As a UPS truck driver delivered boxes of new cell phones to a T-Mobile store in Vacaville, California this year, the unexpected happened.
An SUV pulled up and two men jumped out, ran over to the driver, and grabbed the boxes of new phones, shoving them into their car before pulling away.
Little did they know, undercover agents for the Fremont Police Department were filming the whole ordeal.
Watch the robbery unfold below.
Using evidence like the video filmed in Vacaville, and surveillance video of undercover purchases, police brought down an alleged crime ring that trafficked in stolen cell phones at three locations in the Bay Area and El Cajon.
The lengthy investigation ended in late October with the arrest of four suspects, including an Afghani national who detectives say directed the alleged criminal enterprise from a nondescript storefront in El Cajon.
“Between Northern and Southern California, we had 120 officers involved in this operation,” said Detective Rick Zemlok of the Fremont Police Department.
Court documents and undercover video obtained by NBC 7 Investigates and NBC Bay Area reveal details about the alleged theft ring.
One group of suspects allegedly used inside information to track shipments of new cell phones from warehouses to retail stores. Detectives said those suspects overpowered the delivery drivers, stealing boxes of high-end phones which they then sold at storefronts in Hayward and San Francisco.
Stolen phones were also allegedly purchased by owners of MJ Wireless on Jamacha Road in El Cajon.
The buyers of the stolen phones allegedly resold the merchandise to wealthy clients in foreign countries.
“Most were going to the United Arab Emirates, in the Dubai area,” Detective Zemlok explained. “We saw a lot of them go to Mexico, along with Iran and Russia.”
Zemok said the stolen phones have little or no value in the U.S. because when reported stolen, the phones are put on a “blacklist” and cannot be activated for use.
But cell phone companies outside the U.S. do not have access to the “blacklist” and will activate the phones, bringing top dollar in foreign countries.
As an example, Detective Zemlok said the owners of the storefronts paid up to $1,030 for a stolen iPhone 11 Pro Max, which they could sell abroad for much more.
The buyers maintained a Google document that listed the current prices they’d pay for black market cell phones and other electronics, Zemlok said.
“It was almost like the stock market,” Zemlok explained. “Prices fluctuated weekly, and we did undercover operations [with cooperation from cell phone providers] where we sold multiple, multiple phones for $20,000.”
Zemlok said one of the storefronts paid up to $50,000 a day for stolen merchandise.
According to court documents, detectives tracked two suspects in the Bay Area as they loaded their vehicle with “5 large boxes which they had trouble carrying due to their suspected weight.”
The undercover detectives followed the suspects to El Cajon and into Mexico, where they witnessed them “...conduct illegal transaction(s) dealing with stolen property.”
Fremont Police detectives also conducted surveillance at the MJ Wireless store in El Cajon where “persons were seen entering the store with Apple desktops and Apple iPhones. We observed these persons leave the store with cash and believe these items were either stolen or fraudulently purchased.”
Detectives from the Bay Area -- with help from San Diego County Sheriff’s Department deputies -- raided the El Cajon storefront Oct 25. They then drove to the nearby home of Muhibullah Nurisanti, the alleged mastermind of the cell phone theft ring. With cover provided by a law enforcement helicopter, officers searched the property on Vista del Valle, where Nuristani’s brother, Mujibullah, also lives.
“There were cars up and down the driveway, and a SWAT team,” recalled Nancy Sams, who lives next door to the Nuristanis’ property. “I was very surprised.”
The two men were arrested and charged with receiving stolen property, a felony. Police arrested two other suspects in the Bay Area. All four men pleaded not guilty.
Muhibullah Nuristani declined to comment on the charges. His attorney, Nabiel Ahmed, also declined comment, saying he has not yet seen the evidence against his client.
Mujibullah Nuristani could not be reached for comment, and his attorney, Elliot Silver also declined to discuss the allegations until he can review the evidence against his client. But Silver noted that Mujibullah Nuristani is a “business owner and war veteran who assisted the U.S. Marine for two years in the Afghan war as a cultural advisor and interpreter.”
His brother, Muhibullah, also confirmed he worked for two years as an interpreter and aide for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in his native Afghanistan.