Hamilton police have charged four people in connection with what they say was an auto theft ring that operated out of the city for a number of years with the intent of exporting high-end vehicles overseas.
Detectives say they began the Project Seagull probe in August, tracking a Hamilton man they believe was involved in the theft of 39 vehicles — including Audis, Mercedes, Land Rovers and Infinity vehicles — worth over $1.6 million.
On Thursday, police say they raided six Hamilton auto sales businesses — three in Central Hamilton and three in the east end — as well as three residences connected to the alleged crime ring. According to police, stolen vehicles were seized, along with numerous vehicle parts, cash, gold jewellery, car key fobs and stolen Mexican passports, among other items.
Police say a quanset hut at 401 Parkdale Ave. N. appeared to be the hub of the operation where 12 of the stolen vehicles were found.
Rental car agencies at two leased hangers were also targets of a police search, according to Det. Sgt. Andrea Torrie, who said the alleged thieves targeted “fully loaded” pickup trucks and would steal them in one of two ways.
“First, they would use fraudulent documentation to rent the vehicles and they just would never return,” said Torrie. “Second, we were finding as they were renting the vehicles, they were cloning the keys and returning to the vehicle and then they were going back and stealing with the cloned keys.”
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Investigators say prior to the raids, seven other vehicles had been recovered during the four-month investigation believed to be bound for Iraq where the four allegedly had connections to a network.
At the centre of the operation was Yehia Al-Jbouri, 50, who faces 53 charges related to the auto thefts including 28 counts of possession of property obtained by crime.
Three other associates — men aged 45 and 46 as well as a 46-year-old woman who was living with Al-Jbouri — are also facing a mix of charges ranging from fraud, property obtained crime and knowingly participating in activities of a criminal organization,
All four of the accused have been released and are expected in court in January.
Torrie says the investigation is ongoing and is asking anyone with information to reach out to police at 905-546-2991 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or online.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates auto thefts cost Canadians close to $1 billion yearly, including $542 million for insurers to fix or replace stolen vehicles. In 2018, the agency says southern Ontario alone saw 9,500 thefts and $162.5 million in industry payouts.