YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A Brooklyn woman was sentenced to nearly 22 years in federal prison yesterday for running an international car smuggling ring that shipped millions of dollars worth of cars vehicles to Africa that were stolen out of Cresskill, Fort Lee, Hackensack, North Arlington and elsewhere.
As part of her sentence, U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler in Camden ordered 44-year-old Hope “The Lady” Kantete to pay $346,937 in restitution, based on estimated losses of $2.5 million to $7 million.
Kantete was convicted last June of buying stolen cars from gang members and others, having them re-tagged with new vehicle identification numbers, then shipping them to customers overseas.
The stolen or carjacked vehicles were shipped from Ports Newark and Elizabeth to various West African destinations, including Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Gambia. These included a Mercedes’ GL550, S550 and ML 350, as well as Honda CRVs, Acuras and Land Rovers.
Kantate was among 19 people — several from Hudson County — who were arrested and charged with running hot cars by a multi-agency task force led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security in May 2012. Another was already serving time in state prison for another crime.
Kantete was “the driving force behind this illegal enterprise,” Assistant U.S. Attorney James M. Donnelly told jurors during the trial.
Defense attorney Brian Neary characterized Kantate’s co-defendants as criminals who tried to “to entrap her and ensnare her in their world” after she came to the U.S. from Africa with the “hopes and dreams” of most immigrants and built a successful, legitimate used-car business in Jersey City.
It took a confidential informant who already was dealing with Kantate and others accused in the ring to give federal agents the break they needed, according to federal records.
As investigators listened in, the cooperator bought vehicles that were either stolen or hijacked. One shipment included three from Bergen County worth a combined $149,000, a complaint filed is U.S. District Court in Newark said.
Donnelly laid out the organizational structure:
Layer One – People who steal or carjack vehicles. Many are gang members.
Layer Two – Fences who buy and sell vehicles for a few thousand dollars, even if they’re brand-new luxury cars worth ten times more, and “runner” who move the vehicles and collect payments.
Layer Three – People who retag the vehicles by replacing existing VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers), usually in parking lots, garages or on the street. Counterfeit titles are then produced to match the new VIN.
Layer Four – Customers. Some put in orders, telling the fences what type of vehicles they’re looking for. They often re-sell them.
Layer Five – Operation coordinators.
Vehicles were shipped abroad through a Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier (NVOCC), a company licensed by the Federal Maritime Commission, bonded and insured for purposes of exporting goods in foreign commerce. The NVOCC leases containers and guarantees space on vessels operated by major shipping carriers who do business only with bonded and insured companies.
“Because NVOCCs require documentation from persons shipping vehicles, customers typically use a middle person to conduct the transaction in an attempt to insulate themselves. Customers alternatively present fraudulent documentation to conceal the true information about the vehicles being exported overseas, such as altered Certificates of Title,” the government wrote in a release.
Handling the case along with Donnelly was Assistant U.S. Attorney José R. Almonte of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman praised special agents of Homeland Security Intelligence and N.J. State Police and thanked Customs and Border Protection, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan, former prosecutors Edward DeFazio of Hudson and Theodore Romankow of Union, as well as the Essex and Hudson County Sheriff’s Departments, the Newark Police Department, Coast Guard Investigative Service and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.