LYNDHURST, N.J. -- The case of a 53-year-old Lyndhurst man left holding a worthless $32,000 check after he sold his Mercedes on Craigslist became part of the state takedown of an auto-theft network, Daily Voice has learned.
After posting the ad last October, the man got a call from what he thought was a genuine buyer who told him he was sending his girlfriend to get the 2011 R-350, Lyndhurst Police Detective Vincent Auteri said.
She turned out to be Heather Cater, 20, of Woodbridge, one of several people charged by state Division of Criminal Justice with preying on Craiglist car sellers.
The multi-jurisdictional "Operation Title Flip” probe involved the theft of ten vehicles, valued at $248,650, between May and November of last year.
The cars were sold to dealerships for a $107,250 profit, state authorities said.
Like the others, Cater used a fake ID when she met with the Lyndhurst victim to buy his car, Auteri said.
"The original asking price was $32,500, but [Cater] handed him a [Bank of America] cashier's check for $32,000," he said. "It made it look like haggling so he wouldn't suspect anything."
The victim turned over the keys and title, and Cater slapped on temporary dealer plates and drove off, the detective said.
"Two days later, he gets a call from the bank that the check was fraudulent," he said.
Police ran the VIN number, which came back to a used car dealership in Central Jersey, so Auteri issued an alert in case other police had run into someone similar.
The detective said he heard from back from investigators at the Division of Criminal Justice and gave them all the information he had.
Then, in early February, they called back saying they had a lead on a suspect: Heather Cater.
Soon after, they arrested and questioned her.
"That's when they realized that this thing was big and she was an integral part of it," Auteri said. "They had some really good detectives at DCJ putting this whole thing together."
As a result, Lyndhurst are now charging Cater with receiving stolen property, passing bad checks and theft by deception, in addition to the state charges.
An indictment handed up by a state grand jury in Trenton charged three people with masterminding the scheme: Luther Lewis, 38, of Piscataway, Tyisha Brantley, 36, of Scotch Plains, and Justinas Vaitoska, 39, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Cater was among 13 others indicted on charges of participating in the ring.
Lewis, Vaitoska and Brantley enlisted the aid of intermediaries such as Cater to use the bogus bank checks to buy cars from private sellers and then flip them to various dealerships in the state, Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino said.
The defendants “trolled the Internet in a quest for cars they could steal through their fraudulent scheme,” Porrino said. “We will not let their predatory conduct go unpunished.”
“Car thefts drive up insurance claims, which lead to higher premiums for everyone,” acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Christopher Iu added. “[We] are protecting honest citizens from having to pay the price for the misdeeds of others.”
Lewis, Brantley, and Vaitoska were also indicted on charges of and theft by deception -- as were Cater and three others:
Milagros Jimenez, 54, of Haines City, FL;
Saint Hardy, 32, of Elizabeth;
Deborah Rodgers, 32, of Carteret.
Other charges were brought against several defendants.
The thieves typically arranged to buy the vehicles in the late afternoon so that the sellers couldn't bring the checks to the bank that day.
Once they did find out their checks were worthless, it was too late.
Meanwhile, "other intermediaries would take the vehicle titles to the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission office to transfer the title into their names" before selling the cars to dealerships for cash, Porrino said.
Intermediaries collected $300 to $1,000 per vehicle, he said.
Deputy Attorney General Colin J. Keiffer presented the case to the grand jury. Division of Criminal Justice Detective Sergeant Jarek Pyrzanowski and Detective Matthew Armstrong, along with Detective Ryan Kirsh of the Union County Prosecutors Office, coordinated the investigation with assistance from Analysts Gregory Nolan and Terry Worthington.
State authorities thanked several local investigators, including Auteri.
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