LA MESA, Calif. — California Highway Patrol along with multiple law enforcement agencies arrested more than two dozen people in a nearly yearlong operation called Operation Sunrise.
“Honestly, it just appears that it’s opportunity, victims of opportunity,” CHP Capt. Charles Leonard told reporters during a news conference Thursday. “That opportunity to steal a car, it didn’t matter the make, model, year or color. If that opportunity to steal it they would steal it.”
The operation was run by the San Diego County Regional Auto Theft Task Force. The task force is a multi-agency operation including Chula Vista, San Diego, La Mesa and National City police departments, CHP, plus the county DA’s office, among other agencies in the county.
Suspect after suspect, on video provided by CHP, were seen being handcuffed and arrested by CHP for multiple felonies.
“And especially as a San Diego region, to look at strategies to go out there and find proactively these individuals that are victimizing our community, that is the whole purpose and goal behind the regional task force,” said National City Police Chief Roxana Kennedy.
Operation Sunrise ran from September through July. It involved identity theft, insurance fraud, gun and narcotic sales and possession, and even suspects allegedly stealing 172 cars worth $3.3 million.
Undercover CHP officers set up an undercover storefront in East County, where they would conduct business with the suspects.
“Through that networking … network of organized crime, they find us and come to us and that’s often where the purchases were done,” Leonard said.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office secured 50 grand jury indictments. So far, multiple police agencies have arrested 31 of the suspects. They range in age from their early 20s to their 50s. They come from across Southern California with a range of backgrounds including some documents gang members, some with felony narcotics trafficking, and even a suspect with an attempted murder conviction, according to Leonard.
“Oftentimes they are working incahoots because one has to drive the stolen vehicle, bring it to us to sell it to us, and another drives off. I don’t believe anyone operated in an individual effort; however, not all of them are one big group,” Leonard said.
Officers said organized auto theft rings are often involved in other major felonies. That is why the officers during the press conference advised everyone to be vigilant but especially lock their car doors to limit their chances of becoming a victim.
“It’s a whole network of people that victimize our community. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s too good to be true,” Kennedy said.
Leonard said during the operation, no one from the public, suspects or officers were injured.
All 172 vehicles have been returned to their owners.
Defendants that have been arrested will be arraigned starting Friday in downtown San Diego.
Police are still looking for the remaining suspects. While they have been in contact with some who have told them, they are in contact with a lawyer to turn themselves in.
If convicted, the suspects face anywhere from 16 to 17 years in prison.