Opening arguments began Wednesday in the trial of Hope K. Kantete before U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler in Camden.
Kantete "was the driving force behind this illegal enterprise," Assistant U.S. Attorney James M. Donnelly told the jury.
Donnelly laid out the enterprise by describing the work of defendants who have pleaded guilty in the scheme.
One acted as a liaison with the street gangs that initially stole the cars. Others were "runners," moving the cars to avoid police detection.
One defendant was expert at altering vehicle identification numbers. Another doctored title papers.
Others specialized in shipping. One was a wholesale customer, buying the cars for African resale and complaining if they were scratched or dinged.
In October, many of them will face sentencing by Kugler. In the meantime, they will be in Camden testifying against Kantete under a new indictment that covers activities in 2011 and 2012.
Kantete's lawyer, Brian J. Neary of Hackensack, described them as criminals who will attempt "to entrap her and ensnare her in their world."
Kantete came from Africa in 1992 "with all those hopes and all those dreams" typical of immigrants, Neary said. She built a legitimate used-car business in Jersey City.
"Was she, in essence, duped by them in the same way they'll attempt to dupe you with their testimony?" he asked.
Neary had special scorn for one witness not included in the indictment, an undercover informant who helped prosecutors set up what Donnelly described as a sting operation in a warehouse used by Kantete to store stolen cars and by federal agents to examine cars and collect evidence. Neary called him the "instigator."
Donnelly promised the jury an inside look into the enterprise, gained through wiretaps, surveillance, and insider testimony.
Neary asked the jury to gauge the honesty of the government's cooperating witnesses.
"You can feel sorry for the victims," he said. "But don't feel sorry for these cooperators. You would not buy a used car from any of these government witnesses."
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