HPD: Tracking device on stolen car helps uncover international theft ring

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by Jeff McShan / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on November 15, 2011 at 12:50 AM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 15 at 10:43 AM

HOUSTON – A tracking system on a stolen vehicle led investigators to an international auto theft ring in Houston, police said.

Recently, a Texas State Trooper was driving over the Ship Channel bridge when he noticed an alert coming from his onboard computer.

Information on his screen said the nearby signal was from a 2010 Honda Crossfit, which was equipped with a LoJack device.

The alert was strong, but finding the car wasn’t easy because the vehicle was somewhere inside the Port of Houston. And it wasn’t parked in a lot.

“We located the signal from a container yard where there were probably 40 to 50 containers being stacked,” said Senior Officer Jim Woods with the Houston Police Department.

With help from the Port of Houston Police and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, one by one, the containers were taken down. A few hours later the car was found tightly packed and ready to be shipped to Nigeria.

The discovery of the stolen vehicle at the port turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.  U.S. Customs decided to open all containers being shipped to Africa by the same person and it paid off.

“We found two additional containers in the yard that were all bound for Lagos, Nigeria, and that led to the recovery of six stolen vehicles,” said Senior Officer Woods.

HPD had stumbled on to a sophisticated auto theft ring. It turns out, all the cars were recently stolen from dealerships in the Dallas area.

All were taken during or after test drives by a man who said he was responding to an Internet ad that was put out there by the dealerships.

“All we have is a generic description of the suspect and a possible name (and) cell phone number,” said Woods.

The man is likely a low-level thief, hired by an unknown middleman here in the U.S. who was hired by leaders of the crime ring in Nigeria, investigators said.

Most of the stolen vehicles were Toyotas. All of them were stuffed with goods such as bottled water, lotion, clothes, and rice.

U.S. Customs carefully searched each car, checking for contraband. Agents even used tiny cameras attached to cables, enabling them to search gasoline tanks.

“We wouldn’t have gotten these cars without HPD, and LoJack and those guys being able to come into the port and examine with us. It works out perfectly. There are going to be some happy car dealers and car owners who are going to get their cars back,” said Chief John Landry with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

And while this find was a success, busting up these types of rings is difficult.

U.S. Customs says it exports around 6,000 vehicles a month. Checking every manifest with every VIN number is impossible.

The person whose name was found on the ship’s manifest was identified, but he was not cooperating with investigators, police said.  The Garland, Texas, resident has hired an attorney.

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