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ST. LOUIS • Investigators made 16 arrests Tuesday to break up what they said was the largest vehicle-theft ring ever taken to federal court here — a scheme built on paperwork trickery that spanned several states.

In all, 21 men and women, most of them from St. Louis, were indicted on a total of 84 charges that include conspiracy, bank fraud, mail fraud, receipt of a stolen motor vehicle and operation of a “chop shop” to dismantle a vehicle for parts. The charges carry maximum penalties that range from 5 to 30 years in prison, and fines up to $1 million.

They used a series of schemes — including fake titles from a Native American jurisdiction — to steal more than 120 vehicles, most of them high-end, since 2008, according to an indictment unsealed after the arrests began. Officials said the crime spanned Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.

Participants used financial tricks to drive some new vehicles right off dealers’ lots, officials said.

The indictment describes use of third-party “straw buyers” to purchase new and used cars, trucks and SUVs using loans obtained with documents inflating their income or lying about other financial information. Those buyers received unspecified items of “value” for turning the vehicles over to conspirators, knowing that ultimately the loans would not be paid.

Sometimes, the buyers protected themselves from creditors by filing for bankruptcy.

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said some buyers owed more than the cars were worth and “received the benefit” of being relieved of their loan payments.

The conspirators “forced” some people who had repairs done at businesses affiliated with them to give up their vehicles rather than pay falsely inflated repair bills, the indictment says. It identifies eight towing, repair, sales and other businesses as used to facilitate the scheme. Six are in the St. Louis area: SEDS Auto Inc.; 3D Auto House; A1 Mo’s Towing and Recovery; Fisher, Preston, Wess Salvage; Majaluk Enterprises; and Smith and Sons Auto and Rite Way Group. The others are R&R Auto, in Jefferson City, and Exotic Auto, in Dallas.

To help hide stolen cars, the thieves would disable any tracking systems, such as OnStar, officials said. They would swap vehicle identification number plates and license plates with those from other cars.

Participants used various means to transfer the vehicles’ titles to buyers or make it appear as if the cars were legally owned by members of the group, the charges say, including creating fake documents and titles and even using notaries among their group to add authenticity.

On some occasions, participants claimed cars had been stolen, or used mechanics’ liens to illicitly seize cars they said required repairs that exceeded their value.

The indictment accused some of insurance fraud — staging accidents, creating fake towing and repair bills and even complaining of pain from the crashes, prosecutors said.

Callahan said a number of those charged had prior criminal records.

He said the crew was brought down by an 18-month investigation sparked by a legitimate customer of one of the shady businesses. That person was confronted with a large repair bill and a mechanic’s lien. The complaint eventually reached the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, whose agents worked with the FBI, Missouri Highway Patrol, Missouri Department of Revenue, the National Insurance Crime Bureau and police from St. Louis, St. Louis County, Maplewood and other municipal departments.

“It represents the largest car theft ring that the office has prosecuted,” Callahan said.

The following suspects were arrested Tuesday on various charges, according to prosecutors:

From St. Louis: Shahadu Sutton, Tiffany Sutton and Orlando Preston, all 38; Robert Reece, 40; John Hicks, 30; Steven Pirtle, 45; Chester Wilson, 41; Arvis Dunbar, 47; and Eugene Dunbar, 63.

From other communities: Reginald Davis, 30, Michael Smith, 40, and Terrelle Marion, 46, all of Florissant; Sheldon Mitchell, 42, of Ballwin; Joseph Pearson, 38, of the St. Louis “area”; William Smith, 48, of Highland, Kansas; and Jermaine Gamble, 32, listed as in custody.

Ages and hometowns were not available for those indicted but not arrested: Morris Davis, Reginald McNeary, Randy Terrell, Lonnie Jordan and Denver Carroll III.

Few of the defendants had lawyers by Tuesday evening. The Post-Dispatch contacted several attorneys who had been hired or appointed, and all declined to comment in detail, saying they had barely had a chance to read the 74-page indictment.

Lawyer John Rogers, representing Hicks, said: “We will vigorously pursue a defense on behalf of John on this indictment.”

Robert Patrick is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.