SMITHFIELD, Va. – Federal authorities say stolen cars were shipped to Hampton Roads and then expected to make it to West Africa.
Terreal Cypress of Smithfield pleaded guilty to his involvement in the scheme. He spoke exclusively to News 3.
He said he didn’t realize the cars were being shipped illegally. He pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States.
Cypress admitted to being involved in the scheme but says he didn’t realize what was truly going on.
He said it started off as a romantic relationship several years ago with a woman he met online.
Court documents reveal that he communicated with her by phone and email but only met her in person once in Maryland. During the relationship, she talked to Cypress about assisting her with receiving wire transfers and forwarding money, according to the records.
She allegedly told him that the source of the money was legitimate, but he later learned from the bank that the transfers were fraudulent.
He claims that woman used his name, along with stolen credit card information from other people, to buy the cars from various dealerships around the country.
He said in exchange for helping the woman, he was given a free car.
Cypress admits he signed paperwork but said he didn’t know where the cars were going. He said at first he didn’t think anything was wrong, but then said things seemed suspicious after a while.
Federal officials state that stolen credit card information was used to buy cars in Arizona, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, Florida, California and other locations.
They said the cars were then transported to Newport News, Smithfield and other locations in Hampton Roads. Some were discovered by customs officials at the Port of Baltimore.
“Our investigators, working with our federal partners, were able to determine that once the cars were dropped at the drop location here, they were then picked up and taken somewhere else, where they were put in containers and then shipped overseas to be resold at a premium market value in those overseas countries,” said Captain Tommy Potter with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff's Office.
Isle of Wight sheriff’s officials were one of several law enforcement agencies who worked on this case.
“It is very time consuming. It takes a lot of effort on behalf of our deputies and our investigators to coordinate all that, especially in this case,” said Potter. “We were having vehicles that were being delivered to a location daily, so we would have to set up and try to catch exactly when one of these shippers would drop a car off because immediately, they would pick up that car and move it.”
News 3 also spoke to Cypress’s grandmother. She didn’t want to be identified but said four cars were dropped off at her house. She said she’s never had any trouble from her grandson.
“He’s a good person. He’s a very nice person. I don’t have any trouble with him. This is the first time that I had any trouble,” she said.
Cypress said he thinks the woman is still in Africa.
“I feel like I got led astray. I feel kind of dumb now,” said Cypress. “Everybody that knows me knows what type of person I am. They know I wouldn’t do anything like that knowingly, deliberately. That’s something I wouldn’t do.”
Federal prosecutors say the scheme created losses of about $220,000.
Cypress pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced in February in federal court.