Middlesex Man Pleads Guilty to Masterminding Auto Theft Ring Targeting Cars Sold on Craigslist – Eight Others Admit Guilt in Network that Stole 10 Vehicles Worth Nearly $250K

TRENTON – Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor (OIFP) announced today that a Middlesex man has pleaded guilty to being a ringleader of an organized auto-theft network that preyed on people selling their vehicles on Craigslist.

Luther Lewis, 39, of Piscataway, pleaded guilty to second-degree charges of leader of an auto theft network and conspiracy to commit theft by deception in a hearing before Judge Benjamin Bucca in Middlesex County. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the State will recommend a ten-year prison term for Lewis, who is scheduled to be sentenced on January 12, 2018.

“Lewis was a driving force behind a network of auto thieves who used Craigslist as a hunting ground for victims,” said Attorney General Porrino. “Under his guidance, the participants in the scheme duped sellers into accepting bogus checks for expensive vehicles that were quickly flipped for cash at area dealerships. The defendant now faces a decade in prison for preying on the trust of people who did business with him and his cohorts.”

Lewis was one of three people charged with masterminding an auto ring brought down by a multi-jurisdictional investigation dubbed “Operation Title Flip.” The Indictment, handed up by a state grand jury in August 2016, alleged that ring was responsible for the theft of ten vehicles, valued in total at $248,650, between May and November of 2015. The vehicles, which included a BMW X5, a Mercedes Benz E-350, and a Jeep Grand Cherokee, were sold to dealerships for about a $107,250 profit.

Sixteen others were also charged as participants in the criminal network. Eight defendants have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Six others were admitted into the Pretrial Intervention Program. Charges are pending against two other defendants.

“Operation Title Flip dismantled a well-orchestrated cadre of criminals that used fraud and deceit to steal cars, trucks, and SUVs from owners trying to sell them on the internet,” said Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Christopher Iu. “Our investigation and prosecution of these thieves not only makes the online marketplace safer for honest buyers and sellers, it helps reduce the number of auto-theft insurance claims that drive up premiums for all policy holders.”

Network leaders enlisted the aid of intermediaries who posed as shoppers interested in purchasing vehicles advertised by private sellers on Craigslist.

After arranging to see the cars, intermediaries “purchased” them by presenting the unsuspecting sellers with fake and/or stolen identification and a counterfeit Bank of America cashier’s check. The sellers, in turn, handed over the vehicles’ keys and title to the intermediaries.

The “buyers” typically arranged to purchase the vehicles in the late afternoon so that the private seller could not bring the checks to the bank that day. In the days after the "sale," the private sellers attempted to deposit the checks and discovered they were counterfeit. The bogus sales could not be traced to the intermediaries because they had used fake identification.

Meanwhile, before the private sellers could discover the check was counterfeit, other intermediaries would take the vehicle titles to the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission office to transfer the title into their names.

After successfully flipping the title into the new names, the intermediaries would sell the vehicle to a car dealership for cash. After the transactions were complete, Lewis would pick up the intermediaries, take the sale proceeds, and pay the intermediaries for their role in the scheme, prosecutors said. Intermediaries were paid between $300 and $1,000 each.

Lewis is the second key player to plead guilty in the scheme. In May, Justinas Vaitoska, 40, of Palm Beach Gardens, pleaded guilty to second- degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception. Vaitoska also pleaded guilty to third-degree charges of theft by deception and bad checks in a separate accusation related to a separate check cashing fraud conspiracy. The state will recommend a seven-year prison term when Vaitoska is sentenced.

Charges are pending against the third alleged supervisor in the scheme. Tyisha Brantley, 37, of Scotch Plains is charged with first-degree promotion of organized street crime, second-degree leader of an auto theft network, and other offenses for her alleged role in the network. Last month OIFP filed new charges against Brantley in an alleged separate attempt to steal approximately $241,000 from an online lending company.

The following defendants have also pleaded guilty in connection with Operation Title Flip. The State will recommend they be sentenced to probation:

Deputy Attorneys General Colin Keiffer and Kelly Levy represented the State at the plea hearing. Division of Criminal Justice Detective Sergeant Jarek Pyrzanowski and Detective Matthew Armstrong, along with Detective Ryan Kirsh of the Union County Prosecutors Office, coordinated the investigation with assistance from Civil Investigator Gregory Nolan and Administrative Analyst Terry Worthington.

Michael Weiss, Esq., of the Law Office of Michael Weiss represented the defendant at the plea hearing.

Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Iu thanked Det. Matthew Damatta of the Linden Police Department, Special Agent Lou Stanicki of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Investigator Danny Balance of the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Commission, Det. Gordon Gillen of the Wharton Police Department, Det. David Scalabrini of the Point Pleasant Boro Police Department, Det. David Keegan of the South Amboy Police Department, Det. Matthew Kurtz of the Sayreville Police Department, Det. Frank Varga of Edison Police Department, Det. Vin Auteri of the Lyndhurst Police Department, Det. Pat Cooper of the West Caldwell Police Department, Det. Thomas DiMichele of the Toms River Police Department, Det. Mitch Platt of the Woodbridge Police Department, Det. Andy Kondracki of Woodbridge Police Department, Chris Vastine of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Det. Gabe Aquino of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Det. Mike Goldsworthy of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and Det. Erin Gianotti of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for assisting in this investigation.

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