New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Dermot Shea last week announced the indictment of 10 members of an auto theft and distribution operation for their roles in the theft and/or criminal possession of 45 vehicles during a six-month period and their roles related to the theft and resale of more than 225 vehicles throughout New York City and Westchester.
The 303-count indictment was a result of a two-year joint investigation by the Office of the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force (OCTF) and the NYPD’s Auto Crime Division.
“For two years, these individuals have fueled fear in our communities and taken some of peoples’ most valuable assets,” James stated. “During the pandemic, they moved this operation into high gear, taking advantage of New Yorkers’ staying at home to allegedly stealing more than 45 cars in six months. We exhausted every avenue to track down these thieves, and, today, we send a loud and clear message that we will not stand idly by as New Yorkers are burglarized. New Yorkers deserve to feel safe in their neighborhoods, and we thank the NYPD for their partnership and support in this effort.”
“This was a complex, high-tech operation that sought to weaponize every hidden vulnerability in the automotive industry from creating keys based on bootleg code lists to altering computer settings to creating a mill that furnished false registrations for altered VIN numbers,” Shea stated. “Being an operation that never missed a chance to exploit vulnerability, it also turned up the volume of thefts during the pandemic, knowing that people were homebound or sick.”
The investigation — dubbed “Operation Master Key,” due to the ability of the theft crews to create keys to gain access to vehicles — revealed auto theft crew members Norberto Pena Brito, Jose Lebron Pimentel, Edwin Hidalgo Estevez, Dariberto Fernandez Perez, and Hector Rivera were responsible for locating, stealing, altering, and reselling stolen vehicles throughout New York City and Westchester.
From April 2020 to October 2020, it is alleged the defendants scoped out and targeted cars to steal, obtained key code information for these vehicles from unlawful websites, and created keys that allowed them to breach and steal the vehicles. Once inside of the vehicle, they reprogrammed the vehicle’s computer system to gain control of the vehicle, disable alarms, and start the engine. In a matter of minutes, the theft crew was able to steal a vehicle without sounding alarms or drawing any attention. The theft crew was also able to reprogram the vehicle to stop recognizing the true owners’ electronic keys so that the owners’ keys stopped working.
Members of this organization then transported the vehicles back to one of several lots located in the Bronx, where the vehicles were altered and the vehicle identification numbers (VINs) were changed in order to give the stolen cars a new identity.
This joint investigation included hundreds of hours of physical and covert surveillance, court-authorized wiretapping of numerous targeted phones, execution of search warrants, and the recovery of surveillance video capturing the thefts of numerous vehicles.
If convicted, Valverde and Saldivar each face a maximum of seven years of prison. The other defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison.