By David Jones
TOTOWA, NJ (Reuters) - A group of 32 men was charged on Thursday with running an international carjacking ring that stole luxury vehicles in New York and New Jersey and shipped them to West Africa for resale, state authorities said.
More than 160 cars, worth more than $8 million, have been recovered, most of them at ports in New York and New Jersey where they were set to be shipped out of the country, New Jersey acting Attorney General John Hoffman announced at a news conference at the Totowa, New Jersey, State Police station.
Prosecutors said the suspects, working in crews, would take vehicles at gunpoint or steal them from suburban neighborhoods using electronic keys or key fobs. For more than a year, they have worked largely in northern New Jersey, they said.
The ring targeted high-end vehicles, especially luxury sports utility vehicles, such as Land Rover, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Honda, Porsche, Jaguar and Aston Martin, they said.
The stolen cars were sold in West Africa at prices well above their new market value in the United States.
The carjackers sometimes would target victims by bumping their vehicles on a highway and, when the victim would pull over, taking the vehicle by force, prosecutors said.
They also would steal vehicles at car washes and at airport terminals where drivers might leave their engines running while they unloaded luggage, they said.
Some cars were stolen from dealerships, they said.
"This ring we took down was a double threat," Hoffman said. "Its members committed carjackings that put the public in grave danger, while at the same time, through their fencing and shipping operations, they created demand that motivated others to commit carjackings."
Authorities said the ring had no known connection to a high-profile local carjacking in December at the Mall at Short Hills, where a 30-year-old attorney was murdered while holiday shopping with his wife. Four men have been charged in that case.
Of those charged on Thursday, 26 men were arrested and warrants were issued for six men who remain fugitives, authorities said.
Most of the suspects live in or near Newark, New Jersey.
Seven were accused of being leaders of the ring and charged with racketeering, money laundering, fencing and other charges.
The racketeering and money laundering charges carry potential prison sentences of 20 years.
Others were charged with carjacking, racketeering or receiving stolen property.
Authorities did not provide any information on attorneys for the accused.
The ring was busted following a 10-month investigation called Operation Jacked, led by the New Jersey State Police and state Division of Criminal Justice with help from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, state police in Massachusetts, Delaware and Connecticut, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service and local county prosecutors and police.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Diane Craft)