A10-month multi-agency investigation culminated Thursday in the arrests of 23 New Jersey men in connection with an international carjacking ring, one of whose alleged leaders is a Belleville resident, authorities reported.
At a press conference, state Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman noted that the complex criminal enterprise specialized in the theft of luxury vehicles, primarily SUVs, that were then shipped to West Africa, where they could be sold at prices above their U.S. new market value.
Of those arrested in “Operation Jacked,” seven were labeled as the ringleaders, including 41-yearold James Hemphill of Belleville. The other six alleged leaders are from Newark, Irvington and Roselle.
The rest of the suspects hail from Montclair, Bloomfield, East Orange, Irvington, Union, Newark, Rahway and Tuckerton.
The thieves and traffickers reportedly were operating for more than a year in multiple counties in New Jersey, targeting high-end vehicles: Land Rover, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Honda, Porsche, Jaguar and Aston Martin.
Approximately 160 of the stolen cars, worth more than $8 million, were recovered by law enforcement in last week’s takedown. Of the total, 140 were found at ports in New York and New Jersey, including Port Newark.
Before being transported to the docks, the vehicles were loaded into shipping containers bearing false bills of lading that misrepresented the containers’ contents, authorities said.
A statement by Hoffman’s office noted that “theft crews” used various methods, including carjacking, to steal the vehicles, but always with the goal of obtaining the keys or key fobs, which were critical to the resale value.
According to the statement, the carjackers would often bump the victim’s vehicle from behind. When the targeted driver stopped, the carjackers would take the key by force or threat or, if the key were still inside, simply jump into the vehicle and drive off.
Thefts also occurred at carwashes, airports, car dealerships and at parking garages, where thieves would hold up valets to get keys and vehicles or grab keys from valet boxes.
Ring members also would search neighborhoods for unlocked high-end cars with the key fob in the glove box. In other cases, they would obtain cars through fraud, using bad checks to buy the vehicles.
After vehicles were stolen, authorities said, the theft crew typically would store or “cool off” the cars at various locations — including hospital parking garages, long-term parking garages, residential backyards, warehouses and private garages — to make sure they were not equipped with tracking devices.
While some of the vehicles were sold domestically, including in New Jersey, most were shipped overseas, Hoffman’s office said.
The 23 suspects arrested Thursday face charges including racketeering, carjacking and money laundering. Six other alleged ring members were being sought as fugitives.
Operation Jacked was led by the N.J. Division of Criminal Justice and the N.J. State Police, assisted by Port Authority Police, ICE Homeland Security Investigations and 12 other agencies, including the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office.
– Karen Zautyk