Updated at 4:35 p.m. Sept. 10, 2012
Nearly three dozen vehicles have been recovered in an ongoing investigation of 85 rental-car thefts including such high-end makes as Maserati, Mercedes and Land Rover, authorities said Friday.
Wesam Georges, 33, of El Cajon was arrested in connection with the thefts Thursday night in San Diego's Mid-City area, CHP Capt. Scott Parker, commander of the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, said Monday.
Georges was released on $50,000 bond, according to Tanya Sierra of the District Attorney's Office, who added: “If we file charges, he is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 17 for arraignment at 1:30 downtown.”
Parker said Friday that a tip Wednesday afternoon led to a ring “in the area of El Cajon” that targeted a single “well-known” rental-car company in San Diego.
Through a process called title washing, people who legally rented cars used false IDs to change the titles and sell the cars.
“The majority of the people are innocent purchasers,” Parker said.
Offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles were involved, but paperwork sometimes went through businesses offering DMV-type services, Parker said.
About 85 stolen cars were sold to private parties, dealers and auto auctions inside and outside California, Parker said in a phone interview.
An hour before the interview, Parker said via email that “we did make an arrest and have recovered at this time 26 [vehicles] worth $1,359,371,” or about $52,000 each.
But in the interview, Parker said 32 or 33 cars have now been recovered as member agencies continue a sweep.
“We’re still working on it,” Parker said. “But we anticipate further arrests.”
He said almost half of the cars stolen were “very high-end cars like Land Rovers, Mercedes, Maseratis and Porsches.”
A man working for San Diego Prestige told Patch that no Maseratis had been stolen from his La Jolla rental company but said nobody else rents Maseratis in San Diego County.
Asked if he knew of any other San Diego agencies that rent “exotics,” he said just Prestige and a sister location in Los Angeles.
Parker said the tough part of the investigation is tracking down the cars, which have ended up throughout California and in several other states.
“It’s obviously a very good case for us,” he said of the task force, which is made up of many local agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department and La Mesa and El Cajon police departments. “We’re happy with the work our investigators are doing.”
Parker, who also oversees the Highway Patrol’s investigative service unit, recalled a title-washing case in Orange County several years ago involving 20-25 cars. But this could be the largest in local history.
The task force, also called RATT, was formed in 1992, says its website, which noted:
Our primary mission is to effectively communicate with stakeholders to reduce the incidents of vehicle and cargo theft and increase the apprehension and prosecution of professional auto thieves using regional, proactive investigative methods and public education programs.
RATT says that between 2006 and 2010 the auto theft rate has been reduced by 36 percent.
“This drop is attributed to not only the hard work of the investigators assigned to RATT, but to all the law enforcement agencies who combat vehicle theft on a daily basis in San Diego County,” Parker said on the site.
According to a a May 2010 Orange County Register report, an employee of the Fullerton DMV office was among four arrested in a title-washing case involving luxury vehicles such as Mercedes-Benzes and Cadillac Escalades.