When Maryland state troopers answered a call about auto theft at a Bel Air dealership, they arrived to find two new sport utility vehicles in the Bob Bell Chevrolet parking lot, one with the engine running, and keys in the ignition of both SUVs.
The botched theft in Harford County led police to uncover an international car theft ring in which hundreds of new vehicles were shipped to West Africa, authorities said.
Police have charged a 39-year- old illegal immigrant from Sierra Leone whom they suspect of being one of the car theft ring leaders. Amadu Shuluman Jalloh of Oxon Hill in Prince George's County also was charged with attempted murder after he escaped from the Laurel Regional Medical Center on Nov. 13, wrested a gun from a state trooper and fired at her before fleeing, police said. He was captured five hours later hiding in a shed.
Police also have charged two other suspects in the car theft ring. They will be arraigned next month.
The two might have gotten away, except one suspect, Sean Anthony Belser, 37, of Washington, left a cell phone on the passenger's seat of one of the SUVs, according to charging documents.
A dispatcher posing as a Good Samaritan contacted Belser and arranged a meeting at a Fallston gas station to return the phone.
"The guy had three cell phones and probably could've done without one," said Trooper Ryan Orner.
When Belser arrived at the gas station with Richard Morris Melton, 52, of Capitol Heights in Prince George's County, they were arrested, according to court documents.
Police said they recognized the two men from the Nov. 10 video surveillance at the auto dealership.
"Basically, the [method] was to go to a dealership, get brand-new or [slightly used] vehicles, mostly SUVs and put them in a storage facility in Prince George's until they were ready to be shipped," Orner said. "A trucking company came down and the vehicles were loaded in a container and shipped to a port in Newark. All the vehicles were then shipped to Sierra Leone and Ghana."
The auto theft ring operated in Prince George's, Harford and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland as well as in New York, North and South Carolina, police said.
Melton and Belser, who both have prior convictions, were charged with second-degree burglary, malicious destruction of property, attempted theft, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and conspiracy to commit theft and theft.
Troopers said they set up surveillance at a Hyattsville storage facility where they found more stolen vehicles and arrested Jalloh, who was renting the units.
Jalloh, also known as Kamara Mohamed and "Jay," is an illegal immigrant who had been deported before, police said.
Jalloh is being held without bond at the Prince George's County Correctional Center in Upper Marlboro.
Troopers said they have not determined how many cars were stolen, although they estimate the number to be in the hundreds.
Six months ago, an unrelated East Coast auto ring was uncovered in an interstate effort among 16 law enforcement agencies, including Maryland authorities.
More than 70 vehicles were stolen in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and Texas and shipped to Greece, Jordan, Egypt and West African countries, authorities said.
Thieves have options, said Trooper Christopher Thomas of the Maryland State Police auto theft unit.
"If they want newer cars, they get them from dealerships," said Thomas. "The opportunity may present itself in the parking lots. And for insurance, people who are behind on their payments tend to find these people and get their vehicles shipped out of country to get the insurance money."
Stolen vehicles sell for double the manufacturer's market value in foreign countries, authorities say. Sometimes, the cars are auctioned at foreign ports and end up in the hands of politicians and high-ranking officials, Thomas said.
"It's beginning to be a big problem in the East Coast in different states," he said. "The cars are being shipped all over - Nigeria, Sierra Leone or over to Europe. It appears to be growing because you didn't hear about it as much five years ago."
Of a million auto thefts each year, about 400,000 cars are never recovered, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an organization that tracks insurance fraud and vehicle theft. While many of those cars are dismantled in "chop shops," others are driven across the border or shipped overseas.