other instances, the thieves would let the fences know what vehicles were available.

The vehicles would then be “re-tagged,” or given a new VIN number, either a fictitious one or a legitimate VIN from another vehicle. Ring members also obtained false titles for the cars. Members of the ring would then obtain the documentation necessary to export goods aboard a container vessel. With this “legitimate” paperwork in place, the vehicles could then be shipped legally.

The cars would then be sent Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea , Sierra Leone, Gambia and other countries for sale.

Childers and Morton today both stressed that no port employee has been implicated in the thefts or illegal transport of the vehicles. 

Authorities today described the ring as a loose affiliation of thieves and fences, but also placed  one suspect, Hope “the Lady” Kantene, at “the center” of the scheme. Kantene, who authorities said had “an extensive overseas customer base,” bought directly from thieves as well as other fences. She would then arrange to sell them overseas or directly to customers here who would make their own shipping arrangements.

The other suspects arrested today were Manuel De Jesus Olivares, Christopher Barnes, Roman Vladimir Dilone, Mark Anthony Spivey, Kevin Miles, John Turner, Erosmosele Okoeguale, Kunle Ajisafe, Michael Bankole Omowaiye and Carlos L. Arnau.

According to the complaint, law enforcement monitored phone conversations, set up video surveillance at a warehouse and used at least one informant to crack the ring. The documents also describe the meandering route some of the pilfered autos travelled from the streets of New Jersey to sub-Saharan Africa and provide a sense of how profitable the business could be.

A 2009 Mercedes stolen in West Orange was sold by one defendant to another last August for less than $7,500. The vehicle was taken to a warehouse in New Jersey, then to a scrapyard in Elizabeth before winding up in a container with two other luxury vehicles at the Redhook Terminal in Brooklyn.

An unlicensed shipping company based in Elizabeth provided documents falsely stating the contents of the container were a Nissan, a Chevy Cavalier and personal items, according to the complaint. The Mercedes was then shipped to Ghana and reportedly sold there for $30,000.

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