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Exotic Car Thief Not the Usual Suspect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Rellah was considered a connoisseur among car thieves, a smooth talker with a knack for relieving high-class car dealers of their low-slung Lamborghinis, Lotuses, Ferraris and Porsches.

Over a span of two decades, police departments throughout the East Coast gradually became aware that the same man, using a mix of bravado and pure baloney, was sweet-talking salespeople into letting him test-drive the prettiest and priciest cars on their lots, then roaring out of town.

Now, Rellah is in jail, and authorities in at least seven states are piecing together a picture of someone who was parlaying a cunning talent for purloining exotic autos into an international business. Someone who allegedly was a car thief in the straight world and a car dealer in the crooked one, who advertised his business, “U.S. Exotics,” online and opened offices on both coasts. Someone who allegedly arranged financing, forged documents, filched to order and was poised to steal and ship 50 high-end sport utility vehicles to shady interests in Serbia.

“He had keys, fake ID, fake notary . . . big garage, office on Rodeo Drive, East Coast, West Coast,” said Sgt. Brian Cedar, a detective with the auto theft unit of the Maryland State Police. “He had a Web site set up, business cards. He was in the process of really getting going with this.”

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Rellah, a loquacious bodybuilder with a flattop haircut, had in the last two years adopted as his legal name one of his favorite old aliases: Kevin Biagio Gambino, which one investigator said was inspired by a fanciful connection to the Gambino crime family.

Secret Service agents arrested Rellah in July on a Washington street corner, a stolen Jeep Cherokee parked nearby and the key to a hot Porsche in his pocket, and police agencies have been flipping through files ever since. Authorities from Massachusetts to North Carolina--lately joined by California investigators--have been trying to piece together more than a decade’s worth of cases in which Rellah allegedly managed to make off with dozens of cars worth millions of dollars.

Investigators came across evidence only a week ago that Rellah may have branched out to California, Cedar said. He said the California Highway Patrol is only at the beginning of an investigation. Anti-theft unit detectives were not reachable at their Los Angeles office during the holiday weekend.

Rellah is in custody in Hagerstown, Md., and Cedar said officials are a week or two away from putting together a federal indictment. Because he was picked up for violating his parole on thefts in Maryland--he failed to keep in touch with his parole officer--he can be held for at least two years. Cedar said Rellah had no lawyer and, through a prison official, declined comment.

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Long Record as a Car Thief

Rellah, 37, has been in and out of jail ever since he was a callow teenage car thief in Warwick, R.I., and has at least twice escaped custody. In 1992, he picked the lock on his handcuffs in a Maryland county sheriff’s van, then bolted when the vehicle pulled up to a courthouse.

This time, though, he was overwhelmed by Secret Service agents after he was set up by an accomplice, who had been handling fake titles and other documents for Rellah’s business, Cedar said.

Secret Service investigators, whose responsibilities include cellular phone fraud, came across Rellah after he ran up unpaid cell phone bills then found out he had outstanding warrants in seven jurisdictions, said Special Agent Patrick Sullivan.

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Maryland State Police so far have recovered 17 of the vehicles, most of them luxurious 1998 and 1999 models, valued together at more than $1 million. They include a Lincoln Navigator, a loaded 1999 Ford F-350 pickup worth $45,000, a flashy Ducati motorcycle and a 1997 Porsche 911 priced to sell at $145,000.

“He was in the process of taking an order from Serbia,” said Cedar. “He was going to steal 50 cars from the docks of Baltimore and send them right over there.”

Cedar wouldn’t say whether the Lincoln Navigators--one of which already had been pilfered to meet the order--and other upscale SUVs were bound for the gangster-ridden Serb territory in Bosnia or the Serb republic itself. He said the Serb middleman in the deal, who is cooperating with authorities, implied that the buyers were dangerous people.

Authorities recovered fake titles and other documents with Rellah’s fingerprints from the Baltimore home of his girlfriend, a former Hooters waitress who is pregnant with Rellah’s child, Cedar said. Rellah also lived there.

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Cedar said many of the vehicles were sold to drug dealers, some paying as little as $5,000 down for a $40,000 vehicle. He said Rellah performed some type of credit check, took car payments in installments and was both the brains and the brawn of his operation--one of many unusual aspects of the case.

Among the vehicles recovered was a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz that, authorities said, Rellah had taken from Zakar Motors in Little Ferry, N.J., during a spree of six thefts across New Jersey in March and April.

Zakar co-owner Raffi Civan said the dealership had let Rellah take the car out for a spin because he seemed to easily be what he said he was: a resident of a nearby wealthy community.

Though he managed to project an image of confidence and self-control, one investigator said Rellah was a crack cocaine abuser who gobbled anabolic steroids to keep his comic-book physique suitably carved.

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Some law enforcement agencies initially believed that Rellah was a glorified joy rider who filched fancy cars for kicks because so many were abandoned minutes later.

But other investigators say Rellah often stole a car and then quickly parked it for a bit to see if it was equipped with an anti-theft tracking system, then returned a day or two later to reclaim it if it was still around. North Carolina authorities, who had issued a $1,000 reward for Rellah’s capture in July, said he would frequently stash cars in secure hotel parking lots.

His career in the auto industry began in the late 1970s, when he got into trouble for a variety of thefts in and around West Warwick.

Warwick Police Lt. David Schnell was a patrolman in 1987 when the shift commander told officers that a man fitting Rellah’s description had tricked a dealer out of a blue Lotus. Schnell went on patrol and, 15 minutes into his shift, a blue Lotus pulled in front of him. Schnell pulled it over.

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Rellah bounded out and ran up to Schnell like it was his idea to stop in the first place. Said Schnell: “He tried to con me, saying he was a businessman and needed directions to get to New York. I said, ‘No way, pal, I know who you are.’ ”

Rellah resisted, and Schnell got into what he described as a wrestling match with the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Rellah. An off-duty officer stopped his car and helped Schnell subdue Rellah. Shouting support for the car thief was a woman passenger in the Lotus that Schnell described as a stunning 6-foot blond.

One of his biggest strikes was a Lamborghini Countach valued at about $225,000 that he buffaloed out of an East Providence, R.I., dealer in 1991, one of the crimes for which he was caught and did time. The scam was one of his favorites: He told the salesman he wanted to show the car to his father and then, once on the road, stopped and asked the dealer to see if something was wrong with the outside of the car. Then he took off.

Stuck to His Con, Authorities Say

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Every time he got out of prison, authorities said he went back to work. “He has to keep bouncing around to keep this con going,” said Schnell.

During his alleged run of Jersey thefts last spring, he made three visits to Surf Chevrolet in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., to establish credibility, said dealer Paul Ashley.

Ashley said Rellah was “very clean-cut,” wore casual but expensive clothing and said, as he often did, that he was recently retired from the military. He had his eye on a $49,000 purple Corvette with yellow seats, a limited-edition replica of the 1998 Indianapolis 500 pace car.

He had said his wife worked at a nearby mall and he wanted to show her the car. En route, he kept referring to a noise coming from the rear of the car.

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When the salesman and Rellah arrived at the mall, Rellah feigned surprise that his wife wasn’t around. Then he jumped out of the car and suggested that he and the salesman check out that bothersome rattle.

According to Ashley, Rellah asked the salesman to drive by slowly so Rellah could pinpoint the noise.

“There! You hear that?” Rellah asked as the salesman cruised by the hulking hustler. The salesman couldn’t hear a thing, so Rellah suggested they switch places, Ashley said.

“Do you hear it now?” Rellah asked, sitting behind the wheel. Then he punched the gas and sped away, leaving the sputtering salesman behind.

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Those days, however, are gone. “He doesn’t seem like anything special in here,” said Victor Wachs, Rellah’s case manager in prison. “Pleasant to talk to, but that’s about it.”


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