SAN DIEGO -- A massive fraud scheme termed "one of the biggest auto-theft related cases in the history of San Diego" has led to 21 people charged for allegedly defrauding banks and other financial institutions out of millions by illegally purchasing more than 100 vehicles, prosecutors said Thursday.
The scheme allegedly ran by Bryan Orr, 33, involved the creation of 54 shell companies and 45 bank accounts in order to fraudulently buy 109 vehicles, including motorhomes and boats. The total amount of the alleged fraud exceeds $5 million, according to the District Attorney's office.
Of the 21 defendants, six remain outstanding, according to prosecutors and police. Fourteen people, including Orr, have been arrested in Southern California, while one other defendant, Michael Dockrell, is in custody in Washington state.
Orr, who most recently lived in Clairemont Mesa, faces more than 100 years in prison if convicted of all charges. More than 275 felony counts - including money laundering, grand theft and auto theft -- have been filed against the defendants.
Orr and thirteen of his co-defendants are next due to appear in a downtown San Diego courtroom Friday afternoon for a status conference.
Prosecutors say Orr directed co-conspirators to purchase vehicles, which were paid for in full by other defendants, then resold. Those who paid off the vehicle would then report that their bank accounts were being used fraudulently, and receive refunds from the banks, prosecutors said. The bulk of the refund money would go to Orr, with co-defendants receiving a percentage.
California Highway Patrol Capt. James Portilla said law enforcement first caught wind of the scheme in late 2017, when they were informed of a suspicious payoff of a vehicle by a financial institution's fraud investigator.
Orr was "the common denominator" in each crime they uncovered, and "presented himself and lived life as a wealthy CEO, but in fact was nothing more than an unemployed con man," Portilla said.
His co-defendants were people he knew from his daily life, including his mother, Amy Phillips, and his stepfather, Lance Phillips, both of whom also face charges.
Portilla said auto thefts are down in the county overall, mostly due to the rise in auto theft prevention devices in newer cars. However, the captain said those advances have led thieves to devise "creative ways" to take vehicles.
Another operation that wrapped up two weeks ago saw a similar scheme involving seven defendants and 23 vehicles worth $500,000, according to Portilla, who said these sophisticated fraud cases involving vehicles have been on the rise.
Warrants were served last week in San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties as part of "Operation Blindside," leading to 13 arrests. Another defendant was arrested locally on Tuesday, according to jail records.
"This criminal enterprise involved a network of individuals and dozens of shell companies that allowed the ringleader to pull the strings and carry out this scam for over three years," District Attorney Summer Stephan said. "Banks, vehicle finance companies -- and ultimately the consumer -- are all victims of this aggressive organized criminal operation."