Indictment charges 21 with racketeering following carjacking ring investigation

TRENTON, NJ — Acting Attorney General Robert Lougy announced April 29 that 21 people have been indicted on first-degree charges of racketeering, conspiracy and money laundering for allegedly operating a major international carjacking and stolen car trafficking ring that stole luxury cars from suburbs along the Route 17 corridor in New Jersey and neighboring New York, as well as other suburban communities in northern and central New Jersey, shipping the cars to West Africa where they command premium prices. An additional defendant was charged with attempted theft, bringing the total number of defendants to 22.

The indictment, which was returned late in the day on April 28, stems from “Operation 17 Corridor,” a joint investigation led by the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey State Police, with assistance from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Police, ICE Homeland Security Investigations and numerous other agencies. Most of the defendants were arrested on Oct. 27, 2015, when the partnering agencies broke up the theft ring. Ninety stolen cars worth more than $4 million were recovered.

Two alleged leaders of the ring, Tyja Evans, 39, of Watchung and Ibn Jones, 37, of Newark, are charged with the second-degree crime of leading an auto theft trafficking network. The ring operated based on demand for specific vehicles, including various models of Land Rover, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Maserati, Porsche, Jaguar and Bentley. Some cars were taken through carjackings, while others were taken in “soft steals” from locations where the thieves were able to steal them with their electronic keys or key fobs, which are critical to the resale value of the cars. Within the ring, individuals filled various roles, including carjacker, car thief, wheelman, fence, shipper and buyer. Shippers would load the cars into shipping containers, which were taken to ports for transport by ship to West Africa.

“In their quest for luxury vehicles, members of this ring ambushed people in suburban driveways and outside malls and restaurants, at times brandishing handguns,” Lougy said in a press release. “Carjackings of this type can easily turn deadly, as we have witnessed in cases like the murder at the mall at Short Hills. By dismantling this criminal network and putting its members behind bars, we have ended their reign of terror and made our communities safer.”

“Carjackings in northern New Jersey are down by more than 50 percent since 2013, and there is no question that a major factor has been our collaboration with the state police and other law enforcement partners in Operation 17 Corridor and Operation Jacked over the past two years,” Criminal Justice Division Director Elie Honig said in the release. “We not only removed dangerous carjackers from the street; we shut down key routes by which fencers were getting stolen cars to lucrative overseas markets.”

“These 22 defendants executed a real life ‘Grand Theft Auto’ scheme which terrorized suburban residents and luxury car owners,” Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said in the release. He added that, thanks to the collaboration between the various involved agencies, “we can officially say ‘game over.’”

“Working cooperatively with our federal and state law enforcement partners, we have taken dangerous criminals off the streets and taken significant steps to prevent this heinous property crime,” Port Authority Chief Security Officer Thomas Belfiore said in the release. “Since some of this illicit activity occurred at our facilities, we will remain extra vigilant in combating the shipment of stolen or carjacked vehicles to overseas destinations.”

“This operation clearly demonstrates the combined strength of law enforcement in attacking a plague of property crime that has run a toll in the millions of dollars on our community,” Special Agent in Charge Terence S. Opiola of HSI Newark said in the release. “These individuals were part of an elaborate ring of international car thieves. By working together on the Border Enforcement Security Task Force, we are able to multiply our resources and build on our commitment to the protection of American people on a local and national level.”

Two of the defendants face first-degree charges of carjacking and robbery in connection with carjackings committed by the ring are:

  • Derrick Moore, 36, of Newark, who is charged with participating in a carjacking on the night of Oct. 6, 2015, at an Italian restaurant on Route 10 in Hanover. Three carjackers, allegedly including Moore, drove into the restaurant parking lot, and one man pointed a gun at a valet, demanding the keys to a 2015 Mercedes S550 and a 2015 Bentley Continental GT. The three men then stole the two vehicles. The Bentley was worth approximately $204,000.
  • and Rashawn Gartrell, 37, of Irvington, who is charged with a carjacking in Montclair on Aug. 24, 2015. The victim was walking toward his 2014 BMW 650i when a man, later identified as Nasir Turner, got out of a Mercedes, reached behind his back as if to grab a gun, and ordered the man to surrender his keys. Turner drove off in the BMW and Gartrell allegedly drove off in the Mercedes, which had been stolen in Saddle Brook. Turner, 37, of Newark, pleaded guilty to racketeering and faces a sentence of 11 years in prison, including nine years without parole.

The ring also was linked to two armed carjackings targeting Mercedes S550 owners that occurred at The Mills at Jersey Gardens shopping mall and The Outlet Collection Mall, both in Elizabeth.

In addition to carjackings, ring members used a variety of methods to steal cars with their keys. Cars were stolen from gas stations, convenience stores, carwashes and airports, where the drivers got out and left vehicles running. Other cars were stolen from car dealerships. Thieves also would search wealthy neighborhoods and find high-end cars unlocked with the key fob in the glove box. In other cases, individuals in the ring would use fraudulent credit cards with stolen or fictitious identities to rent desired cars from car rental agencies and simply never return them. Of the cars recovered, 19 were rental cars. Some of the cars would be “retagged” with new vehicle identification numbers and taken to another state, where new titles and temporary tags were obtained. In this way the stolen cars were essentially “laundered.” A total of 17 of the stolen cars that were recovered had been retagged.

After vehicles were stolen, the theft crew typically would store or “cool off” the cars at various locations, including short-term airport parking garages, residential parking complexes, residential backyards, commercial warehouses and shipping containers, to make sure they were not equipped with tracking devices that would lead law enforcement to them. Other times, members of the ring removed tracking devices from the cars. After a vehicle was sufficiently “cooled,” it was moved to a “fence.”

There were multiple levels of fences through which the stolen cars typically moved before reaching their ultimate destinations. The fences arrested within this organization would generally buy stolen cars directly from a theft crew or a lower-level fence within the organization. The fences then moved the car up to a higher-level fence or, in the case of a high-ranking fence, sold the car directly to a buyer. The stolen cars were fenced both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the stolen vehicles have been found in Arizona, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, Texas and New Jersey. Internationally, the vehicles were most frequently exported to West Africa, including the countries of Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea and Gambia. Luxury vehicles can sell in West Africa for prices in excess of new market value in the United States.

The fences used “wheelmen” to move the stolen cars to different locations while purchase prices were being negotiated with other fences and potential buyers. The “shippers” who have been charged allegedly facilitated the organization’s illicit operation by arranging for stolen cars to be placed on shipping containers and transported to different seaports within New Jersey and New York. They completed a bill of lading for the container that typically misrepresented the actual contents of the container. The loading locations used include Evans Terminal in Hillside and various locations in the Bronx.

Of the 90 vehicles recovered, 23 were recovered at ports used by the ring, including Port Newark, Port Elizabeth, Global Terminal in Bayonne and the Howland Hook Seaport in Staten Island. Investigators believe that additional vehicles were being moved by this criminal enterprise beyond those recovered in the investigation. The ring operated in Rockland County, N.Y., and multiple counties in New Jersey, including Morris, Bergen, Essex, Union, Hudson, Monmouth, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Somerset counties.

The following agencies assisted in Operation 17 Corridor, under the leadership of the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice: Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Police Department; ICE Homeland Security Investigations in Newark, specifically the Border Enforcement Security Task Force; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Morris County Prosecutor’s Office; Essex County Prosecutor’s Office; Demarest Police Department; Paramus Police Department; South Orange Police Department; Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office; Hanover Police Department; Linden Police Department; Essex County Sheriff’s Office; Hudson County Sheriff’s Office; Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor; and the U.S. Marshals Service. Valuable assistance also was provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Deputy Attorney Gen. Debra Conrad, senior counsel of the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau, and Deputy Attorney Gen. Danielle Scarduzio presented the indictment to the state grand jury, under the supervision of Bureau Chief Jill Mayer and Deputy Bureau Chief Jacqueline Smith.

The investigation was conducted for the New Jersey State Police by members of the Interstate Theft North Unit and other members of the Intelligence and Criminal Enterprise Section, including Det. Cory Rodriguez, who is lead detective, Lt. Ronald Micucci, Det. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Tobey, Det. Sgt. Aaron Auclair, Det. Sgt. Anthony Aguanno, Det. Sgt. Pete Stilianessis, Trooper Nicholas Rubino, Trooper Armando Rivas and Trooper Michael Ferrara.

All 21 of the following defendants are charged with the first-degree crimes of racketeering, conspiracy and money laundering; the second-degree crimes of fencing and receiving stolen property; and the third-degree crime of burglary. All except Andrea Brown also are charged with theft by unlawful taking  in the second degree.

The defendants are listed below under certain roles; however, many defendants assumed multiple roles. For example, the alleged leaders also assumed other roles, including high-level fence. In addition, street-level fences also acted as carjackers/thieves, and vice versa.

  • Leaders: Tyja Evans, 39, of Watchung; and Ibn Jones, 37, of Newark;
  • Shippers and high-level fences: Peter Cleland, 33, of East Orange; Sowah Anan, 31, of Elizabeth; Adama Fofana, 53, of the Bronx; and Alpha Jalloh, 27, of New York, N.Y.;
  • Rental car thieves: Julian Atta-Poku, 34, of Queens Village, N.Y., who allegedly coordinated sales of stolen rental cars; and Andrea Brown, 25, of Jamaica, N.Y., who allegedly used fraudulent credit cards and driver’s licenses to rent cars which she then stole;
  • Street-level fences: Eric Aikens, 40, of Newark; Levell Burnett, 39, of Newark; and Damion Mikell, 33, of Newark; and
  • Carjackers, car thieves and/or wheelmen: Derrick Moore, 36, of Keansburg; Rashawn Gartrell, 37, of Irvington; Kenneth Daniels, 30, of Newark; Tyree Johnson, 23, of Newark; Donnel Carroll, 28, of Newark; Khalil Culbreath, 38, of Newark; Terrence Wilson, 39, of Newark; Marquis Price, 32, of Newark; Frazier Gibson, 29, of Montclair, N.J.; and Alterique Jones, 41, of Maplewood.

The 22nd defendant named in the indictment is Dominique E. Diaz, 29, of Newark, who is charged with third-degree attempted theft for allegedly participating with Derrick Moore in the attempted theft of a Jeep Grand Cherokee in Upper Saddle River on Nov. 26, 2014.

Four defendants charged in the case who previously pleaded guilty are:

  • Eddie Craig, 36, of Beverly, who pleaded guilty on Feb. 11 to first-degree racketeering and faces a recommended sentence of nine years in prison, including nearly eight years of parole ineligibility;
  • Nasir Tuner, 36, of Newark, who pleaded guilty on March 1 to first-degree racketeering and faces a recommended sentence of 11 years in prison, including more than nine years of parole ineligibility;
  • Manuel Olivares, who pleaded guilty on Jan. 13 to second-degree racketeering and faces a recommended sentence of seven years in prison; and
  • Panel Dalce, 43, of South Orange, who pleaded guilty on Dec. 22, 2015, to second-degree racketeering and faces a recommended sentence of six years in prison.

First-degree carjacking carries a sentence of 10 to 30 years in state prison, with a period of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed, and a fine of up to $200,000. First-degree racketeering carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison, with a period of parole ineligibility equal to 85 percent of the sentence imposed, and a fine of up to $200,000. First-degree money laundering carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison, including a period of parole ineligibility equal to one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed, with the sentence to run consecutively to sentences for any other charges, and a fine of up to $500,000. Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree crimes carry a sentence of three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.

The indictment is merely an accusation and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The indictment was handed up to Superior Court Judge Peter E. Warshaw in Mercer County, who assigned the case to Morris County, where the defendants will be ordered to appear in court at a later date for arraignment.