More than 100 vehicles were stolen from San Diego County residents by the members of a motorcycle gang and shipped off to Tijuana, federal officials announced Tuesday.
Nine members of a Tijuana-based motorcycle gang, known as the Hooligan Bikers, were charged in the auto theft ring dating back to 2014, announced the U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson.
“The joy ride is over for these Hooligans,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Conover, in a statement. "For many of us, our cars are our most valuable possessions. These arrests have put the brakes on an organization that has victimized neighborhoods in a different way – by stealing something very personal. Something that required a lot of sacrifice to purchase."
Three out of the nine suspects were arrested Monday in Spring Valley and near the U.S.-Mexico border, and six suspects remain at large, said Robinson.
The Hooligans gang was involved in a sophisticated scheme to steal scores of Jeep Wranglers and motorcycles. After stealing more than 150 jeeps worth $4.5 million in San Diego County, they would strip down the vehicles and sell the parts in Tijuana, according to Robinson
Six of the suspects facing charges may have fled to Mexico, said Robinson. Out of the nine gang members, seven were identified as U.S. citizens.
As part of the scheme, the group would target Jeeps by obtaining the Vehicle Identification Number in advance from the dashboard and then managed to get secret codes.
Then, they would use those codes to create a duplication ignition key through a complicated process that involved programming a computer chip within the key to match the targeted Jeep's onboard computer and using hand held electronic devices, according to the California Highway Patrol Investigator Kraig Palmer.
That allowed the thefts to be carried out without any broken glass or signs of forced entry. With high-tech methods, the gang would disable security systems and steal the Jeeps within minutes in the middle of the night, while unsuspecting owners were sleeping nearby in their homes.
"This was a method so new and technologically advanced it required investigators to exceed the ingenuity of the thieves," said the U.S. Attorney's office, in a statement.
At first, agents from the Regional Auto Theft Task Force (RATT) were perplexed with the thefts that left little evidence behind.
It was a breakthrough moment for the investigation when one Jeep owner caught the men on surveillance footage, stealing her Jeep around 2:30 a.m. by disabling the alarm, and then using a key and hand held electronic device to turn on the engine.
Law enforcement was able to send Chrysler a list of around 20 Jeeps that were recently stolen in San Diego County and ask whether anyone had requested duplicate keys for the vehicles, according to the U.S. Attorney.
This proved to be the case, and nearly every one of the keys was requested at the same dealership in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Through further investigation, agents were able to intercept later attempted Jeep thefts and make several arrests. Once in custody, the suspects revealed that the gang was behind the operation.