Four men have been arrested on suspicion of operating a lucrative car theft ring that shipped automobiles stolen from Orange County beach cities to Europe for sale, authorities said Saturday.
The four suspects, all Romanian nationals, were arrested during a sweep by 60 undercover investigators Friday in Riverside County and charged with 19 felonies, said Lt. Rick Criner, commander of the California Highway Patrol's Orange County auto theft task force.
Criner said the arrests culminated more than five months of investigation of a ring responsible for the theft of at least 75 cars, most from beach cities in Orange County. The thieves targeted Jeeps, Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers.
"They prefer the larger cars, but they would also hit a few sports cars if one caught their fancy," said Criner, adding that more arrests could be made soon. "This was a huge deal for us. These guys were very, very hard to catch."
Criner estimated the value of the stolen cars at $750,000 to $1.5 million. "They made a lot of money. We're not talking peanuts here," Criner said.
Being held at Orange County Jail in lieu of $100,000 bond each were Cornel George, 30, of Riverside; Ion Gheorghe, 35, of Riverside; Adrian Gheorghe, 22, of San Bernardino; and Latislau Molnar, 18, of Perris.
The felony charges against them include conspiracy to commit vehicle theft; vehicle theft;, operation of a vehicle "chop shop;" altering, recovering or destroying vehicle identification numbers and receiving stolen property.
Molnar was arrested at a ranch in Perris that investigators allege was being used as a chop shop, a place where stolen cars are altered and wrecks are stripped for parts and destroyed, Criner said.
Authorities also believe that George's auto dealership, Import Auto Sales in Riverside, was used as a second chop shop, Criner said.
Criner said ring members would frequent automobile auctions and buy wrecked late-model cars that insurance companies had deemed too badly damaged to be fixed. But the theft ring members bought the wrecks for their identification numbers, which were transferred to the stolen cars, Criner said.
The stolen cars were then re-registered with new identification numbers and salvage receipts, packed in containers and shipped by boat to Germany for sale in Europe, particularly in Romania, Criner said.
"The paperwork will say they are salvaged vehicles, but these cars are in pristine condition," Criner said.
Some of the cars were also sold locally to unsuspecting buyers through automobile magazines or newspaper ads, Criner said.
"We recovered a Plymouth Voyager an innocent purchaser had paid $13,000 for and only had two days," Criner said. Unfortunately, the purchaser loses the money and the car, he added.
"The innocent purchasers get stung real hard," Criner said.
A total of 11 cars were recovered, some of them already packed in their shipping containers, Criner said.
Aiding the county's task force in the investigation were the FBI, the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the Riverside County Auto Theft Interdiction Detail, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the CHP's Inland Division vehicle theft unit.