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Nineteen Charged in Connection with the Exportation of Stolen Automobiles

May 23, 2012

            NEWARK, N.J. – Federal, state and local law enforcement authorities have dismantled an international car theft ring responsible for the exportation of vehicles stolen from the United States to various countries, primarily in West Africa, First Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Gilmore Childers; Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton; and N.J. State Police Lt. Col. Matthew Wilson announced today.

            Eleven of the 19 defendants charged in three criminal Complaints were arrested by federal and state law enforcement agents this morning. A twelfth defendant is already in state prison on unrelated charges. The others remain at large. The defendants arrested today are scheduled to appear this afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark S. Falk in Newark federal court.

            “Today, we have dismantled a sophisticated organization that was responsible for the theft and export of stolen vehicles,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said. “The defendants we arrested are charged with participating in an elaborate scheme to ship stolen cars to overseas buyers. This investigation is part of our continuing, multi-agency effort to ensure the safety of our citizens by strengthening the security of our seaports.”

           “An elaborate ring of international car thieves has been dismantled through a joint effort by HSI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Police and our other law enforcement partners,” said ICE Director John Morton. “No good comes of organized auto theft. It promotes crime, carjacking’s and robbery that no community should have to tolerate. This case was particularly troublesome, as it involved not only widespread theft, but also repeated abuse of our export laws. Thanks to a terrific federal-state partnership, these defendants will now spend the immediate future answering the call of justice in New Jersey.”

           “The illegal export of stolen cars to African nations comes with a significant price to New Jersey in terms of thefts and even violence,” Lt. Col. Matthew Wilson, Deputy Superintendent of Investigations for the New Jersey State Police, said. “We are proud of the work of Detective Aaron Auclair and our HSI partners for unraveling this complex, multinational criminal enterprise.” Robert E. Perez, Customs and Border Protection Director, Field Operations New York, said: “CBP worked diligently in partnership with HIS and the state and local law enforcement community bringing to bear our targeting and inspection expertise. Our CBP Officers remain ever present on America’s front line protecting our communities and citizens from all types of criminal activity. We are proud to have been a part of this important effort.”

           The investigation resulted in the recovery of more than 200 vehicles with an estimated retail value of $6 million.

           According to the criminal Complaints unsealed today:

           The investigation revealed that numerous individuals have illegally exported, or attempted export, stolen vehicles through the seaports in Newark and Elizabeth, N.J., to various destinations overseas, including to Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Gambia. These vehicles were either stolen or carjacked in various states, including in New Jersey.

           The overseas market for stolen and carjacked vehicles is growing. To fill this growing demand, the defendants have joined a criminal organization that involves the theft, carjacking, sale, receipt, transportation, interstate trafficking and illegal exportation of stolen and altered motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts. This organization is extensive and generally operates in multiple layers:

           Layer One – Includes the individuals who steal motor vehicles. In some instances, the motor vehicles are carjacked. The theft and carjacking of vehicles is usually done by individuals who are gang members or who are otherwise affiliated with a gang.

           Layer Two – Includes the individuals who sell and purchase stolen or carjacked vehicles. Those vehicles are typically sold to a “fence” who purchases the stolen vehicles for just a few thousand dollars, even if the vehicle is a brand new luxury vehicle worth tens of thousands of dollars. A fence typically employs “runners” who drive the stolen and carjacked vehicles from one location to another to avoid detection and who collect payments from sales of the vehicles.

           Layer Three – Includes the individuals who “retag” the vehicles after they are stolen or carjacked, which involves altering the Vehicle Identification Number (“VIN”), the unique serial number used by the automotive industry to identify individual motor vehicles. In some instances, the “new” VIN is fictitious. In other instances, the VIN is a duplicate of an existing VIN that was not designed or manufactured for the stolen or carjacked vehicle. Part of the re-tagging typically takes place in parking lots, in garages and even on the streets. In addition to altering the VIN on stolen or carjacked vehicles, the members of the organization obtain a counterfeit Certificate of Title for stolen vehicles to match the new or fictitious VIN. A Certificate of Title is a document for a motor vehicle issued by a state describing the vehicle by year, make, model, color and VIN, as well as listing the name and address of the owner and/or lienholder.

           Layer Four – After a stolen or carjacked vehicle has been retagged, the vehicle is sold to a customer who either purchases it for his or her personal use in the United States or overseas, or individuals who ship stolen and carjacked vehicles from the United States to other countries to resell them to end-users. In some instances, the customers place orders, that is, they tell fences that they are looking to buy specific vehicles. In other instances, individuals who steal or carjack vehicles contact the fences and let them know the type of vehicles available for sale.

           Layer Five – This involves individuals who coordinate the exportation of stolen vehicles overseas. Vehicles are shipped abroad through a Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier (“NVOCC”), which is a company licensed by the Federal Maritime Commission (“FMC”) that is bonded and insured for purposes of exporting goods in foreign commerce. People or entities not licensed with the FMC obtain the services of NVOCCs to ship goods overseas. The NVOCC leases containers and guarantees space on vessels being operated by major shipping carriers who will only do business with entities who are bonded and insured. The NVOCCs do not take physical custody of the goods or containers. Instead, they process documents required by Customs and the shipping carriers, such as a Shipper’s Export Declaration, bill of lading and dock receipts. Because NVOCCs require documentation from persons shipping vehicles, customers typically use a middle person to conduct the transaction in an attempt to insulate themselves. Customers alternatively present fraudulent documentation to conceal the true information about the vehicles being exported overseas, such as altered Certificates of Title.

           At the center of this organization was defendant Hope Kantete (a/k/a “the Lady”). She was a large-scale fence with an extensive customer base overseas. She bought stolen and carjacked vehicles not only from street gang members, but also from other fences, then had the vehicles retagged and shipped overseas or sold them to individuals who would make their own shipping arrangements.

           U.S. Attorney Fishman praised special agents of HSI, under the leadership of Executive Associate Director James Dinkins and Special Agent in Charge Andrew M. McLees; the New Jersey State Police, under the direction of Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes, for the investigation leading to today’s arrests. He also thanked Customs and Border Protection; the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor; Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan, Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio and Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow, the Essex and Hudson County Sheriff’s Departments, the Newark Police Department, Coast Guard Investigative Service and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for their roles.

           The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney José R. Almonte, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney James Donnelly, and Senior Litigation Counsel Serina M. Vash of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division in Newark.

           [A chart listing the charges against each of the defendants, and the maximum penalties they face, is attached.]

Chart of Charges PDF





Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor