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05/03/2012

Conspirator in international car theft ring pleads guilty

Conspirators shipped stolen cars from the United States to countries in West Africa for resale

BALTIMORE — A Washington, D.C., man pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen motor vehicles, following an investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Kevin Demetri Britton, 19, of Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty. According to his plea agreement, between 2010 and April 2011, Britton was an active participant in a conspiracy to ship stolen cars from the United States to countries in West Africa for resale. Members of the conspiracy in the United States hired others to steal late model vehicles – with the keys – so that the vehicles could be more easily sold. The vehicles were stolen as follows:

  • The conspirators broke into car dealerships, stole the keys to new cars, and drove the cars off the lot;
  • The conspirators paid employees of dealerships to leave keys to vehicles in the vehicles or in an otherwise accessible area, and the cars were driven off the lots when the dealership was closed;
  • Vehicles were stolen from victims who walked away from their vehicle, leaving their keys inside the vehicle;
  • The conspirators paid others to rent vehicles from rental agencies, file false reports with the police claiming the vehicle had been stolen, and to turn the vehicle over to the members of the conspiracy; and
  • Individuals were robbed of their vehicles at gunpoint by assailants who were stealing the vehicles for members of the conspiracy.

Members of the conspiracy purchased the stolen vehicles from the thieves or an intermediary, and then stored the vehicles at a parking lot or other location, known as "cooling spots." Often, members of the conspiracy hired others to find and remove G.P.S. devices from the vehicles to avoid detection by law enforcement. After three or four vehicles were accumulated, the vehicles would be towed or driven to a location to be loaded into a shipping container. Thereafter, a tractor trailer would transport the container to a port for export. Additionally, members of the conspiracy hired international shipping companies to arrange for the containers to be shipped overseas. In order to ship vehicles overseas, shipping companies are required to have valid titles for the vehicles. As part of the scheme, members of the conspiracy used fraudulent title information in an effort to conceal that the cars they sought to ship had been stolen.

The containers were transported to various ports, including the Port of Newark, N.J.; the Port of Baltimore and the Port of Norfolk, Va. The containers were then shipped, or intended to be shipped, to destinations in West Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana.

Britton's role in the scheme varied. He acted as an intermediary between the car thieves/carjackers. In the fall of 2010, Britton met Solomon Asare, 36, formerly of Laurel, Md., and learned that Asare would give him cash for late model stolen cars. Britton also learned that Asare shipped the stolen cars to Africa for resale. From the fall of 2010 through April 2011, Britton obtained at least nine stolen cars and sold them to Asare, or someone acting on Asare's behalf.

For example, on March 17, 2011, members of the conspiracy carjacked a silver 2009 Toyota Camry from a victim in Landover, Md. Later that evening, Britton delivered the car to Gabriel Awuzie, 35, of Adelphi, Md. and Solomon Asare. Asare paid Britton for the stolen car. On March 31, 2011, Asare and Awuzie caused the car to be delivered to the shipping company, then entered the vehicle, removed items and wrote down the vehicle identification number.

At all times during his involvement in the scheme, Britton knew that the vehicles he provided were stolen, and he knew that the vehicles were being shipped across state and national borders. The loss associated with vehicles that Britton personally participated in the shipment of was more than $120,000.

Awuzie and Asare previously pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme. According to his plea agreement, Awuzie drove stolen vehicles within Maryland and across state lines to ports for international shipment, assisted in the storing and "hanging" of stolen cars into shipping containers, purchased stolen vehicles from the car thieves or intermediaries, hired individuals to steal cars, and arranged for the theft and international shipment of vehicles. Awuzie sometimes assisted others in the scheme, and at other times Awuzie orchestrated the transaction from its inception to its end.

Asare admitted that he took orders from "buyers" in Africa, purchasing the stolen vehicles from intermediaries, arranging to "cool" the vehicles, load the vehicles into containers and ship the containers to the buyers in Africa. Asare paid the participants along the way, including the intermediaries, drivers of the stolen vehicles, tow truck drivers, tractor-trailer drivers and shipping companies. All payments were in cash.

On April 6 and April 7, 2011, Awuzie, Asare and other conspirators loaded three of the stolen vehicles sold to them by Britton, as well as a fourth stolen vehicle, into a shipping container at a shipping company in Beltsville, Md. A few days later, Awuzie and Asare caused the shipping container to be transported to Elkridge, Md., and to another location in Maryland, en route to Lagos, Nigeria, via the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal in New Jersey. On April 13, 2011, law enforcement stopped the tractor trailer transporting the shipping container in Baltimore. The container was searched and the four stolen vehicles were discovered.

Additionally, in 2011, Asare applied for a U.S. passport in the name of another individual containing the personal information of that individual and bearing a photograph of Asare. Asare paid the individual to assist in filing the false passport application.

Britton and Asare both face a maximum penalty of five years in prison for the conspiracy and Asare also faces a mandatory minimum of two years in prison for aggravated identity theft consecutive to any other sentence. U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar has scheduled sentencing for Asare July 17 at 1:00 p.m. and for Britton Aug. 28 at 10:00 a.m.

On April 5, Judge Bredar sentenced Gabriel Awuzie to 30 months in prison and ordered Awuzie to pay restitution in the amount of $120,000 for his role in the conspiracy.

The investigation was conducted by HSI Baltimore, Baltimore County Police Department, Montgomery County Police Department, Maryland State Police and Prince George's County Police Department.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Budlow.