23 charged as part of widespread sting involving 138 stolen vehicles from Windsor, Ont., area
Accused in thefts involving vehicles later sold abroad also come from London, Toronto area
Twenty-three people from Ontario face 279 charges after a widespread investigation into a large string of auto thefts related to a "sophisticated crime group."
Windsor police, Ontario Provincial Police and other law enforcement agencies made the announcement in Windsor on Thursday. Investigators say the cases involve 138 stolen vehicles and more than $500,000 in illicit drugs.
Border services, police from London and the Regional Municipality of Peel, and the anti-fraud firm Équité Association were involved in the effort, dubbed Project Fairfield.
Police said the luxury vehicles, newer model pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles were stolen from the Windsor area.
The culprits modified the vehicle identification numbers, known as "re-vinning," police said. The vehicles were exported to countries including Kuwait, Lebanon, Colombia and the Congo, and sold through private sales.
The investigation saw a breakthrough when police stopped a known "re-vinned" vehicle on Highway 401 near Kingston. Police said the stop resulted in the seizure of drugs, including 14,914 synthetic opioid tablets.
"Project Fairfield has demonstrated that a collaborative approach is required to bring sophisticated criminal groups to justice," said Marty Kearns, OPP deputy commissioner.
'The gravity of the problem right now'
Investigators said they also seized more than 1,000 methamphetamine tablets, about 2.2 kilos of cannabis, about half a kilo of cannabis concentrate, 320 grams of cocaine, $144,635 in Canadian money and $26,698 in U.S. currency.
David Adams, president of Global Automakers of Canada, said these situations aren't unique.
"It's a testament to the gravity of the problem right now."
Adams said organized criminals see this method of theft and resale as "a low-risk, high-reward proposition." And southern Ontario and Quebec offers easy access to the Port of Montreal.
"Manufacturers can try and build the most robust vehicles that they can," he said. "But the thieves are always just one step behind — and in some cases, further ahead."
Canada has an auto theft problem
This sort of theft is a larger problem in Canada than in the U.S., says Michael Rothe, president of the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association.
"The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates this is costing Canadians a billion dollars a year," he said.
"To put it in comparison, the U.S. — the aggregate number of stolen vehicles — is on par, meaning it's 10 times the size in Canada than it is in the U.S."
Rothe said the problem has become worse since Ontario disbanded its dedicated auto theft team.
Huw Williams, president of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association, called the recent bust "very, very significant," and one that shows the magnitude of the problem.
1 person faces 46 charges
"It's not a victimless crime," he said. "All Canadians are victims of this."
Of the 23 people charged:
- 13 are from Windsor and one is from nearby Belle River.
- 2 are from London.
- 2 are from Mississauga.
- 1 each comes from Kitchener, Woodbridge, Barrie, Richmond Hill and Toronto.
The Windsorites who were charged range from ages 22 to 64.
One man, 35, faces 46 charges.
With files from TJ Dhir