SAN DIEGO - Three alleged members of the Tijuana-based Hooligans Motorcycle gang were in federal custody Tuesday in connection with a sophisticated scheme that resulted in the theft of more than 150 Jeep Wranglers in San Diego County since 2014.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Hooligans used high-tech methods to disable security systems and make off with Jeeps in just a few minutes, in the middle of the night, while unsuspecting owners slept nearby.
After stealing the Jeeps -- collectively estimated to be worth more than $4.5 million -- the Hooligans transported the vehicles to Tijuana, Mexico, where they were sold or stripped for parts, court papers show.
"The joy ride is over for these Hooligans," said Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Conover, who alleged the gang also stole dozens of motorcycles that were hot-wired.
"For many of us, our cars are our most valuable possessions," he said. "These arrests have put the brakes on an organization that has victimized neighborhoods in a different way, by stealing something very personal, something that has required a lot of sacrifice to purchase."
Nine members of the Hooligans Motorcycle gang are charged in a federal indictment with conspiracy to commit transportation of stolen vehicles in foreign commerce.
Two defendants -- Alejandro Guzman, 23, and 33-year-old Reynaldo Rodriguez -- were arrested Tuesday at the San Ysidro border crossing and Spring Valley, respectively, while a third man, Henry Irenio Pulido, 24, had been in state custody and was transferred to federal custody.
The other six are fugitives believed to be in Mexico. They were identified as Jimmy Josue Martinez, 31; Mario Alberto Echeverria-Ibarra, 30; Narciso Zamora Banuelos, 29; Adan Esteban Sanchez Aguirre, 26; Salvador Isay Castillo, 21; and Sebastian Ponce, 20.
Many of the defendants grew up in the United States, prosecutors said. Seven are U.S. citizens and two are Mexican citizens.
The indictment alleges that the Hooligans did their homework by targeting a specific vehicle days before the actual theft would take place. The defendants would obtain the vehicle identification number in advance and managed to obtain secret key codes, which allowed them to create a duplicate key for that particular Jeep. Then, during the theft, the Hooligans disabled the alarm system, programmed the duplicate key using a handheld electronic device, and quietly drove away without notice.
Conover said San Diego County was hit with a rash of Jeep Wrangler thefts in the summer of 2014. He said almost all of the thefts occurred in the middle of the night or early morning, and almost all of the Wranglers were equipped with alarms, yet no alarms were triggered and there were never any signs of forced entry.Agents from the Regional Auto Theft Task Force were at first perplexed, but they eventually caught a break.
On Sept. 26, 2014, a Jeep owner parked her vehicle in the driveway of her home in Rancho Bernardo. She went outside the next morning to find her Jeep missing, but had recently installed a surveillance camera that was trained on the driveway.
Based on the surveillance footage, law enforcement agents sent Chrysler a list of about 20 Jeeps that had recently been stolen in San Diego County and asked whether anyone had requested duplicate keys for the stolen Jeeps.
Chrysler told authorities that a duplicate key had been requested for every one of the 20 stolen Jeeps, and nearly every one of the keys had apparently been requested through the same dealership in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
The Jeeps' owners did not request duplicate keys and were unaware that anyone had done so, Conover said.