By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Astra had long been rumored in law enforcement circles to be involved in the stolen-car business, but now Petro and O'Hern had proof. "In this case, Astra's paperwork showed it sold to fictitious people, not LeBron and Reek, so they were basically part of the conspiracy covering up for these car thieves," Petro says. "We figured if they were doing it for these guys, they were doing it for other people as well."
The problem with nailing Astra in the past was that the ring purposely crossed jurisdictions. For instance, they might steal a car on Long Island, dismantle it in Brooklyn, obtain a phony title in Ohio, and sell it in New Jersey. To deal with the jurisdictional roadblocks, a federal, state, and local task force dubbed "Operation VIN City" was born, and Petro and O'Hern were federally deputized. In June 2003, the task force served a search warrant on Astra, seizing the records on about 5,000 cars the company sold over the past five years that turned out to be stolen or reassembled with stolen parts.
Much to their surprise, in some cases Pescatore actually kept both the original records and the doctored paperwork that made the stolen cars appear legitimate. In this case, there was no honor among thieves. "Mike didn't trust his workers," says Petro. "He had to account for every penny that was made fraudulently or legitimately." That didn't mean the thieves who worked for Pescatore weren't skilled at their jobs. One associate nicknamed "Johnny Benz" was so good with a Mercedes that a mechanic told Petro that the stolen cars he reassembled actually ran better than new.
Over the next 15 months, the lead detectives zigzagged across the country, from Minnesota to Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut, and Arkansas, 10 states in all, to bolster their case. They uncovered some ingenious schemes:
Astra bought damaged Toyota Camrys at a salvage auction and had thieves steal identical Camrys, mostly off dealership lots. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) tags were switched from the damaged cars to their identical stolen mates. Such a damaged car might cost them $1,500 at auction. Astra would sell it, claiming it was a lease return or bank repo, for $17,000 or so.
A severely damaged or theft-stripped motor vehicle has to pass an inspection when it's rebuilt. Since the Astra guys were rebuilding these autos using stolen auto parts for which they didn't have invoice numbers, they used an associate from Georgia to bribe a DMV worker there (she used the cash to satiate her addiction to male strippers) to provide titles for these vehicles, classifying them not as rebuilt but used. Rebuilt vehicles routinely fetch 20 percent to 30 percent less than used cars.
Two identical high-end cars would be stolen. The Astra guys would remove both VIN tags, strip one car, sell its stolen parts, and affix the VIN tag from the intact car onto the shell. They would abandon the frame in the street and wait for the sanitation department to recover it and cancel the stolen-car alert. Astra would then buy the frame back at auction and put the VIN tag back on the intact vehicle. "So they'd sell all the parts from the first car and have the other car, untouched with no alert on it," Petro says.
After buying a damaged car, Astra would lift its VIN plates and stickers (the latter are usually on the inside of the driver's door) and, together with the title, sell such "VIN kits" for $1,500 and up, depending on the make of the car, to thieves. The crooks would then steal an identical car, affix the VIN plate and stickers, and be good to go.
The Astra crew did a bustling business in stolen airbags, taking in $10,000 to $15,000 a week in the mid '90s. They'd pay thieves $200 for a set of airbags, then resell them for $1,200.
Astra sold more than 100 cars rebuilt with stolen parts that they illegally titled to a former Bronx neighbor of Edmonston'sit helped that the guy was dead.
Drug dealers would come in and buy flash cars for tens of thousands of dollars in cash, but Astra would supply paperwork showing such sales as below $10,000. Anything over that amount of cash requires the filing of a Currency Transaction Report, which might have led to some government types to ask the drug dealers where their money came from.
photo: US Attorney's Office
Edmonston and others equipped secret compartments known as "traps" into drug dealers' vehicles. But beware of such favors. In at least one instance, they secretly placed a GPS device in the car of a crew of Albanian criminals and tracked them, via computer, as they traveled from Texas to Florida to buy cocaine. The Astra guys then had associates break into the car. The original plan had been to get the money, but instead they hit them after the deal and had to settle for 30 kilos of cocaine, which they then sold.
The investigation seemingly could have stretched on forever, Petro says, and detectives could have gone globalthere was an export angle involving stolen cars being shipped to Iceland and Nigeriabut ultimately the decision was made not to pursue that lead. By then the task force had more than enough to make a case. On September 9, 2004, the hammer came down. Pescatore, Edmonston, and 10 others were named in an 83-count indictment charging operation of a chop shop, mail fraud, conspiracy to traffic stolen motor vehicles and parts, tampering with VINs, and money laundering.