A man who allegedly took part in an auto theft scheme targeting numerous Spanish-speaking victims from the Los Angeles area pleaded not guilty Thursday to 29 felony counts, including carjacking, robbery, extortion and vehicle theft.

Abel Chairez, 40, is accused of committing eight separate auto thefts in the San Diego area as part of a scheme that law enforcement officials said netted around $475,000 from more than 17 victims.

Deputy District Attorney Steve Walter said Chairez was involved in eight of those incidents, which occurred between Feb. 24 and April 21 of this year, and displayed a firearm during five of those thefts. The prosecutor said Chairez faces more than 50 years in state prison if convicted of all charges and allegations.

According to the San Diego County Regional Auto Theft Task Force, the perpetrators posted job listings on social media sites, searching for Spanish- speaking drivers interested in transporting large sums of money from the San Diego area to Los Angeles County, often for supposed payments of several thousand dollars.

When an interested party called, the perpetrators — believed to be associates of an organized crime gang based in Mexico — made assurances that the purported driving job was legal and directed the victim to a meeting spot in southern San Diego County, generally near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Once there, the victim was told to surrender his or her vehicle so it could be loaded with money somewhere else. The perpetrator then took the vehicle — sometimes after displaying a gun — and immediately drove it into Mexico, never to be seen again by the owner, according to the task force.

Walter said many of the stolen vehicles were later brought back into the U.S. to be sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Some of the victims of the scheme were subsequently contacted by the thieves, who told them to wire funds to a bank account if they wanted their autos back. Those who have agreed to the demand simply lost that money along with their vehicles, investigators said.

The perpetrators primarily targeted Los Angeles residents who owned late-model SUVs and pickup trucks, though not exclusively, the task force reported.

Chairez was arrested last Friday as he attempted to enter the United States at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, according to the task force, which said he hid in Mexico after the task force warned the public about the scam in early May.

During his Thursday afternoon video arraignment, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Peter C. Deddeh set Chairez’s bail at $200,000 and imposed a bail hold, meaning Chairez would have to prove any bail funds came from a legal source.

In addition to Chairez, the task force publicly identified two other suspects allegedly involved in the scheme.

Juan Echeagaray, 49, was arrested in May and remains in custody.

A third suspect, Salvador Mullaly, 52, has not been captured. Authorities said he’s believed to be in the San Diego area and should be considered armed and dangerous.

A task force statement reads, “Notably, after the news media made the Latino community aware of the scam, there were no further victims. RATT Commander and California Highway Patrol Capt. James Portilla credits the media for making the community aware of this scam thus effectively preventing further victims.”

Any additional victims or anyone with information regarding Mullaly’s whereabouts was asked to contact the task force at 858-627-4000.

— City News Service

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