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Large-scale auto theft ring busted in San Diego

SAN DIEGO - A 10-month undercover operation in which officers purchased stolen cars, drugs and weapons at various locations in San Diego County resulted in the indictments of 42 people, authorities announced Thursday.

"Operation Kwik Boost" was launched in January in an effort to draw out and identify criminals who were dealing locally in stolen vehicles, authorities said.

The undercover operation was conducted by the Regional Auto Theft Team, or RATT, in cooperation with the La Mesa Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"Through a collaborative effort to include city, county, state and federal resources, the law enforcement community has made a significant impact in reducing auto theft throughout San Diego County," said RATT Commander Don Goodbrand.

The defendants face charges including auto theft, identity theft, illegal weapons possession and illegal drug possession and sales.

"San Diego County ranks fifteenth in the nation for auto theft, a huge improvement from 2007 when we were third nationwide," said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "Since RATT has been attacking this problem, auto theft is now down about 75 percent to about 10,000 a year."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan said the defendants were stealing cars and selling them to a storefront in Lemon Grove, where they were to be broken up and sold for parts.

Stephan said the thieves were in reality selling the stolen vehicles to undercover officers, who would eventually return them to their owners.

A tip that auto theft was increasing in East County sparked the undercover operation, authorities said.

Many of the 117 people who had their cars stolen were ordinary citizens with one vehicle and some couldn't even afford liability insurance on their cars, Stephan said. The stolen cars were collectively valued at $1.3 million.

Fifty-one firearms, 5 1/2 pounds of methamphetamine, three kilograms of cocaine and 15 pounds of marijuana also were seized.

Of the 32 individuals in police custody, many were arrested Wednesday during an early-morning sweep and are scheduled to be arraigned Friday, authorities said. Ten suspects remain outstanding.

Anyone with information was asked to call the RATT hotline at (888) 835- 5728.