Nearly three dozen people were arrested or charged in what authorities said Thursday was a takedown of an auto theft ring that used tactics including carjackings in New York and New Jersey to help feed a demand for luxury sport utility vehicles in West Africa.
Of 29 people charged, 23 were arrested Thursday, acting state Attorney General John Hoffman said at a news conference. Three more people who weren't the subject of arrest warrants also were picked up Thursday, an attorney general's office spokesman said, bringing the total to 32. Six of those charged are fugitives.
Unlike sweeps in the region in recent years that have focused on carjacking perpetrators, the 10-month investigation sought to poke holes in several levels of the operation. Seven of those named Thursday face charges including racketeering, money laundering, fencing and leading an auto theft trafficking network.
Twenty-seven of more than 160 cars recovered in the investigation were carjacked, according to the attorney general's office. The rest were stolen off car carriers, at airports or at car washes or by thieves targeting wealthy neighborhoods where people left cars unlocked, sometimes with keys inside.
The thefts occurred primarily in Essex, Union, Bergen, Middlesex, Monmouth and Morris counties.
Hoffman described one carjacking in Newark in which a woman's car was stolen when she left it running to go into a store — with her 15-year-old daughter inside. The carjackers let the girl go unharmed, he said.
The operation allegedly trafficked mainly in luxury SUVs — particularly those made by Land Rover, BMW and Mercedes Benz — that were stolen and then taken to underground garages or other locations to "cool off" so members of the ring could determine whether they contained tracking devices.
"Wheel men" would then move the vehicles to different locations while deals were made with people acting as fences who would pay $4,000 to $8,000 apiece.
The cars would then be given to "shippers," who would load them in shipping containers for shipment out of ports in New Jersey and New York to Africa, where some would fetch prices as high as $100,000 in countries including Togo and Sierra Leone. Hoffman said the scheme wasn't believed to have involved anyone at the ports, since the vehicles were loaded and provided with false documents off site before they were brought in.
Kids who used to steal cars for joyriding "have been replaced by a group of heartless, hardened bandits," Hoffman said. "We will not allow this threat to go unanswered and un-dealt with. We will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. They will get what they deserve."
Authorities are hoping that the prospect of long prison sentences will act as a deterrent to anyone considering car theft as a career option. Racketeering and money laundering carry maximum prison sentences of 10 to 20 years, with some portions of money laundering sentences running consecutively to sentences for other crimes.
Carjackings have risen dramatically in recent years in northern New Jersey, particularly in Newark and Essex County, leading to the formation of a task force of local, state and federal agencies in late 2010.
A series of arrests put a dent in the crime wave, but the respite was temporary: In 2012, Essex County reported more than 400 carjackings, a 44 percent increase from 2010.