Nine men, a woman and a juvenile were arrested Monday night for their alleged involvement in a Newark-based auto theft ring that snatched up luxury cars and trucks from some of the most affluent areas of the state, including Millburn and Short Hills, authorities announced Tuesday.
In most cases, the vehicles were stolen with the keys left inside by the owners, Carolyn Murray, the acting Essex County Prosecutor, said during a press conference in downtown Newark today.
“In the late evening or early morning hours, they would identify vehicles of interest to them,” before breaking into them and stealing them, Murray said.
At least six cars have been identified as stolen, while another 10 intact vehicles believed to be stolen were recovered last night, authorities said. Among the vehicles are a 2004 Ford F350, a 2010 Mercedes worth approximately $70,000, a Porsche, a Ferrari and two BMWs. Authorities also recovered parts from an unknown number of other vehicles.
The ring was responsible for “about one to two thefts a week,” said Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Robert Imhof.
Officials declined to identify which towns the vehicles were stolen from, but did say that several came from Bergen, Monmouth and Ocean counties.
The investigation began in August 2011, when the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the Newark Police Department noticed an unusual number of stolen vehicles being left in one part of the city had come from communities well outside the area.
“What stood out for them was that a lot of these vehicles were not being stolen locally,” said Samuel DeMaio, the director of the Newark Police Department. “Traditionally our stolen vehicle recoveries are from Irvington, Orange, Elizabeth. These were vehicles being stolen from an array of municipalities, literally from Ocean to Bergen County, with a large number coming from Bergen County.”
Newark police then contacted law enforcement in those communities, then various law enforcement agencies together launched Operation High End, which eventually involved the State Police, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and assistance from the Millburn and Jersey City police departments.
Millburn Police dedicated an officer part-time to the , and Police Chief Greg Weber told the Township that two-thirds of the state was affected by the theft ring.
"I'm proud of the work our personnel did in this investigation," Weber said, later saying that last summer Millburn invited the surrounding jurisdictions and the procescutor's office to meet in Millburn and share information. The group evolved later into the task force."
"We were right in the thick of it," he said after the meeting. "From the very start."
Township Administrator Tim Gordon noted that the towns involved were much larger than Millburn. "It speaks to the commitment Millburn has to solve crime in Millburn."
Authorities believe the cars were sold directly to retail customers at a fraction of their value or, in a few cases, chopped for parts. Many of the vehicles may also have been “re-tagged,” Imhof said.
“You go to a salvage lot, you buy a similar car, you get the title for that car, remove the VIN number and place it on the stolen vehicle,” Imhof said.
Authorities today said the ring would not have been broken without a cooperative effort by several law enforcement agencies.
“When you have cases like this one come together, where criminals don’t know borders, where they go to other counties in other parts of the state to commit crimes and they come back to another county to seek refuge and plan additional crimes, it truly takes collaboration to be effective,” said Lt. Col. Matt Wilson of the New Jersey State Police. “One police department has a little bit of information, they share with another, and what would have taken years ends up taking months.”
Patricio Hernandez, 33, of Newark, has been identified as the ringleader, Essex officials said. Also arrested yesterday were Jimmy Nunez, 31, Nathan Ocascio, 20, Efrain “Macho” Rivera, 30, Junior Vazquez, 31, Luis Montalvo, 46, Melisha “MiMi” Martinez, 22, and a 17-year-old male, all of whom are from Newark.
Also arrested were Miguel Vega, 21, of East Orange, Matthew Policarpio 24, of Bloomfield and Alexander Mayorga, 22, of Elizabeth.
At a Millburn township meeting on Tuesday Mayor Sandy Haimoff congratulated the police chief.
"I commend our police department on the part they played in solving these crimes," she said.
More arrests may be pending, Murray, the acting prosecutor, said.