More than 200 stolen cars have been recovered and 28 people have been charged, including an unknown number of Service Ontario employees, in connection with the dismantling of three car theft-based criminal organizations that operated out of Ontario and of Saskatchewan, according to police.
According to the Ontario Provincial Police, a 22-month investigation, called Project MYRA, began in September 2021 after police uncovered a car theft ring that they believe was altering identification numbers (VINs) stolen vehicles in order to sell them.
According to the police, the thefts took place mainly in Ontario.
As a result of the investigation, police say they have recovered 215 vehicles which they say are worth more than $12 million. According to investigators, about 37% of the vehicles recovered were Acuras or Hondas.
“A wide range of stolen vehicles have been recovered, including high-end vehicles,” OPP Deputy Commissioner Chuck Cox told reporters at a news conference Thursday. “Some vehicles recovered by the investigation team have been linked to other criminal activity.”
In total, police said 28 people had been charged, including Service Ontario employees.
Police allege that Service Ontario employees participated in the “illegitimate registration of stolen vehicles”. Officials did not specify the number of employees involved.
Of those charged, 26 are from Ontario, while two are from Saskatchewan.
The ages of the suspects range from 27 to 59 and they are primarily residents of the Greater Toronto Area, but some of the accused were also from Stoney Creek, Kitchener, Caledon, Bradford and Gravenhurst.
In total, just over 240 charges were laid. Offenses vary and include using a false document, trafficking in property obtained by crime, fraud over $5,000, possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose and breach of trust.
Police said they executed a total of 44 search warrants throughout the investigation, resulting in the seizure of six firearms, 230 grams of suspected fentanyl, 1,840 grams of suspected cocaine, 77 kilograms of cannabis, 150 grams of suspected cannabis resin and 10 grams of suspected psilocybin.
Investigators said they also seized $160,000 in cash as well as $8,400 in US currency. Two money counters and two laser marking machines were also found.
“This investigation did not focus on petty vehicle theft. The defendants used these fraudulently registered vehicles to participate in criminal activities,” Det. Insp. said Andy Bradford.
The Ontario Provincial Police said the joint investigation resulted in the dismantling of three criminal organizations believed to be involved in the fraudulent modification and sale of stolen vehicles.
The first was based in Peel Region and was responsible for altering the VINs of stolen vehicles in Ontario and then reselling them, police said.
The second was based in Durham Region and Toronto, police said. This ring is accused of fraudulently registering stolen vehicles in Saskatchewan, transferring fraudulent vehicle documents to Ontario, registering the vehicles and reselling them to various people. According to the police, these vehicles were also sold to other criminal networks.
The remaining organization was based in York Region and primarily dealt with high-end stolen vehicles, police said.
“By altering the VINs of these vehicles, these criminal organizations were able to fraudulently register the vehicles and take advantage of consumers who may have unknowingly purchased a stolen vehicle,” Cox said. “The people of Ontario deserve peace of mind when it comes to making a purchase as important as a vehicle.
“We want to take this opportunity to remind everyone to be extremely careful when buying a used vehicle. If any part of the transaction or anything leading up to the transaction appears suspicious, do not provide funds and contact law enforcement.
Five of the defendants are still in custody while the other 23 suspects are due in court in July and August.
HUNDREDS OF OTHER STOLEN VEHICLES RECOVERED IN PEEL
Ontario police forces have warned they have been seeing an increase in vehicle thefts in recent months. Along with a series of violent carjackings, vehicle owners also saw their property pulled from their driveways in the middle of the night.
In January of this year, about two dozen people were charged with 300 combined offenses in connection with a “prolific auto theft ring” in the Greater Toronto Area. And in April, CTV News Toronto tracked a stolen vehicle from Ontario overseas to a suburb of Lagos in Africa.
“Right now we’re seeing hundreds of stolen vehicles every month, which is significantly higher than previous months,” Peel Regional Police Deputy Chief Nick Milinovich said. “This is a problem and a concern that extends outside of our jurisdiction and our province.”
Milinovich said while around 200 vehicles have been recovered through Project MYRA, in Peel, that number is closer to 1,000 to date. In total, the vehicles are worth around $42 million.