A Miami story: Flashy cars, brazen thieves and murder
Mar 12, 2012
The following article was published in the Palm Beach Post on March 12, 2012:
A Miami story: Flashy cars, brazen thieves and murder
By Frances Robles
Things were going terribly wrong late last year for exotic car-rental broker Raimundo Modia: In mid-December, his customers made off with a 2007 Lamborghini Murcielago and a brand new Audi R8.
Four days later, Modia, who owned Lifestyle Luxury Rentals, went back to Miami Beach police with another stolen rental car report, this time a 2011 Porsche Panamera he had loaned out that belonged to San Francisco 49ers linebacker Tavares Gooden.
The luxury rentals middleman was deeply in debt, his South Miami house was headed to foreclosure, and now he was on the hook for nearly half a million dollars in luxury cars he had rented out that did not belong to him.
Soon after, Modia was dead.
After weeks of desperately trying to unravel an elaborate scheme that scammed him out of luxury automobiles, he was found shot several times in a Broward County warehouse district three nights before Christmas. A first-degree murder warrant was issued for convicted car thief Nalio A. Williams, which left the South Florida exotic car-rentals community convinced that a network of Russian and Eastern European car thieves that has targeted luxury car rentals for at least two years had finally claimed its first victim.
The murder has shed a glaring light on an unregulated, unlicensed and underinsured industry in which brokers borrow high-end cars to rent out to more middlemen and customers they’ve never seen. It highlights how a loophole in the law has allowed a crime ring to operate unfettered in South Florida while largely helpless law enforcement authorities look the other way — as Miami-Dade and Miami Beach police disband their auto-theft units.
The backdrop of Modia’s killing is a convoluted web of Eastern European con men, Asian millionaires and locals hired as straw renters. Together they have rented luxury vehicles with the purpose of shipping them off to Asia — knowing that there’s little the police can do about it. Even when cars that rent in Florida for up to $2,000 a day are tracked to California chop shops, the police are essentially powerless.
“If you rent a car in Miami and keep it, you know what the police will do? Nothing,” said Joe Carrillo, a private investigator hired by several companies to recover cars. “And the crooks know it.”
Modia, 34, was in the luxury car-rental business for about three years. Unlike other rental brokers, he did not own the cars he leased out; he borrowed them from wealthy car owners or got them from other agents. Industry insiders say this way of doing business is a recipe for disaster, because in all likelihood insurance companies would not cover accidents or thefts of third-party rentals.
“It’s such a sexy business that it attracts the wrong people,” said Rob Ferretti, chief operations officer of Gotham Dream Cars in Broward County. “They think, ‘I’ll be able to stunt around in a free Ferrari,’ but they have no idea how to run a business. It sounds like Ray Modia was in over his head,” he said.
“It’s a dirty business.”
By all accounts Modia, whose father was the band director at Nautilus Middle School, was honest but perhaps too ambitious. A newlywed with a 5-year-old son from a former marriage, he lived beyond his means and needed money — which friends say could have led him to rent out cars without doing enough due diligence to verify his customers’ driver’s licenses.
Other rental companies had already encountered front men used as straw renters for cars intended for overseas sales. Last summer, American Luxury Auto Rental in Miami followed the GPS tracking device on its Mercedes-Benz 550 rented to a man with a purported driver’s license from Georgia, the former Soviet republic.
“It went north and north and north, and then left Florida. That’s when the owner started panicking,” manager Orlando Medina said. “You call the police, and they tell you to send the customer a certified letter and wait two weeks for the return. By that time, the car will be in Japan and the parts are being sold for peanuts. That’s what Ray must have gone through: A car was missing, and he couldn’t get it back.”
Carrillo, who owns Leverage Investigations, flew to Phoenix with Medina’s boss to track the car. The two men landed and called Medina in Miami, who was monitoring the car’s hidden tracker. “They said to me, ‘Where’s the car?’ ’’ Medina said. “I looked at the computer and told them: ‘It’s right in front of you.’ ”
The two men literally pulled over on Interstate 10 and waited for a car carrier loaded with stolen vehicles to drive by. They clicked the car’s alarm button to prove the car was there and called the cops. The car was returned, but no one was arrested.
READY TO SHIP
A similar incident occurred in 2010, when the company tracked two overdue vehicles to the same Hialeah warehouse. When the American Luxury Rentals’ owner got there, his Mercedes was shrink-wrapped and his Audi Q7 was being loaded onto a container by eight Russians.
Several cars worth more than $250,000 were recovered. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and Miami-Dade police said they had no further information on the 2010 raid.
It’s unclear if any follow-up investigation took place. Miami-Dade police last week disbanded their auto theft squad. An FBI spokesman said he was unable to find any cases regarding luxury auto rentals.
Then last December in Miami Beach, a Rolls Royce Phantom that a Carefree Lifestyles customer had paid $17,500 to rent for two weeks vanished off the radar.
“It pops up in Atlanta. I send my guys there, and it’s not there,” said Carefree owner Gary Marotta. “Then it pings again — at a Mexican chop shop in Los Angeles. I send my guys in Los Angeles over there to say: ‘That’s my car. What are you doing?’”
The man who rented Marotta’s Rolls is the same person who signed the contract for one of Modia’s missing cars. Knowing what had happened to Marotta’s Rolls, Modia panicked when two of his cars were tracked to Fullerton, Calif. He went to the Miami Beach police, but the cars were still under a rental contract, so even though customers were incommunicado and the cars were not supposed to leave Florida, no crime had been committed. At that point, the customer had only violated the contract, which would be a civil dispute.
“When my car was missing, I was telling the police: ‘I’m telling you, this car is stolen,’ ” Marotta said. “They would say, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ I told them, ‘What if my guy gets hurt going to get this car? Pretty soon there are going to be bodies in the middle of this.’ Then, like a week later, this guy Ray gets killed.”
Modia had spent the last week of his life tracking the stolen cars. Brokers who set up the deal told him that Korean millionaires who owned a hip-hop label took the cars for a tour. Another agent said two dangerous pimps had the cars in Las Vegas.
The hunt for the Lamborghini showed it was parked for a while at a Rodeway Inn trucking bay in Fort Lauderdale, and was driven by Asian men who took it to a Marriott Hotel. One of Modia’s friends said the thieves demanded a payment of $80,000 for the vehicles’ return.
Whatever the truth, Modia was determined to get the cars back: The Lamborghini alone was worth about $250,000 — just the front bumper costs $16,000. The owners, New Jersey based Signature Car Collection, wanted the car returned.
“Ray tries to do his own police work,” said Roland Reznik, whose 2005 Bentley was stolen and then recovered from one of Modia’s customers in 2010. “I think he got really close to the people who stole the cars. He figured out their ring.”
No one knows for sure what sent Modia up to a Broward County alley at 8:30 at night to meet a convicted felon with a criminal history for identity and auto theft. He told friends that the same man who brokered the botched car rentals was helping him find someone to buy his own 2008 Mercedes-Benz SL.
“Ray was in financial ruins and told people that he was in the process of selling his Mercedes,” said Broward Sheriff’s Office Detective Shane Schroeder. “Both cases are currently under investigation. We’re investigating the murder; Miami Beach is investigating the car theft.”
Miami Beach police declined to comment, except to say all three cars — the Lamborghini, the Audi and the Porsche — were eventually recovered. Beach police reports show Modia was advised that there was nothing the police department could do while the cars were still under a legal rental contract. The Lamborghini was recovered in California, and it’s unclear what became of the other cars.
Former Miami Hurricane player Gooden could not be reached to find out whether he ever saw his Porsche again.
Friends and associates believe Modia must have gone to a meeting at the Broward warehouse, at 2107 SW 57th Ter. in West Park, to chase down a lead on the cars or negotiate their return. Friends wonder whether the killers thought Modia was a confidential police informant or whether he brandished a weapon.
There was an exchange of gunfire, and the injured killer drove off in Modia’s Mercedes-Benz, leaving behind a stolen Toyota Tundra. Modia’s Mercedes-Benz turned up the next day in Miami Gardens.
Nalio Williams, who was hurt in the gunfight, is wanted on a charge of first-degree murder. Police released a sketch of a second “person of interest” who was seen with him. The Broward Sheriff’s Office news release initially presented the case as a car robbery, a theory that now seems unlikely.
“I hope someone recognizes this individual,” said Jacqueline Modia, the victim’s ex-wife and mother of his son. “Because of him, Ray is never going to see his son grown. He was one of these people who did his income taxes on time and did everything by the book. He wasn’t shady.
“He didn’t want anything bad in his life.”