There were no sexed-up models or thumping music, but a Southern California customs building looked a lot more like a car show than an evidence warehouse Tuesday.
Instead of the usual bags of meth, caches of guns or knockoff Gucci purses, customs officials showed off Ferraris, Mercedes and Audis after intercepting 16 of the stolen luxury vehicles as they were bound for Asia from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Most of the vehicles were seized after they had already left the docks labeled as used exercise equipment, authorities said.
The vehicles, along with four more seized after they'd reached Vietnam, were worth an estimated total of $1.5 million, said Carlos Martel, director of field operations in Los Angeles for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
They include BMW and Mercedes SUVs, an Audi Quattro and a black, 2010 Ferrari 458 Italia valued at $280,000.
The ring of thieves might have gotten away with it had they not gotten greedy and gone for the Ferrari.
They had used fake identities to either lease or agree to buy the new vehicles in the Los Angeles area, defrauding dealers, lenders and insurance companies in the process, Martel said.
The Ferrari dealer used a GPS installed in the elite car to track it to an area near the ports, and tipped off customs agents in February, Martel said.
The tip led to an investigation of the ring by CBP and the California Highway Patrol, and the seizure of a few vehicles.
Then last week, a suspicious ship was ordered to return to the port shortly after departure.
"They were all the way out to sea, on their way to Hong Kong and Vietnam," Martel said.
Inside containers that had been declared on the manifest as "used exercise equipment" they found a dozen vehicles.
Other than the Ferrari, the Audi and a Toyota Tundra pickup, most of the seizures were of luxury SUVs including several from the BMW 5 series, along with others made by Lexus, Mercedes and Infiniti.
As pricey as the vehicles are, they would have pulled in far more in Vietnam and Hong Kong.
"They're worth anywhere from two to three times the value of what they're worth in the United States," Martel said.
U.S. customs is working with officials in Vietnam to return the four vehicles that made it there, Martel said.
The investigation remains in its early stages and no one has been arrested, Martel said. He would not comment on when arrests may occur, or on the size or reach of the operation.
Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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