Photo Gallery: Trail of Stolen German Cars Leads to Lithuania

Foto: Andreas Ulrich/ DER SPIEGEL

Borderless Criminals Lithuanian Gangs Target German Cars

A special investigative team comprised of German and Lithuanian police is seeking to stop a spate of thefts of luxury vehicles in Berlin. The cars are frequently stolen from the capital and taken to the Eastern European country.

The thieves didn't spend much time trying to figure out the complicated door locks. Instead, they chose a more primitive way of breaking into the Range Rover: smashing the glass roof. "The repairs of the roof and leather seats alone cost about €20,000 ($26,000)," says Horst Berghäuser, who owns an Internet business in Berlin's Grünewald district.

Still, Berghäuser could count himself lucky. A police patrol stopped the car the next day on the autobahn, heading east. They arrested the driver and returned the stolen SUV to Berghäuser. That was in early June, the first time the vehicle was stolen.

Soon afterwards, the Range Rover was gone once again. Berghäuser had hardly picked it up from the shop before the vehicle was stolen a second time. This time, too, the thieves didn't make it across the border. The police discovered the vehicle in Frankfurt an der Oder, a city on the German-Polish border. But Berghäuser isn't exactly thrilled about the successful police effort. "I didn't really want the car anymore," he says, noting that his lease is almost over.

An Increase in Car Thefts

Berlin residents who park their expensive vehicles on the street at night can't always be sure that they'll be there the next morning. Since the beginning of the year, an increasing number of luxury cars have been stolen in the German capital, with the police counting 240 such thefts in the first half of 2013 alone. SUVs are especially popular. Many vehicles are taken to Lithuania, beyond the reach of German law enforcement. In response to the development, the criminal investigation division and the public prosecutor's office in Berlin, with European Union support, have established an investigative task force consisting of both German and Lithuanian officers.

The group's objective is to convict more offenders like Tomas A., a Lithuanian who is now doing time in a Berlin prison. A muscular man with a strong handshake who has spent seven of his 31 years behind bars, A. has been involved in criminal activity in various German cities, including Cologne, Duisburg, Stuttgart and Berlin. He stole airbags, navigation devices and other parts, preferably from BMW models. He brought the stolen items to a parking lot, where they were loaded onto trucks and taken to Lithuania. "You need a gang," says A., "otherwise it doesn't work."

Later, the repeat offender was sent to Berlin by his backers to procure apartments for other criminals. "I usually got them from Russians of ethnic German descent (who had previously lived in Russia), who were getting long-term unemployment benefits and living with their girlfriends," he said. According to A., the thieves would stay in the apartments while they familiarized themselves with the neighborhood, searched for suitable vehicles to steal and plotted out their escape routes.

"Underground parking garages are good," he says, "because you can hear people coming."

A. explains that the thieves usually break the door lock and then use a computer to quickly manipulate the vehicle's software so that it can be driven away. The programs come from Bulgaria, says A. They cost a few thousand euros and can be used to easily circumvent security systems. The courier then either takes the vehicle to a hidden shop where it is dismantled into individual parts, or he drives it directly to Lithuania. "A team can do two to three cars a week," says A.

'The Bird Is in the Cage'

In recent years Peter, a Berlin criminal inspector who prefers not to mention his last name, for reasons of his personal safety, has repeatedly discovered how difficult it is to catch car thieves and traffickers. Even when the police commissioner and his team spent nights on the lookout, the people they caught were often merely low-level stooges. "It hardly bothers the bosses, because they can simply send new people," says the 47-year-old in his small office on the seventh floor of the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation.

He shares the office with a coworker. A map of Berlin is on the wall, with pieces of paper taped to it to illustrate the web of relationships among Lithuanian car traffickers. Two Lithuanian words are printed on a long piece of paper. The words translate as: "The Bird is in the Cage."

The expression articulates precisely the opposite of Peter's daily problems. Now that passport controls have been eliminated in the European Union, criminals also enjoy the freedom to travel among different EU countries. The problem with this, though, is that the Berlin police's jurisdiction ends at the city limits. Interrogations, searches and arrests in another member state are only possible in the context of mutual assistance requests, and the red tape takes so long that it's often hardly worth writing the requests.

A European Investigative Team

"But we wanted to get to the backers," says the Berlin chief commissioner, "so we looked for ways to contact our counterparts in Lithuania directly." This led to the idea of a joint investigative commission at the EU level. Peter spoke with the public prosecutor's office, searched for contacts in Lithuania and traveled to the EU Judicial Cooperation Unit (Eurojust) in The Hague. It took him a year to collect all the signatures on the agreement. The "JIT," or Joint Investigation Team, began its work in April 2010. "First we wanted to identify the thieves and use them to discern the structure behind these operations," says Peter.

The team achieved its first success when a member of a gang came clean and told police the nickname of his boss, Saulius V., which is Agurkas, or Pickle. The gang, which is also referred to as Pickle, is probably the most powerful criminal organization in Lithuania at the moment. The gang is structured like a corporation, with departments for car theft, the drug trade, the arms trade, trafficking in women and money laundering.

By mid-August, the investigations had been so successful that Peter and three colleagues traveled to Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania. They had brought along international arrest warrants issued by a Berlin district court for two alleged leaders and three lower-level members of the Pickle gang.

Key Arrests

A special operations unit was deployed to serve as backup for the arrests at a villa on the outskirts of Kaunas. On the day of the operation, the air was filled with shouting and the sounds of breaking glass, as well as with tear gas. Everything had to be done quickly to prevent the suspects from drawing their weapons. Seconds later, Ricardas S. was lying on his stomach, with a masked police officer kneeling on top of him and applying handcuffs.

Three men were captured in the operation, and the officers secured the typical tools of the trade: fabricated master keys to break open car doors, license plates, documents and a jamming device used to suppress GPS signals that some vehicles transmit for location purposes. The fourth man was later apprehended deep in the woods, and the fifth man of the gang is still at large. The Lithuanians are to be put on trial in Germany, once extradition proceedings are complete.

The police confiscated two pistols from Raimundes I., one of the men arrested, as well as a rifle being kept in a safe. They also discovered a Range Rover key. The corresponding vehicle has since been found. It was stolen in Berlin's Spandau neighborhood in July.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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