TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor announced today that a Florida man has been sentenced to eight years in prison for his leadership role in an auto-theft network that targeted people selling their vehicles on Craigslist. Sixteen others were previously sentenced in the scheme, including the top leader of the network, who received a 10-year prison term earlier this year.
Justinas Vaitoska, 39, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, also must pay $97,000 in restitution under a sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge Benjamin Bucca in Middlesex County on Friday.
Vaitoska is one of two men who pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception in connection with an auto theft network brought down by a multi-jurisdictional investigation dubbed “Operation Title Flip.”
The top leader of the ring, Luther Lewis, 40, of Piscataway, also pleaded guilty to second-degree leader of a criminal network. In addition to a 10-year prison sentence, Lewis was ordered to pay $104,774 in restitution when he was sentenced by Judge Bucca in January.
Vaitoska and Lewis led a criminal enterprise responsible for the theft of ten vehicles, valued in total at $248,650, in New Jersey and Florida between May and November of 2015. The vehicles, which included a BMW X5, a Mercedes Benz E-350, and a Jeep Grand Cherokee, were sold to dealerships for about a $107,250 profit.
“As the masterminds of this far-reaching auto-theft network, Vaitoska and Lewis earned every minute of the lengthy criminal sentences they received,” said Attorney General Grewal. “By dismantling their criminal enterprise and putting them behind bars, we’re sending a clear message of deterrence to other criminal operators thinking about making New Jersey a home base for their illegal schemes.”
Lewis and Vaitoska used intermediaries to pose as buyers interested in vehicles advertised for sale on Craigslist in New Jersey and Florida. After arranging to see the cars, the intermediaries “purchased” them by presenting the unsuspecting sellers with fake and/or stolen identification and a counterfeit Bank of America cashier’s check. The sellers, in turn, handed over the vehicles’ keys and title to the intermediaries.
The “buyers” typically arranged to purchase the vehicles in the late afternoon so that the private seller could not bring the checks to the bank that day. In the days after the "sale," the private sellers attempted to deposit the checks and discovered they were counterfeit, prosecutors said. The bogus sales could not be traced to the intermediaries because they had used fake identification.
Meanwhile, before the private sellers could discover the check was counterfeit, other intermediaries would take the vehicle titles to the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission office to transfer the title into their names.
After successfully flipping the title into the new names, the intermediaries would sell the vehicle to a car dealership for cash. After the transactions were complete, Lewis would pick up the intermediaries, take the sale proceeds, and pay the intermediaries for their role in the scheme, prosecutors said. Intermediaries were paid between $300 and $1,000 each.
“Vaitoska and Lewis ran a well-orchestrated criminal scheme that used precision timing and teamwork to stay one step ahead of their victims,” said Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Tracy M. Thompson. “Unfortunately for the defendants, the numerous law enforcement agencies involved in the Operation Title Flip investigation worked just as collaboratively to bring down their illegal enterprise and hold them accountable for the crimes they committed.”
At his sentencing on Friday, Vaitoska also was sentenced in an unrelated check cashing fraud conspiracy. The three-year sentence on third-degree charges of theft by deception and bad checks will run concurrent to his eight-year sentence in Operation Title Flip.
The following defendants also pleaded guilty in connection with Operation Title Flip and have been sentenced to probation:
Tyisha Brantley of Scotch Plains, who pleaded guilty to fourth-degree theft by deception. Brantley was also sentenced to probation on a charge of third-degree tampering with records in an unrelated separate scheme to steal $241,000 from an online lending company.
Milagros Jimenez of Haines City, Florida, who pleaded guilty to second-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception.
Stephen Hester of Orange, who pleaded guilty to fourth- degree falsification of records.
Nikisha Goodman of Avenel, who pleaded guilty to fourth-degree falsification of records.
Deborah Rodgers of Carteret, who pleaded guilty to third-degree conspiracy to commit theft by deception.
Nakita Savage of Newark, who pleaded guilty to third-degree theft by deception.
Tassan Howard of Newark, who pleaded guilty to fourth-degree falsifying records.
Javairia Jihad of East Orange, who pleaded guilty to fraud relating to public records and recordable instruments, a disorderly persons offense.
Six other defendants were admitted into the Pre-Trial Intervention program in connection with Operation Title Flip and a sixth was sentenced to fines.
Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Menjivar represented the State at sentencing. Division of Criminal Justice Detective Sergeant Jarek Pyrzanowski and Detective Matthew Armstrong, along with Detective Ryan Kirsh of the Union County Prosecutors Office, coordinated the investigation with assistance from Civil Investigator Gregory Nolan and Administrative Analyst Terry Worthington.
Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Thompson thanked Det. Matthew Damatta of the Linden Police Department, Special Agent Lou Stanicki of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Investigator Danny Balance of the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Commission, Det. Gordon Gillen of the Wharton Police Department, Det. David Scalabrini of the Point Pleasant Boro Police Department, Det. David Keegan of the South Amboy Police Department, Det. Matthew Kurtz of the Sayreville Police Department, Det. Frank Varga of Edison Police Department, Det. Vin Auteri of the Lyndhurst Police Department, Det. Pat Cooper of the West Caldwell Police Department, Det. Thomas DiMichele of the Toms River Police Department, Det. Mitch Platt of the Woodbridge Police Department, Det. Andy Kondracki of Woodbridge Police Department, Chris Vastine of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Det. Gabe Aquino of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Det. Mike Goldsworthy of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and Det. Erin Gianotti of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for assisting in this investigation.
Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Thompson noted that some important cases have started with anonymous tips. People who are concerned about insurance cheating and have information about a fraud can report it anonymously by calling the toll-free hotline at 1-877-55-FRAUD, or visiting the Web site at www.NJInsurancefraud.org. State regulations permit a reward to be paid to an eligible person who provides information that leads to an arrest, prosecution and conviction for insurance fraud.
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