Multi-jurisdictional police on Wednesday in Miami-Dade County arrested 10 men who police say are part of a “well-organized and sophisticated” GPS device theft ring that operated statewide — until Florida Keys deputies discovered they were millions of dollars in merchandise.
The authorities call the criminal plan ‘Operation Garmin’, because only Garmin satellite devices with a global position have been captured.
The thieves have been targeting marinas and stealing devices from mostly large boats, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said Wednesday at a press conference announcing the arrests in the Keys.
“This is a long case. The case is not over yet, but we are at a critical point where we have made a large number of arrests,” Ramsay told reporters at the Upper Keys sheriff’s office. He was joined by buyers from other agencies, including the Miami-Dade County Police Department.
Ramsay described the workings of top-down working, with those at the top instructing other “worker bees” who did most of the actual stealing.
Detectives received text messages from members of the ring detailing which parts of the state had more law enforcement at any given time, Ramsey added, telling each other which counties to avoid and which were safe to hit .
“They send messages to their field troops, where to go and where not to go, what’s hot and what’s not. Again, very well organized,” said Ramsay.
It’s not immediately clear how many devices have been stolen since the operation was first spotted by Monroe agents in April and March, but Ramsay said the lower limit on the value of the stolen electronics is about $2.5 million.
Garmin GPS devices are at the higher end of the price range of other brands, selling for up to $5,000, according to Ramsay, and most of the targeted boats have two on board.
“We started to see the break-ins happening around March and April, and they were happening in marinas and warehouses where no one was around,” said Ramsay. “They were cutting fences, coming in behind fences, and they had all day to get into the boats because there was no security, no one around.”
Ramsay said his detectives notified colleagues in other parts of the state, who told them they, too, were seeing an increase in thefts of marine equipment.
“We started to see this pattern. Almost every week. We communicate with other authorities. The Miami-Dade County Police Department, Collier, began to see a major increase in maritime thefts statewide, not just here, but also abroad,” Ramsay added.
Multi-agency task forces were formed and police began to learn how the ring worked, Ramsay said. The leadership assembled “teams and collaborators” who would steal the equipment and return it in exchange for a percentage of the money.
“It was almost like a pyramid scheme where if they brought in more people, they would get a bigger percentage,” said Ramsay.
The suspects were arrested in Miami-Dade County, with up to 70 officers from that agency participating in serving warrants. Those arrested will answer for charges in Monroe County.
“We’re pretty sure we’re going to get a jail sentence for these guys,” Monroe County state attorney Dennis Ward told the Miami Herald. “The bonds that came into being are very high, and we’re happy with that. The only income they have is stealing. I don’t know where to get the money from, because they are locked up here.”
Monroe County Circuit Judge Luis Garcia set the highest bonds at $1.08 million each for Juan Felipe Villegas, 19, and Lazaro Arturo Gonzales Munos, 22. Bonds for the eight other arrested range from $50,000 to $465,000.
Together, all ten suspects face a total of 122 charges, and Ramsay noted that some could face up to 20 years in prison.
“They go to prison for a long time. They are looking at a fine of over a million dollars. That’s unheard of. When you kill someone, you get less bonding,” Ramsay said.
According to the sheriff’s office, one of the people in the group is still at large: 53-year-old Milton Horney Gonzalez Gil.
The other people arrested are: Paul Moises Balbino Crespo, 23, Denzel Varona, 18, Jonathan Richard Lopez, 33, Anthony Manuel Guerra, 23, Walfrido William Garcia, 22, Carlos Mederos, 45, Oscar Sahori Medina, 24, and Alfredo Sanchez , 29.
For now, the group’s members face charges only in Monroe County, but Ramsay said they are suspected of attacking 194 other locations in 16 other counties — from Bay to St. Johns.
The Monroe Police Department will work with police and prosecutors in those counties and more charges could follow.
“Criminals are not territorial to one geographic area. Our position is, we don’t care who puts the bad people in jail, we just want them in jail, to stop crime, to stop people from being victimized,” Ramsay said. “It just happens today, we are the ones who got the arrest warrants.”