How Lehigh Valley investigators unraveled a scam involving 80 stolen cars and fraudulent court orders
It was a scam Robert E. Hunter had gotten away with more than 80 times: Steal a car, fudge the court order stating it was abandoned, then resell the vehicle and pocket the cash.
Hunter, who is now serving a two- to four-year state prison term, was thwarted last year by detectives from the Lehigh County Auto Theft Task Force, who noticed something fishy about the documents Hunter was submitting to PennDOT and dug further, uncovering a string of crimes in both Lehigh and Northampton counties.
“It just snowballed,” said Northampton County Assistant District Attorney Jim Augustine, who prosecuted Hunter. “The detectives had boxes of information when they came to me and were able to walk me through all the things this guy did. They really made my job easy.”
The task force’s efforts caught the attention this week of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, which recognized the group at their regional conference with the George J. Acker Memorial Award.
Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin, who oversees the task force, said he was proud of the group’s work.
“I am pleased that the detectives of the Lehigh County Auto Theft Task Force received this prestigious award based on their excellent investigative work in unraveling extensive documentation and shutting down what otherwise would have been an ongoing crime spree that undoubtedly would have victimized additional vehicle owners,” he said. “Their efforts reflect the expertise and diligence of this task force.”
According to Martin:
The investigation began in December 2017 when the owner of a Toyota reported it was stolen from East Susquehanna Street in Allentown. The car turned up in Northampton County in March 2018, and detectives determined that its owners had arranged to have the car stolen.
Witnesses led detectives to Hunter, 58, who showed them a court order stating he had legal rights to the vehicle because it had been abandoned. The order was signed by a Northampton County judge.
The task force looked at all the court orders Hunter had filed at the Northampton County Courthouse and discovered he’d photocopied one legitimate order dozens of times, filling in a new vehicle identification number and description for each stolen car. This allowed Hunter to obtain a new title for each car and resell it.
“For over two years, this defendant defrauded multiple victims of their vehicles, commonly selling or scrapping the vehicles and keeping the proceeds,” Martin said in a statement.
Hunter’s mother is a notary, Martin said, and Hunter used her stamp to finalize the fraudulent transfer paperwork. The Pennsylvania Department of State is investigating that aspect of the case, Martin said.
Augustine said Hunter, of Easton, had a garage and lot where he kept the cars, and got them through friends, family members and people he knew. He pleaded guilty to theft by unlawful taking and related crimes and was sentenced on June 3.
Car scams weren’t Hunter’s only crimes, Martin said. During the task force’s investigation, Palmer Township Police began investigating him on theft, bad checks, and fraud charges.
“Ironically, it was determined that Mr. Hunter was writing several bad checks to PennDOT for payment on title processing fees,” Martin said.