Investigators put the brakes on an alleged organized crime group targeting high-end vehicles through brazen break-and-enters.
Though Project Yellowbird began late last year, investigators believe the group may have been operating for many years.
Deputy Chief Peter Sloly said the case has a large scope.
“Project Yellowbird is an outstanding example of the level of excellence of policing involving the Toronto Police Service,” he said.
He added that this was an incredibly sophisticated organization that frustrated police efforts for several years.
“For nine straight years, we have driven down crime in this city,” Sloly noted. “This year though, we saw a disturbing trend. Break-and-enters and auto thefts were the only two of the seven major crime indicators that were trending up this year. We were seeing double-digit increases in these areas. This investigation will take a major bite out of that particular crime trend. We believe we have not only solved an over-10-year crime spree, but we are preventing hundreds of future victims from these type of offenders.”
The last suspect wanted in the alleged sophisticated criminal organization that targeted high-end items in affluent city neighbourhoods surrendered to police at 32 Division around 2 a.m. on August 29, a day after police executed nine search warrants in the city and arrested eight people, including three women.
The nine accused, who appeared in a Toronto court, are facing almost 150 charges in the wake of Project Yellowbird, that was started on December 22, 2013 after a yellow Porsche Carrera was stolen from a North Toronto residence during the ice storm.
A total of 23 high-end vehicles including the Porsche, which was shipped to Lithuania, have been recovered as well as other personal property and cash.
At a press conference at 32 Division on August 29, investigators displayed some of the stolen property that included World War I medals, a 150-year-old bible, a bottle of Dom Perignon, iPads and laptop computers.
“What you see on the table is a very small percentage of what has been recovered in the last 24 hours,” said Superintendent Scott Gilbert, 53 Division unit commander. “…There are still a number of high-end vehicles that are outstanding and we are hoping to make inroads into recovering those and determining their location… That investigation is ongoing.”
Detective David Zajac, of the 32 Division Major Crime Unit, said he knew from the inception that this was going to be a large-scale investigation.
He led a team comprising 32, 53 and 22 Division officers in the case that expanded beyond Toronto.
“Through a number of investigative techniques and partnerships with other police Divisions in Toronto and other regions, we were able to identify a specific target group and that is where we focused our efforts,” said Zajac. “Part of our investigations led us to different areas of the city, country and the world.”
He said the group members would usually break into unoccupied residences with the principal aim of stealing key fobs for high-value cars.
“They were driving stolen motor vehicles with paper plates and tinted license plate covers,” said Zajac. “They were driving around in affluent areas of Toronto, mainly 32, 53 and 22 Divisions. They would commit their alleged break-and-enters by forcing their way through front and back doors or by breaking windows to gain access to the residences and steal the fobs and whatever items they could get. We are fortunate that there was no violence at all.”
In one instance, two key fobs were stolen from an unoccupied home and the group members waited outside for the homeowner to arrive home before stealing his second car, while he was on the phone with police making a report that his house had been burglarized and one of his cars was missing.
“That was how sophisticated and brazen this group was,” said Zajac. “We knew we had a very difficult investigation in front of us.”
Sloly said that this case is unique in that it’s one of the very few times that frontline Divisional detectives in Community Safety Command’s 17 Divisions have led the charge in such a complex, large and lengthy investigation
He also noted it’s the first time that criminal organization charges have been laid against a crime group that’s involved primarily in property-related thefts.
“Normally, this is a guns, gangs and drugs investigation,” Sloly pointed out. “So there are unique elements and they are done by uniquely talented, hardworking and dedicated frontline officers that work for me.”
The investigation involved several law enforcement agencies in Canada and around the world. They include York, Niagara and Halton Regional Police Services, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the United States Department of Homeland Security and Interpol.
The investigation is ongoing and further charges are expected to be laid against the accused.