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New Jersey Residents Charged With Masterminding a Stolen Auto Ring That Targeted Cars Sold on Craigslist

TRENTON – Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor (OIFP) announced that two New Jersey residents and a Florida man were charged late yesterday as ringleaders of an auto-theft network that preyed on people selling their vehicles on Craigslist.

In an indictment handed up by a state grand jury in Mercer County today, Luther Lewis, 38, of Piscataway, Tyisha Brantley, 36, of Scotch Plains, and Justinas Vaitoska, 39, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida were indicted on charges of first-degree promotion of organized street crime and second-degree charges leader of an auto theft network, and other offenses in connection with the car theft network.

Thirteen others were indicted for their alleged roles in the criminal scheme that was the brought down by a multi-jurisdictional investigation dubbed “Operation Title Flip.” The case involves the theft of ten vehicles, valued at $248,650, between May and November of 2015. The cars were sold to dealerships for a $107,250 profit.

According to prosecutors, Lewis, Vaitoska, and Brantley enlisted the aid of intermediaries to use fake bank checks to “purchase” cars from private sellers then sell them to various car dealerships in New Jersey.

“These alleged con artists trolled the Internet in a quest for cars they could steal through their fraudulent scheme,” said Attorney General Porrino. “We will not let their predatory conduct go unpunished.”

“Car thefts drive up insurance claims, which lead to higher premiums for everyone,” said Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Christopher Iu. “By breaking up this alleged crime ring we are protecting honest citizens from having to pay the price for the misdeeds of others.”

Lewis, Brantley, and Vaitoska were also indicted on charges of second-degree conspiracy and theft by deception. Also indicted on those charges were:

  • Milagros Jimenez, 54, of Haines City, Florida
  • Heather Cater, 20, of Woodbridge
  • Saint Hardy, 32, of Elizabeth
  • Deborah Rodgers, 32, of Carteret

Lewis, Brantley, Jimenez and Rodgers were also charged with second-degree impersonation. Lewis, Brantley and Jimenez were charged with third-degree attempted theft by deception.

Under the direction of Lewis, Brantley, and Vaitoska, intermediaries posed as buyers interested in vehicles advertised for sale on Craigslist. 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.

The alleged intermediaries were indicted today a charge of fourth-degree falsifying records. They are:

  • Nikisha Goodman, 20, of Avenel
  • Stephen Hester, 48, of Orange
  • Chester Kinder, 62, of Newark
  • Tassan Howard, 32, of Newark
  • Kamilla Bunn, 20, of Elizabeth
  • Tanika Arrington, 30, of Newark
  • Javairia Jihad, 29, of East Orange
  • Yvonne McBride,38, of Newark
  • Marixa Medina, 31, of Newark

Another alleged intermediary, Nakita Savage, 28, of Newark, was previously indicted on charges of third-degree conspiracy, receiving stolen property, and fencing by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.

The indictment is merely an accusation and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. First-crimes carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison and a fine of up to $500,000; second-degree crimes carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $150,000; third-degree crimes carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $15,000, fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Deputy Attorney General Colin J. Keiffer presented the case to the grand jury. 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 Analysts Gregory Nolan and Terry Worthington.

 Joshua Altman, Esq., of Benedict & Altman, is representing Lewis in this matter. No attorney information is available for the other defendants.

Acting Insurance Fraud Prosecutor Iu thanked Det. Matt 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 Iu 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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