The 10-month, multi-agency investigation resulted in the arrest of 10 Camden City residents and the seizure of 20 illegal firearms, ammunition, narcotics, and stolen property.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 19, 2021
Eleven South Jersey residents, 10 of them from Camden City, have been arrested and charged with various offenses from gun-running, to receipt of stolen property, to distribution of illegal drugs in connection with a 10-month investigation dubbed “Operation Grab and Go” by law enforcement officials.
In addition to those arrests, on Thursday, Acting New Jersey Attorney General Andrew Bruck presented the results of the task force’s work, including the recovery of:
- 20 illegal firearms, including an AR-style “ghost” assault rifle; an SKS assault rifle; seven “ghost” 9mm semi-automatic handguns; and 11 other handguns, including two assault rifles, and eight “ghost” guns
- two, illegal, large-capacity ammunition magazines
- 20 stolen motorcycles
“Operation Grab and Go” was the result of cooperation among various law enforcement agencies, including the New Jersey State Police, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the FBI South Jersey Violent Offender and Gang Task Force; the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO); and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Bruck described the defendants as members of an alleged “criminal network that sold dangerous, illegal weapons into New Jersey,” and the work done by police to capture them as part of “an ongoing effort to dismantle the organizations that funnel illegal firearms into this state and this city.
“We have seen how weapons of war are bloodying the streets of Camden, and we’re committed to cutting off the supply lines,” Bruck said.
Of specific interest to the AG is the statewide issue of how to close loopholes in New Jersey gun laws to prevent the influx of “ghost” guns: those sold as piecemeal components, and lacking serial numbers that allow police to trace them to buyers and sellers in the event of their use in a crime. Authorities recovered 200 such guns in 2020, Bruck said.
“Because these weapons are not fully assembled at the time of sale, [some believe] they’re not technically firearms, and therefore not subject to the commonsense rules that apply to all gun purchases [in New Jersey],” he said.
Those laws are “designed to keep guns away from terrorists, domestic abusers and convicted felons,” Bruck said, while touting the impact of “violence intervention programs that are community-led and data-driven” in mitigating their impact as well.
“We recognize that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, and we will continue using every resource at our disposal to rid the state of illegal weapons,” he said.
New Jersey State Police Colonel Pat Callahan said that the results of Operation Grab and Go “are a testament to the thoroughness and persistence of our detectives, and certainly our partners,” who began their investigation into stolen motorcycles and ATVs, and ended up sniffing out an alleged gun and drug ring.
“Although illegal weapons are almost always involved in organized criminal activity, the trafficking doesn’t always involve illegal weapons,” Callahan said, condemning “opportunistic criminals who are eager to turn a profit with any illicit product.
“The message we are sending this morning is also clear: if you traffic illegal guns into our communities, we will arrest you and prosecute you using New Jersey’s tough gun laws,” he said.
“We have no higher priority than protecting our residents from gun violence.”
Acting Camden County Prosecutor Jill Mayer said that the investigation turned on “cooperation and collaboration among agencies at all levels.
“This case would not have been as successful if each agency had stayed within their silo,” Mayer said. “I know first-hand the level of inter-agency cooperation it takes to put a case like this together.”
“We will continue to leverage our federal resources to do our best to identify and remove violent criminals from our neighborhoods,” added Jeffrey L. Matthews, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF Newark Field Division.
At the top of authorities’ lists was alleged ringleader Lamar Soto, 28 of Camden City; his 25-year-old brother Jirman Soto, 24-year-old sister Selena Soto, and 19-year old Ruben Zayas, all also of Camden City.
Along with the Sotos, 33-year-old Julio Arroyo, 23-year-old Genaro Molina, 36-year-old Ashley Petruchelli, 38-year-old Luis Rivera, and 37-year-old Pedro Luciano, all of Camden City, are charged with conspiring to steal, receive, and traffic in stolen motorcycles and ATVs.
Those nine are also charged with first-degree racketeering; Lamar Soto faces additional first-degree charges of promoting street crime, being the alleged leader of a firearms trafficking network, and distribution of methamphetamine.
Thirty-two-year-old Wendell Bethea of Sicklerville and 29-year-old Alberto Lopez of Camden City also face second-degree conspiracy charges in the case.
Bethea faces additional charges, including second-degree distribution of a controlled, dangerous substance (CDS), and third-degree possession of CDS.
Lamar and Jirman Soto, Zayas, and Bethea were charged with conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.
With the exception of Luciano, who remains wanted on an arrest warrant, all the defendants were arrested in June 2021, authorities said. Lamar and Jirman Soto were ordered detained in jail pending trial; the others were released, subject to court-ordered conditions after their detention hearings, authorities said in a statement.
Lamar and Jirman Soto and Zayas are also charged with multiple counts of unlawful possession of a firearm without a serial number and unlawful disposition of a firearm without a serial number for their alleged roles in the sale of seven 9mm semi-automatic Polymer 80 “ghost” handguns and one AR-style “ghost” assault rifle.
Lamar, Jirman, and Selena Soto, and Zayas face numerous weapons charges, including second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon; Lamar and Jermin Soto also were charged with second-degree possession of a weapon as convicted felons, which would make them ineligible for parole for five years if convicted.
Each of the second-degree weapons charges would make them ineligible for parole for the greater of three-and-a-half years, or one-third to one-half of the sentence imposed.
If convicted on any of the first-degree charges, each defendant could serve a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison and a criminal fine of up to $200,000, and those convicted of first-degree racketeering are ineligible for parole until having served 85 percent of their sentences. Sentences related to promoting organized street crime must be served consecutively to the sentences imposed for any underlying offenses, authorities noted in a statement.
Second-degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000, and third-degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine of up to $15,000 (up to $35,000 for third-degree narcotics possession), while fourth-degree charges carry a sentence of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
All persons accused of a crime are presumed innocent unless and until found guilty in a court of law. An arrest is not a conviction.
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