By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
An auto theft ring that has been targeting luxury cars and SUVs at the Jersey Shore hit Ocean City this week, prompting police to urge homeowners to lock their vehicles at night and remove the key fobs.
“I implore people to lock their cars and take the key fobs with them, because if they don’t, it puts the safety of our residents and officers at risk. It’s just a simple decision,” Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman said in an interview.
Prettyman and Det. Lt. Steve Sullivan said Ocean City became the latest shore community targeted by a car theft ring based in North Jersey when three high-end vehicles were stolen on Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the early morning hours.
“It’s an epidemic in New Jersey this year,” Prettyman said of the surge in the number of stolen cars.
Sullivan, who is leading the investigation, explained that Ocean City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Atlantic City, Margate and Ventnor are among the shore communities that have been hit by auto theft rings.
“They’re really targeting higher-end motor vehicles in affluent areas,” he said.
Since the beginning of the year, 10 cars have been stolen in Ocean City. Sullivan said he can link at least seven of those thefts to an auto theft ring operating out of Newark.
Police are asking for the public’s help in catching the thieves who stole three luxury vehicles in the early morning hours Wednesday on Mariana Lane and Spruce Road in Ocean City’s upscale Riviera neighborhood.
Sullivan said police are seeking home surveillance video from Mariana Lane, Spruce Road and Glenwood Drive between the hours of 12:30 am and 2 am on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
In each case, the thieves stole cars that were parked in the driveway, were unlocked, and still had the keys inside, Sullivan pointed out.
One homeowner on Mariana Lane called the police shortly before 2 am Wednesday when he saw some people dressed in dark clothing and wearing masks breaking into his two 2021 Mercedes G Wagons parked in the driveway.
The thieves then took off in both Mercedes SUVs and headed out of town. Police spotted one Mercedes and gave chase as it was speeding over the Route 52 Causeway at more than 100 mph towards Somers Point.
A decision was made by the police to back off pursuing the stolen Mercedes in a high-speed chase because the situation became too dangerous. At one point, a Somers Point police car was nearly hit by the car thieves, Prettyman said.
The thieves were able to get away. One of the stolen Mercedes G Wagons has not yet been recovered. Another one was found after it ran out of gas on the Garden State Parkway in Egg Harbor Township, Sullivan said.
“We’re still looking for the suspects,” he said.
Meanwhile, the third car stolen in the early morning hours Wednesday was a 2023 Audi S5. The Audi was stolen from a home on Spruce Road, just around the corner from where the two Mercedes G Wagons were taken on Mariana Lane.
The Audi has not yet been recovered. The owner did not report it stolen to the police until later that morning. The car was unlocked and the keys were left inside, Sullivan said.
“I would ask people to be diligent enough to take their keys out of their cars. I would also urge them not to place their keys in a visible site at the main entrance of their homes,” Sullivan said, noting that some car thieves will break into houses to steal car keys.
Police are also investigating some car burglaries that occurred this week on Glenwood Drive that may be related to the auto theft ring. A Cadillac Escalade and a Mercedes SUV were broken into on the 200 block of Glenwood Drive, close to where the Mercedes G Wagons and Audi were stolen, Sullivan said.
An alarming rise in auto theft across the state prompted New Jersey Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin to form an auto theft ring task force last March.
In 2021, 14,320 vehicles were reported stolen in New Jersey, representing a 22 percent increase compared to 2020, according to State Police data reported by NJ.com.
Authorities said luxury vehicles stolen in New Jersey are often shipped overseas by auto theft rings through the Port of Newark or are used by gangs in drive-by shootings.
In August, state Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, and state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, introduced new legislation that would stiffen the penalties for car theft and targets the ringleaders in an effort to crack down on auto theft rings.