Investigators uncover auto theft ring



City News Service

A six-month undercover investigation into vehicle thefts in San Diego resulted in the indictments of 51 people on suspicion of selling stolen cars, dealing drugs and being involved in identity theft, prosecutors announced Friday.

Evidence seized during “Operation Hotel California” included 46 stolen vehicles, seven guns, illegal drugs and two bullet-proof vests, said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Charges include auto theft, selling stolen vehicles, sale of controlled substances, carjacking, residential burglary and identity theft, she said.

“The defendants were caught red-handed, on tape, selling dozens of stolen cars and dealing a variety of drugs,” Dumanis said.

The undercover operation was launched last July, partly as a response to community concern over increased auto thefts.

Members of the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, or RATT, joined forces with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service after reports that car thieves were targeting areas in and around military housing.

“The operation was carried out near Navy housing in an effort to reduce crime in areas where Navy personnel and their families live and work,” said San Diego NCIS Special Agent-in-Charge Jeffrey Morrow.

In the course of investigating auto theft and drug crimes, RATT officers discovered suspects in carjackings, illegal distribution of firearms, a residential burglary and identity theft.

RATT Commander and California Highway Patrol Capt. Lisa Wrobel said the operation identified and infiltrated groups of career criminals in San Diego County.

Wrobel said that over the past four years, vehicle thefts in San Diego County have dropped about 40 percent, from about 27,000 stolen vehicles in 2005 to a projected less-than 16,000 in 2009.

San Diego has dropped from fourth to fifth in the nation for auto theft, Dumanis said.

Prosecutor Michael MacNeil said more than half the people indicted have criminal records, but that 21 had never been arrested before.

“The 51 (defendants) are not all connected with one another,” MacNeil said. “To term them a ring is to promote them beyond their level of criminal activity, which they don’t deserve.”

One alleged crew had a person adept at stealing Ford F-250 trucks, and another alleged crew used identity theft to rent cars in other people’s names, MacNeil said.

“So these are the more sophisticated, professional types of auto thieves that we’re seeing in this operation as opposed to the people who generally get caught for auto theft on a daily basis,” the prosecutor said.