Vehicles started going missing from dealerships across Tampa Bay last summer.
In total, 41 cars were stolen, from Dodge Charger Hellcats to a 2021 Buccaneers Super Bowl Edition Jeep Wrangler. Police say they were stolen by members of an auto theft ring, where people would break the windows of vehicles at dealerships before hot-wiring them.
Now authorities have arrested two men in connection to the auto thefts over the last year and are seeking permission to search the cellphone of one for further evidence, according to court records.
Howard Cruz Denis, 30, was arrested on April 25, records show, and is accused of helping orchestrate 24 separate car thefts. Florida Highway Patrol wrote in a petition that Denis worked with 33-year-old Darian Lima, of Miami, to steal the cars.
Nearly all 24 burglaries took place in Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus or Pinellas counties, according to the Highway Patrol.
“(Denis) is suspected of participating in several thefts of expensive Dodge Ram trucks and Challenger Hellcats, as well as other Chrysler manufactured vehicles,” the petition said.
The men stole cars from Firkins Dealership in Bradenton, Crystal Dodge Dealership in Weeki Wachee, Jim Browne Dealership in Tampa, Mercedes of Tampa Bay Dealership in Tampa, Elder Ford Dealership in Tampa, Posner Chrysler Dodge Jeep in Davenport, Jerry Ulm Dodge in Tampa, Jim Browne Car Dealership in Dade City and Crystal Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram of Homosassa, court records show.
The total number of vehicles recovered was not listed in the petition, however, at least three were discovered in California. A 2020 Dodge Ram 1500 Laramie Longhorn, a white Toyota Sequoia and a black Chevrolet Corvette were found in California. Those in possession of the vehicles told the Long Beach Police Department that they purchased the vehicles from an unknown car salesman named “Michael” in Miami, according to court documents.
Lima was arrested on Jan. 2 after a Dodge Charger Scat Pack he stole was traced through a factory-installed GPS to the Tuscany Pointe Apartments in Tampa, troopers said. There, authorities found Lima and another stolen vehicle from Polk County.
Lima faces charges of grand theft of a motor vehicle, resisting an officer without violence, and burglary of an unoccupied conveyance, according to the petition.
The theft ring shifted from targeting car dealerships exclusively to stealing from residences and parking garages after Lima’s arrest, troopers said. This included a 2019 Dodge Ram 1500 Laramie from a Land O’ Lakes home, a 2019 Jeep Wrangler in New Port Richey and another Jeep Wrangler from a parking garage at 2202 North Lois Avenue in Tampa.
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The thefts stopped when the Tampa Police Department arrested Denis. His arrest came after a high-speed chase, according to the petition, with a Tampa police helicopter following Denis as he attempted to elude patrol vehicles.
Denis faces charges of one count of fleeing to elude at a high speed and for operating a vehicle with an attached tag not assigned. He does not yet face charges for the stolen vehicles. The petition did not identify if any other individuals have been arrested in connection to the theft ring.
Multiple phone calls and text messages to numbers listed for Denis and Lima were not answered Wednesday.