It started with a phone call from a bank.
The bank was the lien holder of a high-end vehicle that was purchased with fraudulent information.
Believing they may be the victim of fraud, the bank contacted the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force (OCATT).
The 15-member task force involves the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and multiple other agencies who collaborate to take down sophisticated, large-scale auto theft rings.
“Our mission is to investigate and apprehend the professional auto thief,” said CHP investigator Dave Navarro, a member of OCATT for four-plus years. “It’s a challenge and a typical cat-and-mouse game.”
Based on the bank’s suspicions, OCATT began an investigation into the fraudulently purchased vehicle. The investigation started with one vehicle, and then turned into two, then three, then four, and so on, said Navarro, the lead investigator on the case.
“I believe we stopped at 30 vehicles,” he said.
Thirty-one to be exact.
Dubbed “Down to the Wire,” the investigation began in September 2014 and was highlighted in August by the recovery of 29 vehicles, valued at more than $1 million, and the arrest of five suspects. On Sept. 20, 2018, a sixth “Down to the Wire” suspect was arrested by OCATT detectives and investigators.
Due to the various locations of the crimes committed throughout the southland, the investigation was presented to the State Attorney General’s Office for filing and grand jury indictments were issued for the 13 suspects identified during the investigation.
“The suspects involved in auto fraud do not steal just one vehicle,” Navarro said. “They are stealing multiple vehicles and multiple people are involved. The suspects will use fraudulent techniques to steal as many vehicles as they can.”
Seven additional suspects remain at large and the investigation is very much ongoing.
“I’m sure they know we’re looking for them,” said OCSD Sgt. Rich Koenig, one of two supervisors on the task force.
The OCSD has two investigators and a supervisor assigned to the OCATT and has had at least one investigator assigned to the task force since it was formed in 1993.
One lieutenant, two sergeants, 11 investigators, a full-time deputy district attorney, a crime analyst, an accountant/auditor, and an attorney clerk comprise the OCATT, which serves more than 30 Orange County cities.
Sgt. Koenig is the first former OCSD investigator to return as a supervisor with the OCATT.
In the “Down to the Wire” investigation, after the suspects took possession of the vehicles from the dealerships, they would submit fraudulent paperwork to the DMV, removing the legal owner/bank from the vehicles’ titles, Navarro said.
“After the legal owner is removed, a new title would be generated into another suspect’s name,” Navarro said. “As soon as the suspects obtain the new title, they would obtain title loans, and/or sell the vehicle to a dealership or innocent party for profit. This scam is referred to as Title Washing.”
In 2017, OCATT initiated 373 investigations, assisted outside agencies with 491 investigations, and recovered 320 stolen vehicles valued in excess of $4.2 million.
Since its inception in 1993, OCATT has recovered 6,202 stolen vehicles valued at approximately $97 million and has arrested 1,412 suspects.
The task force also has inspected thousands of vehicles, several hundred businesses, and has contributed to a 55-percent overall decrease in auto theft in Orange County since its establishment.
“When working fraud investigations, like Title Washing, you are not dealing with common-street criminals,” Navarro said. “Instead, you are dealing with the organized and sophisticated criminal. On several occasions, the suspects involved in auto fraud believe they are smarter than you. As a result of these investigations, key players are being removed from the streets.”
In addition to the OCSD and CHP, agencies that make up the task force include the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, National Insurance Crime Bureau, DMV-Investigations Unit, as well as the Brea, Buena Park, Fullerton, and Tustin Police Departments.
This collaboration brings 282 years of law enforcement experience collectively and 107 years of combined investigative experience, said CHP Lt. Gil Campa, the OCATT Commander.
Investigators average about 20 years of law enforcement experience and seven years of investigative experience each, Campa said.
“Right now, it’s a different time,” Campa said. “It’s a lot more advanced. There is a lot more learning and adapting involved in order to stay current with the trends.”
Criminals try to stay one up on law enforcement and constantly change their tactics and become more sophisticated, Navarro said.
“They mimic a fraud purchase to look exactly like a legitimate purpose,” Navarro said. “That is one of the hurdles we’ve got to cross over. Fraud is always changing. As you are working it, you are teaching as well as learning.”
Through the course of an investigation, OCATT sometimes uncovers other crimes such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and even homicide, Navarro said.
OCATT doesn’t just take on the large-scale investigations. The task force will handle smaller auto theft operations as well.
“The advantage of a task force is it makes jurisdictional issues easier,” Koenig said. “Everybody has experience and specializes in something unique.”
OCATT’s collaborative approach allows law enforcement to assist in investigations with allied jurisdictions and recover multiple vehicles apart from their internal investigations.
Investigators work diligently to identify career auto theft criminals and investigate suspicious businesses by searching for “chop shop” activity.
OCATT investigates sophisticated auto theft rings that are not related to common car thefts. The task force documents various trends of auto theft including Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) switches, Title Washing, and rental car fraud, trains local law enforcement to identify these trends, and uses digital media to create public awareness and communicate tips to the public preventing auto theft.
Questions regarding the “Down to the Wire” investigation may be directed to OCATT Investigator Dave Navarro at (714) 532-9645.
Members of OCATT are:
– Brea Police Department
– Buena Park Police Department
– California Department of Motor Vehicles
– California Highway Patrol
– Fullerton Police Department
– National Insurance Crime Bureau
– Orange County District Attorney’s Office
– Orange County Sheriff’s Department
– Tustin Police Department
The task force is coordinated through the Orange County District Attorney’s office.