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August 10, 2016

Police bust 'massive criminal network' of car thieves

Thirty-two suspects were arrested for their alleged roles in an elaborate plot to steal and resell rental cars, says District Attorney Seth Williams

Police Car Theft
Wiliams car theft Hayden Mitman/PhillyVoice

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, surrounded by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross and fellow law enforcement officials, announces the arrest of 32 people in the bust of a car theft and insurance fraud ring.

Authorities have dismantled an alleged car theft and insurance fraud operation they called a "massive criminal network," it was announced Wednesday.

Thirty-two people were arrested in an investigation that also targeted three fraudulent corporations, according to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. 

The alleged members of the car theft ring stole, replated, relisted and resold at least 45 vehicles, most of them taken from rental car companies, Williams said.

The thefts were a more than $500,000 loss to the owners of the cars, and through fraudulent claims, insurance companies were scammed out of more than $60,000. 

Williams detailed how the operation worked. The cars would be rented — all but eight of the vehicles were owned by the Hertz, Enterprise, Avis, National, Budget and Dollar/Trinity rental car companies — and then reported stolen. 

After the fraudulent claims were made – by at least 13 of those arrested — the car would then sold to a business known as "Cheap Auto," operated by Jihad Miller, 29, of Yeadon, Delaware County, and Preston Thomas, 40, of Philadelphia. Both men were arrested, officials said, and charged with running a corrupt organization and 45 counts of thefts by deception, as well as charges of conspiracy, forgery and related offenses. If convicted on all counts, Williams said the pair could be facing up to 50 to 100 years in prison. 

Once Cheap Auto had possession of the vehicles, the Vehicle Identification Numbers on the cars would be stripped off and replaced with the VIN of a similar car that had been salvaged for parts. Miller and Thomas, Williams said, would procure salvaged vehicles through another business, Copart, for the sole purpose of using the VIN numbers on the stolen vehicles. 

NoneCourtesy of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office/for PhillyVoice

This image, from the District Attorney's Office, shows how law enforcement officials believe the theft ring operated.

The alleged theft ring even employed fraudulent inspectors who would certify the cars as new vehicles, and help create fraudulent titles and registrations for the stolen vehicles, Williams said.

Detective Jack Logan, of the Philadelphia Police Major Crimes Auto Squad, said the inspections, typically a two hour-plus process on a legitimate car, were instead fast-tracked by inspectors who should have known the cars' VINs were fraudulent. 

"They were just rubber-stamping them," he said. 

The cars were then resold, Williams said, to unsuspecting car buyers. 

The scheme came to light after a buyer took his car in for repairs, only to learn that his VIN number was fraudulent. In fact, Williams said, the replacement of the VIN was sloppy, as it lacked the type of fastener required by the state. 

Along with Thomas and Miller, the following individuals and business entities were charged:

• For allegedly renting and/or reporting vehicles as stolen: Shawntia Barnes, James Harris, Jeanine Herring, Sharerah McFarland, Larnessha Ricjmond, Jamilah Seward, Patrice Thomas, Karriem Upshur, Brandon Wesley, Marcel Chase White, Jay Johnson, Lisa Layne and Nasir Sadat Robertson. 

• For allegedly creating false documents: Shawynna Tucker, Shintay Davis, Brittney Glass, Rekia Glass, Manez Ricketts, Naeema Thomas, Eric Washington, Clayton Ferris, Michelle Sallas-Mensah and Nakia Simpson.

• For allegedly performing fraudulent inspections: Derrick Hook, Abu Kamara and Alimamy Kamara.

• For allegedly reselling the stolen vehicles: Tyrell Butler, Melvin Hicks, Frederick Miller and Keith Mills. 

According to Assistant District Attorney Linda Montag, more than half of those arrested in alleged crime ring already have pleaded guilty to the charges against them.

Authorities are still searching for Karriem Upshur, who is alleged to have registered 17 of the stolen vehicles with fraudulent insurance policies.

Police are asking that anyone with knowledge of Upshur's whereabouts to contact Detective Patrick Gleason at 215-686-8737 or Detective Jack Logan at 215-685-9137.