The leader of a suspected auto-theft ring may have been using a family connection inside the Washington Department of Licensing to help disguise the stolen cars as lawfully purchased.
According to court documents, 34-year-old Brenda Sue Lynch has told witnesses that she can steal any car she wants. And she apparently learned her “title washing” trade through coaching by her former mother-in-law, who works as a sub-agent processing licenses and titles for the DOL.
“We are talking lots and lots of vehicles. Everything points to Brenda being the brains of the organization,” Washington State Patrol Sgt. Dave Bolton said. “She knows the system better than we do.”
The way the scam works, the car thief only needs the vehicle identification number off the dash of any car parked on the street, Bolton said. The thief then uses forms available on the DOL Web site.
With that paperwork, a forged signature of the owner and a notary stamp, the thief can obtain new license plates and a title that make it appear on paper that the car has legally been sold to the thief. And the whole process often is done before the thief steals the car, Bolton said.
“When the victim calls the police, the stolen car is not even in their name,” Bolton said. “Who would have thought all this was going on? Until we started digging into the DOL process we didn’t think it was possible.”
The WSP raided two Spokane Valley homes on July 7 and briefly detained Lynch before releasing her while the investigation continued.
Bolton said the investigation to date has identified 60 criminal associates and is continuing. Multiple charges of possession of stolen property, forgery and document alteration are expected in coming weeks. Lynch is among those who will likely be charged, Bolton said.
At the time of the raid, Lynch told WSP detectives that she would have the last laugh.
“I’m frustrated because it’s not true,” Lynch said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “This has caused me a lot of trouble, family not believing me, people thinking I’m a crook. I’m not a crook. I don’t steal people’s cars.”
Lynch said she read the thick file of documents that were used to obtain the search warrant from a judge for the July raid.
“If you look at the affidavit, it’s all hearsay,” Lynch said. “There’s not one true thing in there.”
According to court records, detectives received information that Lynch had an associate in a local license agency who was “assisting Brenda Lynch in fraudulently obtaining titles for vehicles.” That insider was identified by one witness as Patricia H. Leistiko, WSP Detective Jeff Thoet wrote in court records.
Bolton said Leistiko is not facing any charges at this time but the investigation is continuing.
Leistiko, who is Lynch’s former mother-in-law and is raising Lynch’s daughter, works at Southside Auto Licensing Agency at 2933 E. 29th Ave. She was working at that job Tuesday when contacted by a reporter.
Leistiko said she had no idea she was named in the court documents detailing the suspected car-theft ring.
“I know (Brenda) was in here the day she was picked up,” Leistiko said. Lynch and a man “were trying to transfer a title and I sent them away because they didn’t have the proper identification. I was later told the guy was an undercover cop.”
Leistiko denied either processing fraudulent sales for Lynch or coaching her about the process.
“We probably hadn’t seen her in six months. When she comes in, I don’t usually wait on her,” Leistiko said. “I don’t have a lot of contact with her.”
Lynch also defended Leistiko, calling the allegations of helping her obtain the fraudulent titles “crazy.”
“Patricia most certainly has done nothing wrong,” Lynch said. “We talk almost every day, but not about cars.”
Bolton said Lynch has also gone to other licensing agencies to get titles.
“We know she hasn’t been using Leistiko exclusively,” Bolton said. “We think (Leistiko) has coached her about what she needs to have to go to another sub-agent. I’m not saying those sub-agents are dirty. They are not trained to look for forgery. All they care about is if you have the right documents, the right signature and right notary seal.”
Brad Benfield, spokesman for the Department of Licensing, said each county contracts with licensing agencies so that residents have more access to the service.
“The county is directly responsible for overseeing those contracts and discipline, if required,” said Benfield, who is aware of the current WSP investigation into title washing.
According to the court records, Lynch on Dec. 21, 2004, applied for a title on a car registered in another woman’s name. On the certificate of ownership, it appeared that the owner’s name had been traced over. Lynch was still allowed to register that vehicle in her name to an address in Newport. “Patricia Leistiko processed the paperwork on the transaction,” Thoet wrote in court documents.
Then on July 6, Grant Prouty from the Spokane County Auditor’s Office again reviewed the documents from that Dec. 21 transaction.
“Grant Prouty stated that the tracing over the signatures was an obvious concern and Patricia Leistiko should have sent at least an alert notice to DOL, which was not included in the title history packet,” Thoet wrote. “Grant Prouty stated he had audited Patricia Leistiko and made her aware that it was against policy to process relative’s paperwork on vehicles and that she was fully made aware that it should not be done.”
Most car thefts in Washington are those in which someone hotwires the ignition and then either uses the stolen car to commit more crime or sells the parts for a profit, Bolton said.
But the title-washing cases present a completely different challenge. Often, the stolen cars end up changing hands four or five times and detectives must track down every owner.
“Our heads are spinning,” Bolton said. “The more we look, the more convoluted things get. When we open one door, we find three or four we have to go through. It’s chaos.”
While one witness said he heard Lynch brag that she could steal any car, so far she’s only targeted known criminals, Bolton said.
“She has been targeting other dopers mainly,” Bolton said. “We haven’t found anyone yet who isn’t in the meth culture. If she steals a meth user’s car, they are not likely to make a stink about the car being stolen. So, Brenda is picking a victim who is unlikely to do anything about it.”
In one case, a person reported his car being stolen but the responding officer noticed that the car was registered to somebody else. Since the officer couldn’t prove the reporting party owned the car, a report wasn’t filed, Bolton said.
“What is a patrol officer to do? It’s not their job to spend months going through mountains of paperwork from the DOL for days on end to track these vehicles back,” Bolton said.
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