Federal and state law enforcement authorities say they have broken up a sophisticated auto-theft ring run by a Tijuana-based motorcycle club that swiped 150 Jeep Wranglers in San Diego County over the last several years.
The Jeeps were later sold in Mexico or stripped for parts that were then sold in Mexico, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Conover said at a Tuesday news conference at the federal building in downtown San Diego. The stolen vehicles were worth a total of $4.5 million.
Nine members of the Hooligans bikers club were indicted in the scheme and face charges of conspiracy to transport stolen vehicles in foreign commerce.
Three men were arrested Tuesday — one was at a Spring Valley home, another was already in state custody on other charges and a third was arrested at the San Ysidro border crossing.
Six other men remain fugitives in Mexico, Conover said. Of the nine people named in the indictment, seven are U.S. citizens, though the club is based in and operates in Mexico.
Authorities said thieves exploited a design feature of the Jeep Wrangler, gained access to a proprietary database that contains codes used to create duplicate keys for each car and then used a high-tech computer to get away with the cars.
The investigation, which authorities dubbed "Operation Last Ride," began during the summer of 2014 following a series of Jeep thefts across the county. Prosecutors said law enforcement gained a huge break when a homeowner's security system captured the theft of the owner's car on tape.
Conover said the Jeeps are pricey, popular in Mexico and easy to resell there. The starting price for a 2017 Jeep Wrangler is about $28,000.