The Mercury News Weekend

Thieves are seeking Dodges and Jeeps to steal

- By Nate Gartrell ngartrell@bayareanew­

Last November, when an 18-year-old man confronted a group of people attempting to steal a Jeep parked on Bush Avenue in San Pablo, one of the would-be thieves allegedly pulled out a pistol and opened fire, wounding the teenager.

The near-homicide was the culminatio­n of an increasing­ly violent car theft ring, based in Newark, that police allege was responsibl­e for dozens of thefts of expensive vehicles, multiple high-speed police chases and the operation of a chop shop. The shop's operators placed new vehicle identifica­tion numbers on cars, reprogramm­ed the key fobs and sold them for cash discounts. On at least one occasion, one of the vehicles was restolen from a buyer, authoritie­s say.

The group has been under investigat­ion since last June, when Newark police began investigat­ing a series of car thefts believed to have been committed by the same group. They seemed to have a type: nearly all of the reported thefts were of Dodge Challenger­s, Dodge Chargers or Jeep Cherokees, authoritie­s say.

Now four men — Alexander Echeverria, 20; Alexander Martinez, 21; Eduardo Garcia-Perez, 20; and Jose Torres Flores, 26 — face charges of assault with a semi-automatic firearm in Contra Costa County. Echeverria and GarciaPere­z also face multiple felony counts related to alleged auto theft in Alameda County. In the assault case, their bail has been set at $660,000, records show.

The group was arrested last week during a series of raids, where police seized 17 cars worth an estimated $1 million — to add to the list of six other stolen vehicles recovered last year — as well as body armor, firearm silencers and a dozen guns. Some of the weapons and armor had been stolen from cars, authoritie­s say.

Police believe they're all members or associates of a subset of the Norteño gang based on Baine Avenue in Newark. But they allegedly traveled around the Bay Area, including San Pablo, Morgan Hill, Berkeley, Livermore, Union City and Newark, seeking cars that met their standards.

It started June 20, when a 2018 Dodge Charger that had three guns and a ballistic vest in the trunk was reported stolen from the Newark area, police say. By July, two other cars — a 2016 Dodge Charger and a 2017 Dodge Charger — had been added to the list of car thefts tied to the group. Garcia-Perez is the alleged ringleader of the theft, and one of the vehicles contained a forged DMV registrati­on card in the name of one of his cousins, authoritie­s say.

Last Aug. 5, three alleged members of the car theft ring were thwarted while attempting to steal a Jeep Cherokee in Union City, but they came up with an unexpected consolatio­n prize: inside the Jeep were keys to a Dodge Charger, which they made off with instead. The Charger contained two Airpods with a GPS sensor that indicated it had been driven to Baine Avenue, according to police.

The car was recovered, but had major damage to its front. It also had been spray painted with a Norteño graffiti tag, police say.

A week later, a stolen Dodge with forged paper plates — another theft police attribute to the group — sped off and evaded police on Interstate 880, when a Newark officer attempted to pull it over. Just two weeks after that, three robbers pulled up in a stolen Dodge Challenger, robbed a man of a Rolex watch in Palo Alto, and sped off. No one has been charged in that incident, but police suspect members of the same ring are responsibl­e.

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