She created a diversion while they grabbed the keys.
Authorities announced Wednesday that they uncovered a sophisticated auto theft ring that disguised vehicles in a confusing trail of paperwork. The vehicles were stolen from dealerships throughout the Southeast.
A 30-something blonde and others distracted dealership employees, detectives said, so they could switch fake keys for the real ones and have somebody drive off with the vehicles later.
A major player in the ring, authorities contend, is the Rev. Tory Fields of Union Baptist Church in Charleston, who is accused of possessing four vehicles stolen in the scheme. Now out on bail, Fields said he is just another one of the scheme's unwitting victims.
Police are still looking for the blonde woman.
Detectives described a scheme that began by disguising the origin of wrecked, inoperable cars at wrecking yards in the tri-county area. Then, they said, ring members stole similar vehicles from car dealerships, a feat allegedly accomplished by switching fake keys while posing as prospective buyers, then returning during the night and driving off.
Finally, detectives said, ring members swapped out valid registrations and tags from the salvage vehicles, making the stolen vehicles appear legit.
The ruse was clever enough to earn back-handed compliments such as "very smart," "elaborate" and "very organized" from those investigating the case.
"When our officers are pulling over vehicles, the tags are coming back clear, the registration is coming back clear," said North Charleston police Detective Jason Forsythe. "We did recover many of them, and once we did, the VIN numbers came back stolen."
Investigators included police from Charleston and North Charleston, Charleston and Berkeley County sheriff's detectives, and agents from the State Law Enforcement Division and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
To date, authorities have recovered 23 stolen vehicles valued at more than $600,000, Forsythe said, and they think at least 10 others disappeared as part of the same scheme. The vehicles ranged from full-size pickups to sedans and sports cars stolen locally and throughout the Palmetto State, as well as North Carolina and Georgia. Most were sold on the side of the road for cash.
"All of them are way too good of a deal for the cars they're getting, so that should have sent up red flags," said Charleston County sheriff's Detective Jeremy Kraus.
The case began to unravel in June, when federal and local investigators discovered stolen vehicles in Charleston and North Charleston with fake identification information, a release says. In both cases, the information came from a wrecked vehicle.
The trail led investigators to the home of the minister, whose given name is Hason Tatorian Fields and who serves as the main pastor at Union Baptist Church at 708 Meeting St.
Fields is a member and past president of the local chapter of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, the social-justice organization founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Authorities arrested Fields on July 1 after searching the home at 1010 Deerberry Road in Goose Creek and finding two stolen pickups, affidavits say. The investigation also linked the pastor to two stolen vehicles found in North Charleston.
Fields is charged with four counts of possessing a stolen motor vehicle, two each in Charleston and Berkeley counties. He left the Charleston County Detention Center on July 4 after posting $15,000 bail; his bail in Berkeley County was $50,000. A SLED background check shows that Fields was convicted of trafficking cocaine in Dorchester County in 1991.
Reached on Wednesday, Fields called his arrest a "travesty" and said he bought all the vehicles at auction. He said he purchased them from a man from Florida whom he met a few years ago near an auction site along U.S. Highway 17A near Moncks Corner. He never checked the vehicle identification numbers and never learned of the deceit until authorities came knocking.
"My money's gone. My car's gone. I don't have anything now," he said during a phone interview.
Fields said he had contacted his insurance company to repair damage after a wreck and had been ticketed by a state trooper in one of the vehicles in question. Until his arrest, he said, nobody ever noticed anything wrong. He said he had tried to cooperate.
Also charged in the case are four others accused of possessing vehicles stolen in the scheme: Sonya F. Jones, 31; Michelle Clark, 25; her brother, Antonio Clark, 31; and Kriishna Antonio Myers, 31.
Authorities advised anybody with suspicions about a car they have bought to check the VIN, something any owner can do through the National Insurance Crime Bureau or through a company called CARFAX that provides detailed vehicle histories for a fee. Detectives also encouraged anybody with suspicions about their car to come forward as soon as possible or risk facing criminal charges.
Department of Motor Vehicles Communications Director Beth Parks said the state agency has made changes to close loopholes found during the investigation.
"These are tactics that are being used across the country," Parks said. "We have adjusted our procedures to make it more difficult to do this."
Clerks no longer issue duplicate titles in person to anyone other than a vehicle's owner, she said, and now mail them to the address of record instead. She declined to discuss other changes, saying they were internal.