2 Assault Rifles and 18 Handguns—Including 8 Ghost Guns— and 2 Illegal Large-Capacity Magazines Seized in Investigation That Initially Targeted Thefts of Motorcycles and ATVs
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Camden, N.J. – Acting Attorney General Andrew J. Bruck today announced the indictment of 11 alleged members of a Camden-based criminal ring, in which certain defendants allegedly sold numerous weapons, including illegal assault rifles, “ghost guns,” and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
A total of 20 guns—including an AR-style “ghost” assault rifle, an SKS assault rifle, seven “ghost” 9mm semi-automatic handguns, and 11 other handguns—were seized in “Operation Grab and Go,” a 10-month investigation led by the New Jersey State Police Motor Vehicle Crimes South Unit and the Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) Specialized Crimes Bureau. Two illegal large-capacity magazines also were seized.
The multi-agency investigation initially focused on thefts of motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), but led to the discovery of an illegal weapons trafficking operation. As part of the investigation, a total of 20 stolen motorcycles were recovered. Several members of the criminal ring have also been charged with distributing methamphetamine and cocaine.
“We are working relentlessly to dismantle the criminal networks that funnel illegal firearms into New Jersey,” said Acting Attorney General Bruck. “Weapons of war are bloodying the streets of Camden, and we’re committed to cutting the supply lines.”
“I commend the New Jersey State Police and all of our law enforcement partners for pursuing every lead in this investigation, resulting in the discovery and dismantling of a major weapons trafficking ring,” said Director Lyndsay V. Ruotolo of the Division of Criminal Justice. “With this indictment, our Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau has charged these defendants to the full extent of the law for every aspect of their alleged criminal conduct, from conspiring to steal and fence motorcycles to selling illegal firearms and narcotics. Through investigations like Operation Grab and Go, we’re making our communities safer and more secure.”
“Although illegal weapons are almost always involved with organized criminal activity, the criminal activity does not always involve the trafficking of illegal weapons—especially ghost guns, which are purposefully designed to make it difficult for law enforcement to trace,” said Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “The success of an operation of this magnitude can only be made possible through intelligence-led policing, collaboration, and information sharing among our local, county, state, and federal law enforcement partners. Cooperative operations like ‘Grab and Go’ are without question making our communities safer, and I commend the outstanding work of our State Police detectives and all of the agencies involved.”
Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey L. Matthews of the ATF Newark Field Division said, “Today I stand alongside our local, state, and federal partners to give a public service reminder to all would-be firearm and drug traffickers, and to those who contribute to violent crime in our communities: you are on our radar. As revealed in this joint investigation, these defendants were undoubtedly a clear danger to the community. I have no doubt that their ability to cause further harm has been thwarted by the efforts of all parties involved. ATF will continue to work cooperatively with our agency allies to remove violent criminals from our streets.”
“Shutting down the illegal gun trade is vital to reducing violent crime and saving lives,” said Bradley S. Benavides, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division. “This takedown is a win for the people of Camden and beyond. Multiple key crime drivers allegedly victimizing this city and region are now off the street. The FBI’s South Jersey Violent Offender and Gang Task Force was proud to partner on this investigation and will continue to work with our law enforcement colleagues to make our communities safer.”
“This case is yet another example of how collaboration between agencies can yield results that have a true impact on the safety of our residents,” said Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill S. Mayer. “Getting guns off the street is one of our highest priorities here in Camden County. Gone are the days when any agency conducts an operation of this magnitude without the benefit of intelligence sharing and assistance from other law enforcement partners in our community. Operation Grab and Go is a testament to what we can accomplish together.”
The investigation was conducted in collaboration with the State Police Crime Suppression South Unit, Gangs and Organized Crime South Unit, Fugitive Unit, K-9 Unit, and Casino Gaming Bureau; the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI South Jersey Violent Offender and Gang Task Force; the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office; and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
The Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau obtained a state grand jury indictment on Tuesday, Aug. 17, charging these four defendants in connection with the alleged weapons trafficking:
- Lamar Soto, 28, of Camden, N.J., the alleged leader of the criminal ring;
- Jirman Soto, 25, of Camden, N.J., his brother;
- Selena Soto, 24, of Camden, N.J., their sister; and
- Ruben Zayas, 19, of Camden, N.J.
All 11 defendants, including those four, are charged in the indictment with conspiring to steal, receive, and traffic stolen motorcycles and ATVs. And Lamar Soto, Jirman Soto, Zayas, and Wendell Bethea, 32, of Sicklerville, N.J., are charged with conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.
Nine of the 11 defendants are charged with first-degree racketeering, including Lamar Soto, who also faces first-degree charges of promoting organized street crime, leader of a firearms trafficking network, and distribution of methamphetamine.
During the course of the investigation, Lamar Soto, Jirman Soto, and Zayas allegedly sold seven 9mm semi-automatic Polymer 80 handguns and one AR-style assault rifle that are illegal “ghost guns,” which are not imprinted with a serial number registered with a federally licensed manufacturer and therefore difficult for law enforcement to trace to their purchaser. Those three defendants are charged with multiple counts of unlawful possession of a firearm without a serial number and unlawful disposition of a firearm without a serial number.
In 2018, Governor Phil Murphy signed a law that makes it a crime to buy, manufacture, possess, or sell ghost guns in New Jersey. In the past year alone (August 11, 2020 to August 11, 2021), New Jersey’s law enforcement agencies have recovered nearly 200 illegal ghost guns across the state. In March 2021, New Jersey announced a first-of-its-kind settlement with a ghost gun company that the Attorney General and New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs sued over the company’s advertising and marketing of ghost guns to New Jersey residents and delivery of an assault firearms kit to a New Jersey buyer. The March 2019 lawsuit against James Tromblee, Jr. d/b/a U.S. Patriot Armory (U.S. Patriot Armory) also was the country’s first such lawsuit against a ghost gun distributor.
Acting Attorney General Bruck announced the results of “Operation Grab and Go” at the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office with New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick J. Callahan, Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill Mayer, DCJ Specialized Crimes Bureau Deputy Chief Valerie Butler, Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey L. Matthews of the ATF Newark Field Division, and Acting Special Agent in Charge Bradley Benavides of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division.
The state grand jury indictment is posted online at: www.nj.gov/oag/newsreleases21/soto_et_al_indictment.pdf
The indictment charges the following 11 defendants as a result of Operation Grab and Go:
[Those charged with first-degree racketeering are indicated with an asterisk.*]
- *Lamar Soto, 28, of Camden, N.J.
- *Jirman Soto, 25, of Camden, N.J.
- *Selena Soto, 24, of Camden, N.J.
- *Ruben Zayas, 19, of Camden, N.J.
- *Julio Arroyo, 33, of Camden, N.J.
- *Genaro Molina, 23, of Camden, N.J.
- *Ashley Petruchelli, 36, of Camden, N.J.
- *Luis Rivera, 38, of Camden, N.J.
- *Pedro Luciano, 37, of Camden, N.J.
- Wendell Bethea, 32, of Sicklerville, N.J.
- Alberto Lopez, 29, of Camden, N.J.
All of the defendants—with the exception of Luciano, who is wanted on an arrest warrant—were arrested in June 2021. Lamar Soto and Jirman Soto were ordered detained in jail pending trial. The other arrested defendants were released subject to court-ordered conditions after detention hearings.
Deputy Attorney General Evgeniya Sitnikova is lead prosecutor for Operation Grab and Go for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Valerie Butler, Bureau Chief Erik Daab, and DCJ Deputy Director Annmarie Taggart.
Detective Jorge Rivera is the case agent for the New Jersey State Police Motor Vehicle Crimes South Unit. The investigation was supervised by Lt. Thomas DeVirgiliis of the Motor Vehicle Crimes South Unit, Detective Sgt. Jerome Moran of the Crime Suppression South Unit, and Lt. James Carnival of the Gangs and Organized Crime South Unit. Trooper Jake D’Angelo assisted in the investigation.
Acting Attorney General Bruck thanked the following partners for their work on the investigation:
- New Jersey State Police Motor Vehicle Crimes South Unit, Crime Suppression South Unit, Gangs and Organized Crime South Unit, Fugitive Unit, K-9 Unit, and Casino Gaming Bureau
- Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau
- U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
- FBI South Jersey Violent Offender and Gang Task Force
- Camden County Prosecutor’s Office
- National Insurance Crime Bureau
First-degree charges carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $200,000. First-degree racketeering carries a period of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed. A sentence imposed for promoting organized street crime must be served consecutively to the sentence imposed for any underlying offense.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000. Among other weapons offenses, Lamar Soto, Jirman Soto, Ruben Zayas, and Selena Soto are charged with various counts of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, which carries a mandatory period of parole ineligibility equal to one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed or 3 ½ years, whichever is greater. Lamar Soto and Jirman Soto are also charged with second-degree possession of a weapon as a convicted felon, which carries a mandatory period of parole ineligibility of five years.
Third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000 (up to $35,000 for third-degree narcotics possession), while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
This investigation is another step towards reducing gun violence in New Jersey, one of Acting Attorney General Bruck’s key priority areas. In addition to long-term enforcement actions, the Attorney General’s Office and local, state, and federal law enforcement partners are holding a series of gun buyback programs around the state, as well as performing targeted sweeps of fugitives with outstanding arrest warrants for violent offenses, as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat gun violence.
For Lamar Soto: Eugene P Tinari, Esq.
For Jirman Soto: Todd Fiore, Esq.
For Selena Soto: Raquel Destefano, Esq.
For Ruben Zayas: Donald F Manno, Esq.
For Luis Rivera: Joseph F Kunicki, Esq.
For Alberto Lopez: Andaiye Al Uqdah, Esq.
For Others: Undetermined.