State law enforcement officials have broken up what they said was an international car-theft ring that operated in the Philadelphia region.
Attorney General Linda Kelly and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan announced the arrests and criminal charges against 25 people, including 15 from Philadelphia, Tuesday.
"This was a focused and elaborate operation aimed at primarily high-end luxury cars and SUVs, often snatched from car-dealership lots or service departments in communities around Philadelphia," Kelly said.
The stolen cars were then quickly loaded into shipping containers for delivery on cargo ships bound for West Africa, authorities said.
Noonan said at least 17 stolen vehicles were seized via gunpoint robberies, home burglaries, and carjackings in and around Newark, N.J.
Nine more vehicles were stolen from an Avis car-rental agency near Philadelphia International Airport, Kelly said, with most of the thefts linked to an employee of the business, Darrin Culler, 21, of Newark, Del.
The investigation, "Operation Wheels of Fortune," revealed a network of Philadelphia-based residents who allegedly stole 36 vehicles between March and October 2011.
Kelly said the thieves had a game plan to steal the luxury automobiles.
She said they targeted dealerships in the Philadelphia suburbs and New Jersey, typically visiting them early in the morning after the service department had opened but before sales and other employees arrived.
The idea was to strike when limited service department staff were busy with customers and the thieves could search desks and counters for keys to new cars or customer vehicles, Kelly said.
Noonan said that in most cases neither dealers nor customers knew their keys had been stolen, which let the thieves take the vehicles immediately or return later to drive them off the lot.
The grand jury found that Qadiyr Anderson, 22, of West Philadelphia, and Kyle Beckett, 39, of East Mount Airy, were assisted in the theft of numerous cars by seven codefendants, all from Philadelphia.
Kelly said that once a car was stolen, a middleman or broker was contacted to find potential buyers overseas.
State police said they intercepted and recovered 41 stolen vehicles worth more than $2.3 million.