Attorney General James and NYPD Commissioner Shea take down auto theft ring linked to 225 vehicles
New York State Attorney General Letitia James and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea on Tuesday announced charges against 10 alleged members of an auto theft and distribution operation, accusing them of the theft and/or criminal possession of 45 vehicles during a six-month period as well as their roles related to the theft and resale of more than 225 throughout New York City and Westchester.
The investigation — dubbed “Operation Master Key” due to the ability of the theft crews to create keys to gain access to vehicles — revealed auto theft crew members Norberto Pena Brito, Jose Lebron Pimentel, Edwin Hidalgo Estevez, Dariberto Fernandez Perez and Hector Rivera were responsible for locating, stealing, altering, and reselling stolen vehicles throughout New York City and Westchester, according to the New York State Attorney General’s Office.
From April 2020 to October 2020 — during the months the state was shut down due to the pandemic and New Yorkers stayed at home and parked their cars for days at a time — this crew allegedly 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.
Once inside of the vehicles, they reprogrammed the vehicle’s computer system to gain control of the vehicle, disable alarms and start the engine, according to the charges. In a matter of minutes, the theft crew was able to steal a vehicle without sounding alarms or drawing any attention, even in a dense urban setting.
The theft crew was also allegedly able to reprogram the vehicle to stop recognizing the true owners’ electronic keys so that the owners’ keys stopped working.
Members of this organization then reportedly 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.
Jesus Cabral was hired to remove and replace windshields and to change vehicle VINs assigned by the manufacturer. At times, Norberto Pena Brito and Jose Lebron Pimentel would also buy stolen cars from Carlos Valverde, the AG’s Office said.
Afterwards, crew members sold the stolen cars to their customers, including to Willy Abreu Martinez and Abdul Khan, who were two of the high-volume customers purchasing the stolen cars for resale in the United States and in the Dominican Republic.
Leticia Saldivar — the owner and operator of Carmela’s Multiservice and Auto Tag in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — was recruited to obtain, organize and file fictitious vehicle documents with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and obtain clean registrations and titles for stolen vehicles, the state alleges.
This joint investigation included hundreds of hours of physical and covert surveillance, court-authorized wiretapping of numerous targeted phones, execution of search warrants, and the recovery of surveillance video capturing the thefts of numerous vehicles.
The 303-count indictment — unsealed Tuesday in Bronx County State Supreme Court — charges the 10 individuals with numerous counts of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property, Grand Larceny, Offering a False instrument for Filing, Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument, Conspiracy and related charges.
If convicted, defendants Carlos Valverde and Leticia Saldivar each face a maximum of seven years of prison. The remaining defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison.
“For two years, these individuals have fueled fear in our communities and taken some of peoples’ most valuable assets,” said Attorney General James. “During the pandemic, they moved this operation into high gear, taking advantage of New Yorkers staying at home to allegedly steal more than 45 cars in six months.”
“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, and to creating a mill that furnished false registrations for altered VINs,” said NYPD Commissioner Shea. “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.”