Ontario Provincial Police, Windsor police, and Peel Region police have shared details of their dismantling of a sophisticated, large-scale auto theft ring that was especially active in the Windsor-essex region.
But this victory against crime comes with a warning to the public: Such thefts can and will happen again.
“My experience says that auto theft is prevalent. Organized crime sees auto theft as low-risk, high-reward,” said Det. Insp. Andy Bradford of OPP, the lead investigator on the case.
“The number of auto thefts we're seeing is increasing every year. I do think it's a pressing issue.”
At a news conference in Windsor on Thursday, police and partners announced the results of Project Fairfield — a joint-forces investigation launched in April 2022 in response to a sharp rise in local auto thefts.
“It soon became clear that there was a crime group operating out of the Windsor area with a vast scope of operations,” Bradford said.
Not only did the theft ring involve multiple communities across southwestern Ontario, but it had connections with Alberta, Quebec, and overseas countries, Bradford said.
Project Fairfield culminated on July 26 with the execution of 14 search warrants in Windsor, the Peel Region, the York Region, and Toronto.
A total of 23 individuals were arrested — 13 of them Windsor residents. The accused are facing 279 cumulative charges ranging from motor vehicle theft to trafficking in property obtained by crime.
The recent raids resulted in the recovery of 138 stolen vehicles, with an estimated combined value of $9 million. Investigators believe many more vehicles were taken by the group.
Dodge Ram trucks and Jeep Cherokees were favoured targets of the operation, but everything from Lexus vehicles to family SUVS were among the reported thefts.
“Many of which were stolen directly from people's driveways,” Bradford said.
Of the 138 recovered vehicles, 54 were Dodge Ram trucks. Asked the reason for the thieves' preference for Rams and Cherokees, police said the crime group was likely meeting a specific demand for those vehicles, particularly overseas.
“Which means they had the technology to steal (the vehicles), and as well had an end point for them to go to,” explained Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services with Équité Association, an organization that deals with insurance fraud and analyzes vehicle theft.
Gast said “any push-button start vehicle” is susceptible to criminal methods. “The trends shift. Today, it's Chrysler. Tomorrow, it could be a different brand.”
Modern auto theft can involve such techniques as reprogramming a vehicle via its on-board diagnostic port, intercepting the radio frequency of a vehicle's key fob, or finding access points in the “electronic brains” of a vehicle, Gast said.
“The vulnerabilities are unlike they ever have been in the past,” Gast advised.
“With the advancement of technology, vehicles are basically computers now ... (auto thieves) have evolved. They'll continue to evolve.”
According to police, the group was exporting stolen vehicles to faraway destinations such as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Vehicles that were not sent abroad were subject to “re-vinning ” — illegal modification of the vehicle identification numbers.
“By modifying the VINS of these vehicles, the crime group was able to fraudulently reinsert the vehicles, and resell them for criminal profit,” Bradford said.
Investigators believe some of the proceeds from the theft ring were being directed towards trafficking of illicit drugs.
In December 2022, police stopped one of the stolen vehicles on Highway 401 in the Kingston area. Its driver was an individual from Windsor.
Found in the vehicle were 14,914 synthetic opioid tablets made to resemble prescription oxycodone but consisting of a substance many times more potent.
“The substance was a combination called metonitazene and protonitazene,” said Bradford.
The compound can have double the strength of fentanyl, and 100 times the strength of Oxycontin, he said. "It's a significant risk to public safety.
“Knowing that profits from stolen vehicles are being used to contribute to an opioid crisis which has already reached epidemic levels is deeply troubling.”
The raids on July 26 led to the seizure of more than 1,000 methamphetamine tablets, 320 grams of cocaine, 4.9 pounds of cannabis, and 1.1 pounds of cannabis concentrate.
Police estimate the combined street value of the seized drugs at $506,000.
The search warrants resulted in the seizure of more than C$144,000 cash and more than US$26,000 cash.
Those arrested range in age from 22 to 64 years. Along with the 13 Windsor residents, the accused include individuals from Belle River, London, Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Woodbridge, Barrie, and Toronto.
The most charges have been levelled against two Windsor individuals: Johnny Chan, 24, who faces 46 charges, and Kim Dao, 35, who faces 43 charges.
Bradford said police are hopeful the success of Project Fairfield will have “a significant impact” in the current rate of auto thefts in the region.
“Unfortunately, a group can get back at it in a hurry,” Bradford warned.
“We want to take this opportunity to remind everyone to safeguard their vehicles.”
As well, members of the public should exercise caution when buying vehicles through private sale, police said.
Due diligence is necessary when it comes to information on the vehicle and its seller. Those who sell vehicles without proper identification or who insist on cash as payment should be treated with suspicion, police warn.
Gast added that vehicle owners should be vigilant about keeping up their awareness of modern theft methods and taking necessary precautions.
For example, theft techniques that involve cloning key fob signals can be countered with use of a good quality Faraday pouch — a bag lined with metal mesh that limits the signal range of key fobs.
“Do your research,” Gast advised. “We have to find ways that maintain the convenience, but add to the protection. What could be a solution today will be outdated tomorrow.”
Chief Jason Bellaire of Windsor Police Service said that, although the investigation started with his department, Project Fairfield can be credited to multiple police services and support agencies working together.
“I commend the exceptional efforts and collaborative approach of all investigators and police partners who dismantled this sophisticated criminal network,” Bellaire stated.