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Five men have been arrested on federal charges of operating a scheme to steal cars and sell them with counterfeit titles, according to the U.S. attorney’s office, which said the scheme extended from Alabama to Canada.

Compared with previous stolen vehicle cases prosecuted in Indianapolis, “it was more ingenious, but it was still a scam,” U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison said Thursday.

Three of the men, identified in court documents, are from the metro area: Fred Bear, 39, Avon; Christopher Wells, 45, Indianapolis; and Tommy Thompson, 48, Indianapolis. They had initial hearings Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kennard Foster in Indianapolis. The two others are Francis Coleman, 41, Laurel, Md.; and Carl McCreary, 48, Frisco City, Ala. For all five, formal charges were pending the outcome of further investigation, federal prosecutors said.

Bear, Wells and Thompson have had business dealings in Indiana. Among the places searched in Indianapolis were three homes, a restaurant and Silver Lining Muffler and Brakes, 7072 E. Washington St., owned by Wells.

Court records also said Wells was arrested by Indiana State Police on I-69 in Madison County in April when he was driving a Cadillac Escalade that had been stolen from a Muncie dealership.

The stolen vehicle scheme reached from Canada to North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Alabama and Indiana. It involved at least 41 vehicles that were recovered during the investigation and when arrest warrants were served.

The stolen vehicle operation reportedly ran from January 2007 through last week. A federal criminal complaint said the five men stole vehicles, then used counterfeit titles and vehicle identification numbers to sell them. Federal, state and local investigators, including 10 police departments in Indiana — Greenfield, Indianapolis, Muncie, Shelbyville and Zionsville among them — and two in Alabama, handled the case, which is still under investigation.

Morrison said the investigation began after the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles raised flags about attempts to get new titles and vehicle identification numbers for the cars. Indiana State Police became interested in June, and federal agencies such as the Secret Service became involved.

“You’d have two VINs (vehicle identification numbers) on one car,” Morrison said. “They were using VINs from Canada and they’d use false titles from Washington, D.C., and North Carolina.”

Investigators called the process “vehicle cloning.”

The cars were stolen from car dealers and other people in Indiana, Maryland, Virginia and other states, according to court documents filed by the U.S. attorney. Similar Canadian vehicles would be located, their VINs would be copied, and titles using those numbers would be obtained in Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. The copied VINs would be placed on the stolen vehicles. Several of those cars were located after the first series of arrests were made, and police expect to find more, Morrison said.

Although Indiana authorities initiated the investigation, the case was sent to the U.S. attorney and federal courts because of interstate transportation of stolen property, Morrison said.

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