NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A Piscataway resident admitted to leading an automobile theft network, as well as a conspiracy to commit theft by deception on October 23.
Luther Lewis, a 39-year-old man who previously admitted guilt in a scheme to "roll back" the odometers on vehicles before selling them, pleaded guilty to the charges before Judge Benjamin Bucca in Middlesex County Superior Court.
Prosecutors with the New Jersey Attorney General's Office will recommend a ten-year prison sentence, according to a press release.
Authorities alleged Lewis was the "mastermind" behind a "ring" that stole ten vehicles worth nearly a quarter-million dollars including a BMW X5, a Mercedes Benz E-350, and a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The vehicles were reportedly sold for a profit of approximately $107,250 between May and November of 2015, and the prosecution led to charges against seventeen individuals in Central New Jersey and Florida.
Calling the accused "a well-orchestrated cadre of criminals that used fraud and deceit," Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Christopher Iu said, “Our investigation and prosecution of these thieves not only makes the online marketplace safer for honest buyers and sellers, it helps reduce the number of auto-theft insurance claims that drive up premiums for all policy holders.”
The official statement detailed the way the scheme involved duping those selling vehicles online:
Network leaders enlisted the aid of intermediaries who posed as shoppers interested in purchasing vehicles advertised by private sellers on Craigslist.
After arranging to see the cars, 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 “buyers” typically 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. The bogus sales could not be traced to the intermediaries because they had used fake identification.
Meanwhile, before the private sellers could discover the check was counterfeit, other intermediaries would take the vehicle titles to the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission office to transfer the title into their names.
After successfully flipping the title into the new names, the intermediaries would sell the vehicle to a car dealership for cash. After the transactions were complete, Lewis would pick up the intermediaries, take the sale proceeds, and pay the intermediaries for their role in the scheme, prosecutors said. Intermediaries were paid between $300 and $1,000 each.
Lewis was reportedly the second "key player" to plead guilty in the scheme, which ripped off individuals attempting to sell their vehicles via the popular website Craigslist.
In May 2017, a 40-year old resident of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida named Justinas Vaitoska pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception, third-degree theft by deception, and third-degree bad checks in a separate check cashing fraud conspiracy.
Prosecutors will recommend a seven-year prison term for Vaitoska, according to the official statement.
Meanwhile, charges are still pending against the third "alleged supervisor," 37-year-old Scotch Plains resident Tyisha Brantley.
Brantly faces a slew of charges including first-degree promotion of organized street crime and second-degree leader of an auto theft network. In September, Iu's office filed new charges against Brantley in an alleged separate attempt to steal approximately $241,000 from an online lending company.
The following eight individuals pleaded guilty to various charges and are expected to be sentenced to probation, avoiding jail or prison sentences:
- Milagros Jimenez, 55, of Haines City, Florida (second-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception)
- Stephen Hester, 29, of Orange (fourth- degree falsification of records)
- Nikisha Goodman – 29, of Avenel (fourth-degree falsification of records)
- Deborah Rodgers, 33, of Carteret (third-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception)
- Nakita Savage, 29, of Newark (third-degree theft by deception)
- Tassan Howard – 33, of Newark (fourth-degree falsifying records)
- Javairia Jihad, 29, of East Orange (fraud relating to public records and recordable instruments, a disorderly persons offense)
Six others charged in the investigation, dubbed "Operation Title Flip," were admitted into the Pretrial Intervention Program, which allows defendants to avoid having a criminal record if they complete the program.
Charges against two other defendants were still pending as of October, and the scheduled sentencing of Lewis on January 12 was postponed. In a prosecution with multiple defendants, cases against those facing the lowest level charges are typically resolved first.
The investigation was coordinated by Detective Sergeant Jarek Pyrzanowski and Detective Matthew Armstrong, of the Attorney General's Office Division of Criminal Justice, along with Detective Ryan Kirsh of the Union County Prosecutors Office. According to authorities, they received assistance from Civil Investigator Gregory Nolan and Administrative Analyst Terry Worthington.
Iu thanked the following law enforcement officials for their assistance:
- Detective Matthew Damatta of the Linden Police Department
- Special Agent Lou Stanicki of the National Insurance Crime Bureau
- Investigator Danny Balance of the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Commission
- Detective Gordon Gillen of the Wharton Police Department
- Detective David Scalabrini of the Point Pleasant Boro Police Department
- Detective David Keegan of the South Amboy Police Department
- Detective Matthew Kurtz of the Sayreville Police Department
- Detective Frank Varga of Edison Police Department
- Detective Vin Auteri of the Lyndhurst Police Department
- Detective Pat Cooper of the West Caldwell Police Department
- Detective Thomas DiMichele of the Toms River Police Department
- Detectives Mitch Platt and Andy Kondracki of the Woodbridge Police Department
- Det. Andy Kondracki of Woodbridge Police Department
- Chris Vastine of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement
- Detective Gabe Aquino of the Hillsborough County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office
- Detective Mike Goldsworthy of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department
- Detective Erin Gianotti of the Palm Beach County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office
Authorities took the opportunity to remind the public that "people who are concerned about insurance cheating and have information about a fraud can report it anonymously by calling the toll-free hotline at 1-877-55-FRAUD, or visiting the Web site at www.NJInsurancefraud.org."
State regulations also permit a reward to be paid to an eligible person who provides information that leads to an arrest, prosecution and conviction for insurance fraud, noted the press release announcing Lewis' guilty plea