The target: luxury cars in the District's posher neighborhoods, including Georgetown, the Gold Coast on upper 16th Street and Foxhall.
In a decade, federal prosecutors estimate that car thieves swiped hundreds of Acuras, Nissans and Infinitis and other high-end vehicles, then gutted them for their parts.
Waiting at the other end, authorities say, was Basem Najjar, a Clinton auto dealer who paid crooks $3,000 per car for their trouble. When insurance companies sold the car shells at the Brandywine Auction, Najjar would repurchase them for a few thousand dollars, restore their parts, then turn around and sell the refurbished autos for tidy profits that often topped $20,000.
Najjar, 29, of Temple Hills, was convicted in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt yesterday of 16 of 23 charges, including racketeering, mail fraud, possession and transportation of stolen property, obstruction of justice, operating a "chop shop" and money laundering.
U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow ordered Najjar taken into custody. She scheduled sentencing for March 27. Najjar faces a substantial amount of prison time: The maximum sentence for racketeering is 20 years, and the maximum penalty for operating a chop shop is 15 years. The judge will interpret complex federal sentencing guidelines in determining Najjar's sentence.
Two men who were convicted of stealing cars for Najjar agreed to cooperate with the government and testified against him. Typically, they testified, Najjar would pay them $3,000 per car to strip the stolen cars down so only the body, chassis and transmission were left, according to testimony in the eight-week jury trial.
Police would find the stolen cars and notify the owners or their insurance companies, assistant U.S. attorneys Stuart A. Berman and Rod J. Rosenstein said.
When the cars came to auction, Najjar would snatch them up and resell them at his dealership, Tri-City Auto Outlet, according to court testimony and attorneys involved in the case.
The two convicted car thieves testified about some 50 cars they had stolen or knew had been stolen. Since 1989, prosecutors estimate, Najjar arranged to have hundreds of cars stolen.
One of the victims was a Rockville doctor who parked his Acura NSX sports car, which sells for up to $80,000 new, near a downtown District nightclub. When he returned, he discovered the car had been stolen, according to court testimony.
After the verdict, Najjar's Greenbelt attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, said, "Mr. Najjar is disappointed and intends to appeal."
Maryland State Police Sgt. Michael R. White, 40, who has been suspended without pay for the past year, and retired state police Sgt. James A. Downing were acquitted of five counts each of mail fraud. Prosecutors had alleged that they provided state inspection certificates that helped Najjar.
"My client and his family are extremely relieved," said Harry Trainor, White's Upper Marlboro attorney. "In my opinion, he and Downing should never have been charged."
A state police spokesman said White will get a hearing to determine whether his status of being suspended without pay should be changed. White also faces an internal investigation, the spokesman said.