This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)
PISCATAWAY, NJ—On August 24, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor (OIFP) announced that two NJ residents, along with a Florida man, were charged as ringleaders of an auto-theft network that preyed on people selling their vehicles on Craigslist.
In an indictment handed up by a state grand jury in Mercer County, 38-year-old Luther Lewis, of Piscataway, and 36-year-old Tyisha Brantley, of Scotch Plains, were charged with first-degree promotion of organized street crime and second-degree "leader of an auto theft network."
Justinas Vaitoska, a 39-year-old resident of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, was also indicted on the same charges.
The AGO said that Lewis, Vaitoska, and Brantley enlisted the aid of intermediaries to use fake bank checks to purchase cars from private sellers then sell them to various car dealerships in New Jersey.
Thirteen others were also indicted for their alleged roles in the criminal scheme that was the brought down by a multi-jurisdictional investigation dubbed “Operation Title Flip.”
The case involves the theft of ten vehicles, valued at a total of $248,650, between May and November of 2015. The cars were sold to dealerships for a $107,250 total profit.
Lewis, Brantley, and Vaitoska were also charged with second-degree conspiracy and theft by deception. Also indicted on those charges were:
- Milagros Jimenez, 54, of Haines City, Florida
- Heather Cater, 20, of Woodbridge
- Saint Hardy, 32, of Elizabeth
- Deborah Rodgers, 32, of Carteret
Attorney General Porrino expressed his relief after learning that all of the following suspects were apprehended.
“These alleged con artists trolled the Internet in a quest for cars they could steal through their fraudulent scheme,” said Porrino. “We will not let their predatory conduct go unpunished.”
Lewis, Brantley, Jimenez and Rodgers were also charged with second-degree impersonation. Lewis, Brantley and Jimenez were charged with third-degree attempted theft by deception.
According to a press release from Porrino's office, Lewis, Brantley, and Vaitoska, along with the intermediaries posed as buyers interested in vehicles advertised for sale on Craigslist.
After arranging to see the cars, the intermediaries purchased them by presenting the unsuspecting sellers with fake and/or stolen identification and a counterfeit Bank of America cashier’s check. The sellers, in turn, handed over the vehicles’ keys and title to the intermediaries.
The AGO said, the buyers arranged to purchase the vehicles in the late afternoon so that the private seller could not bring the checks to the bank that day. In the days after the sale, the private sellers attempted to deposit the checks and discovered they were counterfeit, prosecutors said.
The bogus sales could not be traced to the intermediaries because they had used fake identification.
Before the private sellers could discover the check was counterfeit, other intermediaries would take the vehicle titles to the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission office and transfer the title into their own names.
After successfully flipping the title, the intermediaries would sell the vehicle to a car dealership for cash.
After the transactions were complete, Lewis would pick up the intermediaries, keeping the rest of the proceeds, and pay the intermediaries between $300 and $1,000 for their role in the scheme, prosecutors said.
The alleged intermediaries were charged with fourth-degree falsifying records. They are:
- Nikisha Goodman, 20, of Avenel
- Stephen Hester, 48, of Orange
- Chester Kinder, 62, of Newark
- Tassan Howard, 32, of Newark
- Kamilla Bunn, 20, of Elizabeth
- Tanika Arrington, 30, of Newark
- Javairia Jihad, 29, of East Orange
- Yvonne McBride,38, of Newark
- Marixa Medina, 31, of Newark
Another alleged intermediary, Nakita Savage, 28, of Newark, was previously indicted on charges of third-degree conspiracy, receiving stolen property, and fencing by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.