Police sergeant, ex-officer charged in 'chop shop' deal Federal fraud charges follow auto titling inquiry

December 18, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Maryland State Police sergeant and a retired sergeant have been indicted on five counts each of mail fraud for allegedly helping the owner of a Prince George's County "chop shop" title hundreds of cars that had been rebuilt from stolen parts.

Former Sgt. James A. Downing, who served 21 years before his retirement two years ago, and Sgt. Michael R. White, an 18-year officer, are accused of approving inspections for some $2.7 million in vehicles for Basem Najjar, 28, owner of Clinton Auto Sales. In exchange, the officers received money and the use of cars, according to a federal indictment unsealed yesterday after a grand jury issued it Wednesday in Greenbelt.

Najjar of Temple Hills is charged with racketeering, mail fraud, money laundering, possessing and transporting stolen property, obstruction of justice and other offenses.

Downing and Najjar were arrested yesterday, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning. Downing was released on his own recognizance; Najjar was placed on home monitoring. Both are to be arraigned Wednesday.

White will arrange to appear in court soon to face the charges, Schenning said.

The federal investigation began a month after a state police search of the auto shop in March 1997 "raised suspicions of the chop shop activity," Schenning said.

White, who was last based in the Waldorf barracks, has been suspended with pay since the investigation began, except for six months in 1997 when a court required that he be returned to administrative duties, said Capt. Gregory Shipley, a state police spokesman. White will be suspended without pay as soon as he is served with charging papers.

According to the indictment, Najjar bought salvage vehicles from insurance company auctions, then used parts he had obtained from stolen cars to rebuild them. He enlisted White and Downing to help him gain titles for the cars, prosecutors say.

The officers allegedly obliged -- White for a three-year period ending in 1995, and Downing for seven months in 1995 and 1996. According to the indictment, among the 352 vehicles they approved, the sergeants certified the roadworthiness of some cars that hadn't even been rebuilt.

Normally, inspections of such vehicles take place by appointment at state police barracks, Shipley said. He said the case has prompted a review of the way officers document those inspections.

Shipley said Col. David Mitchell, superintendent of the state police, is "concerned that this type of behavior, if true, is certainly not something that will be tolerated within the State Police."

Downing, 49, said last night from his Upper Marlboro home, "I have no comment on this matter because it's a bunch of bull anyway."

White, 39, did not return a call.

Each of the five counts of mail fraud against Downing and White carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Najjar's attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, called the case "garbage."

He said that his client may have used parts that had once been stolen, but that Najjar had bought those parts legitimately, through insurance auctions.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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