Ten suspects are facing a host of charges for their roles in an auto theft ring that was tied to more than 225 vehicles, including some in Westchester.
New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that 10 members of an auto theft and distribution operation are facing charges for their roles in the theft ring.
James said that the alleged suspects were charged for criminal possession of 45 vehicles during a six-month period and their roles related to the theft and resale of more than 225 vehicles throughout downstate New York.
The investigation, “Operation Master Key” was labeled “due to the ability of the theft crews to create keys to gain access to vehicles” that were then stolen, altered, and resold across Westchester and New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was a complex, high-tech operation that sought to weaponize every hidden vulnerability in the automotive industry from creating keys based on bootleg code lists to altering computer settings to creating a mill that furnished false registrations for altered VIN numbers,” Shea said.
“Being an operation that never missed a chance to exploit vulnerability, it also turned up the volume of thefts during the pandemic, knowing that people were homebound or sick.”
It is alleged that between April 2020 and October 2020 while New Yorkers were staying home during the pandemic, the suspects took elaborate steps to steal the vehicles.
James said the 10 scoped out and targeted cars to steal, obtained key code information for these vehicles from unlawful websites, and created keys that allowed them to breach and steal the vehicles.
Officials said that once inside of the vehicle, they reprogrammed the vehicle’s computer system to gain control of the vehicle, disable alarms, and start the engine.
Within minutes, the crew was able to “steal a vehicle without sounding alarms or drawing any attention, even in a dense urban setting,” James said.
“The theft crew was also able to reprogram the vehicle to stop recognizing the true owners’ electronic keys, so that the owners’ keys stopped working.”
Once the vehicles were stolen, members of the crew allegedly then transported the vehicles back to one of several lots located in the Bronx, where the vehicles were altered and the vehicle identification numbers (VINs) were changed in order to give the stolen cars a new identity.
The 303-count indictment charges 10 suspects with charges that include:
- Third-degree criminal possession of stolen property;
- Second-degree criminal possession of stolen property;
- Grand larceny;
- Offering a false instrument for filing;
- Criminal possession of a forged instrument;
- Fourth-degree conspiracy;
- Fifth-degree conspiracy;
Other related charges for conspiring to steal, possess, and sell 45 stolen vehicles, and also conspiring to register stolen cars in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by filing forged vehicle documents.
- Norberto Pena Brito, age 35, of the Bronx;
- Jose Lebron Pimentel, age 39, of the Bronx;
- Edwin Hidalgo Estevez, age 31, of the Bronx;
- Dariberto Fernandez Perez, age 30, of the Bronx;
- Hector Rivera, age 52, of the Bronx;
- Jesus Cabral, age 55, of Waterbury, CT;
- Willy Abreu Martinez, age 39, of the Bronx;
- Abdul Khan, age 35, of the Bronx;
- Carlos Valverde, age 33, of the Bronx;
- Leticia Saldivar, age 37, of Waterford Works, NJ.
It is alleged that Cabral was hired to remove and replace windshields and to change vehicle VINs assigned by the manufacture. Brito and Pimentel would also buy stolen cars from Valverde.
Later, crew members also sold cars to Martinez and Khan, who are allegedly two of the high-volume customers purchasing the stolen cars for resale in the United States and in the Dominican Republic.
James said that Saldivar, the owner, and operator of Carmela’s Multiservice and Auto Tag in Philadelphia was recruited to obtain, organize, and file fictitious vehicle documents with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and obtained clean registrations and titles for stolen vehicles.
If convicted, Valverde and Saldivar each face a maximum of seven years in prison; the other eight suspects face up to 15 years behind bars.
“For two years, these individuals have fueled fear in our communities and taken some of peoples’ most valuable assets,” James stated. “During the pandemic, they moved this operation into high gear, taking advantage of New Yorkers’ staying at home to allegedly stealing more than 45 cars in six months.
“We exhausted every avenue to track down these thieves, and, today, we send a loud and clear message that we will not stand idly by as New Yorkers are burglarized.”