The brains behind an alleged $4 million a year motorcycle theft ring dismantled this week by police and the FBI was Atilla Lengyel, a 45-year-old Hungarian with a penchant for speed.
When his operation was at its height, a team of 20 thieves worked the streets, hot-wiring or simply picking up and hauling away high-end, high-price motorcycles, law enforcement officials said yesterday.
The most sought-after bike was the Suzuki "Hayabusa," which can clock 200 mph. The ring stole between 300 and 400 bikes a year, including a Harley Davidson worth $50,000, police said.
"This group loved to drive these motorcycles fast," the commander of the NYPD's Auto Crimes Division, Deputy Inspector Howard Lawson, said. "They all knew each other - a kind of subculture of motorcycle enthusiasts."
The only problem, Mr. Lawson said, was that they liked to ride other people's bikes and then sell them for thousands of dollars.
The nearly year-long investigation by the joint task force of police, FBI agents, and Homeland Security Immigration Customs Enforcement agents was called Operation Biker Boyz.
In the last week, 20 of the 23 alleged members of the operation were arrested in the New York area and in Hungary. Mr. Lengyel, whom police say is the mastermind of the operation, faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted on charges of enterprise corruption, the Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, said. Other members of the alleged operation face up to seven years for lesser crimes, including grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property, he said.
"The Biker Boyz were nothing if not brazen," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
After stealing the bikes, the thieves would "cool them off" in one of three ways. For more common bikes, they would simply attach a new vehicle identification number and sell it like it was. In other cases, they would scrap the bike and build a new one using a different frame and the stolen parts.
Or they would put them in an overseas shipping container and send them to Port Bremerhaven in Germany, where a train would carry the bikes to Hungary. There, on a quiet street in Budapest, the bikes would be sold in a shop co-owned by Mr. Lengyel, police said.
The bike thieves used one garage in Queens so frequently that police decided to raid it before the investigation was over just to slow down the operation, Mr. Lawson said.
The "stealers" would get about $2,500 for each bike they stole. Mr. Lengyel would then sell each bike for between $10,000 and $12,000 in America, or between $13,000 and $16,000 in Hungary.
The assistant director of the New York office of the FBI, Mark Mershon, used the case to illustrate the close workings of the different agencies involved in the investigation. Mr. Mershon has made it a trademark of his time in New York to repair the agency's relationship with the NYPD, which reportedly had been adversarial.
"It is very much a story of cooperation between federal, local, and international officials," he said.
Three members of the alleged operation are still at large - "in the wind," as Mr. Mershon put it - but he vowed they would be found.