August 2, 2011
Department of Justice
United States Attorney William C. Killian Eastern District of Tennessee
NEWPORT MAN SENTENCED TO 50 MONTHS IN PRISON FOR OPERATING A CHOP SHOP AND POSSESSING STOLEN FIREARMS
GREENEVILLE, Tenn.--Jamie Lee Cortez, 32, of Newport, Tenn., was sentenced to 50 months in prison the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Greeneville, by the Honorable J. Ronnie Greer, U.S. District Judge. The sentence was the result of guilty pleas by Cortez on July 16, 2010, to charges of operating a chop shop and possession of stolen firearms.
As set forth in his plea agreement, Cortez maintained and operated a “chop shop” at his residence in Newport, Tenn. Cortez had others steal motor vehicles, often late model Jeeps, and he disassembled the stolen vehicles at the garage located behind his residence. Cortez removed vehicle identification numbers (VINs) from the stolen vehicles, to include the public VINs on the vehicle dashboards and the door VIN stickers. Cortez both sold and transferred parts, and constructed vehicles from stolen parts which were sold and disposed of locally, and to persons outside the state of Tennessee.
During the execution of a federal search warrant in September 2009, Cortez was found to have in his garage, three stolen Jeep Wranglers: a yellow jeep, a silver jeep, and a red jeep. A yellow jeep was on a hoist and had been substantially disassembled, to include having VINs removed. A piece of a frame rail bearing a VIN was found. That VIN was from a salvage 2006 Jeep Wrangler, yellow in color, which had reportedly been sold to Norris Auto Sales in Greeneville, South Carolina, by Village Motors, Inc., Lake Village, Indiana, in July 2009. Although the sale documents showed the 2006 Jeep was sold to Norris Auto, staff at Village Motors report that Cortez picked up the salvage Jeep at their business. Cortez intended to replace VIN numbers on the stolen jeep and its components with the VINs from the salvage jeep in a scheme referred to as a “salvage switch” or “VIN swap.” Cortez would then have used the title of the salvage Jeep to sell or otherwise dispose of the stolen Jeep.
A silver Jeep Wrangler Rubicon was also found in the garage. The windshield had been removed from that vehicle and the public VIN, found on the dash under the windshield, had also been removed. Other parts from the Jeep, to include a black heavy duty front bumper with a built-in tow winch and a light bar assembly, were observed on the garage floor. The silver Jeep was identified as a 2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon owned by a North Carolina physician which had been stolen from the parking lot of Christian Village Towers in Johnson City, Tenn., on August 31, 2009. Cortez had purchased a driveable, but damaged silver 2003 Jeep, with a rebuilt title from Village Motors on August 17, 2009. Cortez also personally picked up that Jeep at Village Motors and carried it away on a trailer. That Jeep was found in the woods behind Cortez' garage during the execution of the search warrant as well as a red Jeep in poor condition. Cortez intended to use the VINs from the damaged 2003 Jeep to conduct a “VIN swap” on the stolen Jeep.
The yellow and red Jeeps were identified as a yellow 2005 Jeep and a red 2006 Jeep which had been stolen from Egolf Motors, a Hendersonville, North Carolina Chrysler-Jeep automobile dealership. The yellow Jeep Wrangler was stolen from the dealership the evening of August 30, 2009, and the red 2006 Jeep Wrangler was stolen from the dealership on September 11, 2009. Cortez also had on his property a red Jeep in poor condition which could have been used for a VIN swap on the stolen red Jeep.
In addition to the stolen vehicles found during the search of Cortez’ residence on September 16, 2009, agents observed a Keltec 9mm pistol in the kitchen of the residence. The pistol was later identified as one of approximately eighteen firearms which had been stolen during a burglary on July 17, 2009, from a residence in Talbott, Tennessee. When agents returned to seize the pistol on September 18, 2009, Cortez falsely claimed that he had purchased the pistol two to three months earlier at a gun show in Greeneville, Tennessee. The only guns shows in Greeneville in 2009 were in June and November.
Two additional stolen firearms were found at Cortez’ residence, both in a gun safe in the basement: a SIG Sauer .40 caliber pistol which was stolen on February 14, 2007, along with a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado truck from the parking lot of a north Knoxville restaurant; and a M1 carbine which had been stolen from a Geneva County, Ala., residence in December 1994. Another firearm stolen in that burglary was recovered by the Sevierville Police Department in 2005.
At the time of the September 2009 searches, Cortez was already under indictment in Cocke County Criminal Court for offenses occurring in August 2007. On August 20, 2007, a 2005 Ford E350 box van was stolen from a Knoxville business. The truck carried cabling and other wiring and electronic equipment used in the business. The truck was equipped with a satellite tracking device which lead investigators to Cortez’ residence the following day. A Cocke County Sheriff’s Office detective saw a van matching the stolen van beside a garage at the rear of the property. When the detective asked Cortez’ wife for consent to search the property, she refused and falsely claimed that her husband was away. When the detective went to obtain a state search warrant, Cortez attempted to flee in the stolen van. The stolen van was found in the woods about a half mile from the residence and all the contents of the vehicle were missing.
After obtaining a state search warrant, officers recovered an ATV (four-wheeler) with the VIN ground off and the grinder still sitting nearby; the ATV was determined to have been stolen from Sevier County on August 3, 2007. An enclosed trailer was found with obliterated identification numbers. Three transmissions were located on the property which were identified as having come from stolen vehicles; another transmission was found which had the portion of the bell housing with the identification number broken off. The door VIN sticker on the stolen van had already been removed, and the public VIN on the van had already been replaced with the public VIN plate for a 1994 Ford van. The door sticker from the van was found in a cardboard box behind the house. The garage contained a large number of tools of a type used by chop shop operators to dismantle motor vehicles. Also recovered was a large blue Snap-On toolbox and a lift which had been seized by Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) agents during the execution of a federal search warrant in April 2007 from a chop shop operated in Cosby; the toolbox and lift had been stolen from a local wrecker service where the seized evidence had been stored.
The parts recovered included a transmission from a silver 2004 GMC Envoy stolen on July 16, 2007 from the parking lot of a west Knoxville hotel. A second transmission was from a second silver 2004 GMC Envoy stolen from the parking lot of a south Knoxville business in May 2006. A third transmission was identified as having come from a 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe stolen from the parking lot of the same west Knoxville hotel on June 26, 2007. Judge Greer, in sentencing Cortez, found Cortez responsible for over $200,000 of stolen vehicles and other property.
In addition to the 50 months imprisonment, Cortez will also be required to serve three years of supervision after his release from prison, as well as pay $93,732.13 in restitution to the identifiable victims.
The indictment and subsequent conviction of Cortez was the result of an investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, THP-Criminal Investigation Division, Tennessee Department of Revenue Special Investigations Unit, Cocke County Sheriff’s Office, and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U. S. Attorney Neil Smith represented the United States.