NY crime ring swiped, resold 45 cars using key info discovered online during COVID pandemic, AG says

Norberto Pena Brito, 38, Jose Lebron Pimentel, 42, Dariberto Fernandez Perez, 33, and Hector Rivera, 54, were were linked to the so-called “Operation Master Key” that ran from April to October of 2020 – and at times involved reselling the cars in the Dominican Republic, State Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. 
Norberto Pena Brito, 38, Jose Lebron Pimentel, 42, Dariberto Fernandez Perez, 33, and Hector Rivera, 54, were were linked to the so-called "Operation Master Key" that ran from April to October of 2020 - and at times involved reselling the cars in the Dominican Republic, State Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

Tech-savvy crooks stole 45 cars in New York with forged keys and info from illegal websites – then shipped the vehicles as far as the Caribbean for resale, prosecutors said.

Four thieves and five accomplices were sentenced for a large-scale scheme that unfolded in the Big Apple and Westchester County during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, state Attorney General Letitia James said Monday.

All nine of the suspects have since pleaded guilty to the long-running scheme — dubbed “Operation Master Key” — and were sentenced Friday in Bronx Supreme Court by Judge Guy Mitchell, James said in a statement.

Norberto Pena Brito, 38, Jose Lebron Pimentel, 42, Dariberto Fernandez Perez, 33, and Hector Rivera, 54, were linked to the enterprise that ran from April to October of 2020 – and at times involved reselling the cars in the Dominican Republic, James said.

All nine suspects have pleaded guilty in connection to the so-called “Operation Master Key” and two now face up to three years in lock-up. NY AG Office
All nine suspects have pleaded guilty in connection to the so-called “Operation Master Key” and two now face up to three years in lock-up. NY AG Office

They are accused of scoping out cars — primarily targeting Hondas, before obtaining the key-code information through illegal websites and creating keys that allowed them to breach and steal the vehicles, the top prosecutor said.

Once they accessed the cars, they managed to reprogram the vehicles’ computer systems and gain complete control – disabling their alarms and starting the engines, according to James.

They also allegedly managed to reprogram the stolen cars to keep them from recognizing the true owners’ electronic keys.

The technologically complex “Operation Master Key” ran from April to October of 2020 – at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. New York AG Office
The technologically complex “Operation Master Key” ran from April to October of 2020 – at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. New York AG Office

Pena Brito, who was charged with criminal possession of stolen property in the second degree and conspiracy in the fourth degree, faces up to three years in state prison and was ordered to pay nearly $40,000 in restitution, officials said.

Lebron Pimentel, 42, was sentenced to a year behind bars and Fernando Perez could also spend up three years in lock-up, the AG said.

“These individuals took advantage of New Yorkers who stayed at home in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to steal some of their most valuable assets,” James said in a statement. “Now we are bringing them to justice, and I thank my partners in local law enforcement for their coordination and support in taking down this dangerous car theft ring and continuing to protect the safety of all New Yorkers.”

The stolen cars were resold in both the US and the Dominican Republic. New York AG Office
The stolen cars were resold in both the US and the Dominican Republic. New York AG Office

The stolen cars were taken to one of several Bronx lots – where they were essentially made new: the vehicle identification numbers were changed, fake plates and federal certification stickers were added and the legitimate registration stickers were removed, prosecutors said.

Jesus Cabral, 58, was tasked with removing and replacing the windshields, as well as changing the vehicle identification numbers, officials said.

Norberto Pena Brito, 38 and Jose Lebron Pimentel, 42, at times purchased the stolen cars from Carlos Valverde, 36, according to prosecutors.

The suspects also placed forged federal certification stickers on the stolen cars, prosecutors said. New York AG Office
The suspects also placed forged federal certification stickers on the stolen cars, prosecutors said. New York AG Office

Willy Abreu Martinez, 41, and Abdul Khan, 58, purchased the cars in bulk for resale in both the US and in the Dominican Republic, authorities said.

Leticia Saldivar — the owner and operator of Carmela’s Multiservice and Auto Tag in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — allegedly filed fake vehicle documents with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and obtained clean registrations and titles for the stolen cars.

Three of the suspects were ordered to five years of probation. Telemundo
Three of the suspects were ordered to five years of probation. Telemundo

“These sentences are the result of New York law enforcement’s tireless efforts to remove a highly active auto theft ring from the streets of our city,” NYPD Commissioner Edward A. Caban said in a statement. “NYPD detectives, in partnership with our colleagues on the state Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force, vow to continue investigating and dismantling any such criminal operations that target innocent New Yorkers.”

The takedown followed an extensive two-year investigation by the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force and the NYPD’s Auto Crime Division.