Suspects are arrested in 152 auto thefts
By RON MATUS
TAMPA -- For more than four years they targeted older-model General Motors vehicles.
Many they sold intact to uninformed farm workers. Many others they sold for parts to people who knew they were getting too good a deal.
But not anymore.
After one of the alleged ringleaders was arrested in a stolen car in January, a thriving Hillsborough County car-theft operation began to unravel, authorities say.
On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office announced it had broken up the ring, which it said stole at least 150 cars in five area counties since late 1997.
"Very prolific" is how Chief Deputy David Gee described it Wednesday.
Gee said 25 of 30 individuals suspected of being involved have been arrested -- 11 of them on Wednesday.
Many of them live in south Hillsborough County. Many knew others in the operation. Most face charges of grand theft auto and dealing in stolen property.
Two men Gee singled out as "main players" -- Joel Alvarez, 17, and Juan Herrera Sr., 49, of Riverview -- also were charged with racketeering.
Investigators said 117 of 152 confirmed stolen vehicles were snagged in Hillsborough County. Others were stolen in Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Hardee counties.
Gee said the total number of cars stolen by the ring is "considerably more" than 150, but an accurate count may never be known.
Investigators said Alvarez's arrest in January was the break they needed.
Alvarez gave the Sheriff's Office enough information to determine how big the ring was, Detective Albert Selke said. "He cooperated quite a bit," Selke said.
Four chop shops were discovered and shut down during the six-month investigation. Investigators are still trying to determine where many of the parts went.
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