NEW YORK – A sophisticated car theft ring "stalked" New Yorkers who drove Lexus SUVs and other mint-condition luxury vehicles so it could fill orders from an international broker serving clients in northwest Africa, authorities said Wednesday.
In one instance, thieves allegedly followed one victim until she left her car to drop a child off at school. When she returned, it was gone.
Members of the ring "were using the streets of New York as their own personal auto showroom," Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at a news conference with Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announcing 14 arrests in the case.
Once the thieves identified a car they wanted, "they would essentially stalk you," Schneiderman added.
The New York Police Department launched the investigation based on information culled from takedowns of other rings, authorities said.
NYPD detectives learned that a Maryland-based international broker and exporter was providing the ring with requests for specific makes, models and colors of cars wanted by customers in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and elsewhere. The orders typically were for Lexus and Toyota cars and SUVs, including Venzas, Highlanders and Sequoias.
A "steal team" was tasked with identifying the specified cars on the streets of Brooklyn, Queens and elsewhere in New York, authorities said.
"They went block to block to find vehicles to meet customer demand," Kelly said.
After that, a locksmith and an employee at an Orlando, Fla., dealership who were in on the scheme would provide keys and special codes that would allow the thieves to steal the vehicles without causing any damage, authorities said.
The ring also used specialists at forging phony titles and other paperwork for the stolen vehicles so they could be shipped without detection out of ports in New Jersey and Maryland. Most cars went to Africa, but some ended up on the black market in the Chicago area.
Authorities said the thieves were paid up to $12,000 cash per car. The broker would turn around and sell them for triple that amount in Africa.
If convicted of the most serious charge — enterprise corruption — 12 of the defendants face up to 25 years in prison.