From an undercover car in a non-descript Hayward strip mall, detectives snapped photos as Isaiah Langley and Danthony Larks walk into a wireless store called Torspin Wireless with a bag police believed was stuffed with brand new iPhones. A few minutes later, photos and video shot by detectives captured the men strolling casually out of the shop towards a black Audi SUV. Now, that bag appeared empty, and they were openly carrying large bricks of cash. It was June 7, three days before Langley would sign a professional football contract with the Oakland Raiders.
Investigators from at least eight different Northern California law enforcement agencies were zeroing in on a crew police had tied to more than 60 strong-arm robberies and grand thefts – from the Bay Area to Sacramento – targeting delivery drivers carrying shipments of brand new cell phones. Police tracked the crew for three more months, arresting Langley, Larks, and ten others in August. Investigators say the crew stole nearly $1 million in new phones in a crime spree that spanned nine months.
But as the Oakland Police Department and Alameda County District Attorney’s Office led the investigation into the suspected robbery crew, detectives from the Fremont Police Department took an interest in Torspin Wireless, the Hayward store police now believed was a front for a major fencing operation trafficking in stolen electronics.
Crime is down across the board in Fremont, according to police, except in one category: auto burglaries. Detectives with the department say car break-ins have reached epidemic, rising sharply over the past two years. So, detectives shifted tactics – trying to disrupt the demand for stolen property by focusing their efforts on the fences, not the thieves.
“What we were looking to do is drive down auto burglaries,” said Lt. Mike Tegner, who heads the department’s Investigative Unit. “It’s a problem in the Bay Area, and we know what was driving crime was these fences.”
Detectives began a months-long surveillance operation on the shop – watching time-after-time as customers walked into Torspin carrying boxes or bags and walked out with cash. They didn’t know it at first, but detective would later come to believe they’d found the largest fencing operation in the Bay Area – and the starting point of an international pipeline of stolen phones spanning at least four continents.
“Out of all the hours of surveillance we had done, I never saw one customer just go in there and by something that a normal store would sell,” said Fremont Police Detective Rick Zemlok. “It was always people bringing in product and leaving with money.”
Zemlok says the man calling the shots for the operation was one of the store’s three owners, Muhibullah Nuristani. Zemlok says the store’s other two owners – Mohammad Mustafa and Abdul Janah – also took part in the suspected fencing ring, as well as Nuristani’s brother, Mujibullah. All but Mustafa had been granted citizenship in the United States after serving as translators for the U.S. Army during the war in Afghanistan, according to police and attorneys for the men.
Zemlok says Torspin was purchasing anywhere from 25 to 100 phones a day from customers coming into the store. One informant told detectives Torspin was the Bay Area’s “chop shop” for electronics, and the stores’ owners knew what they were buying was stolen. Torspin even circulated an electronic Google document for its “preferred sellers,” listing exactly which phones the store wanted to purchase and how much they were willing to pay.
“They were paying a premium for these products, these iPhones and laptops, so the people that are stealing them from the backs of trucks and from peoples’ vehicles know that they can get a lot of money for them,” Zemlok said. “That’s why they’re committing these crimes at such a high rate.”
Police say they soon connected Torspin’s owners to other wireless stores, one in San Francisco called Teckspeen Wireless and another in El Cajon called MJ Wireless, where the Nuristani brothers were based.
“About once a week they would travel down south and sell those products in bulk amounts,” Zemlok said. “We did multiple surveillance trips where we would follow them down to the LA area, down to El Cajon, and watch them sell those boxes of products to different people.”
Detectives wanted to know where the pipeline of stolen phones ended, Zemlok said. That meant getting into business with Torspin and MJ Wireless, by having undercover detectives sell them phones and watch where those phones were activated. Before selling the phones, Zemlok and his team put them on the “blacklist,” a registry of stolen phones that wireless carriers in the U.S. won’t activate.
According to court records obtained by NBC Bay Area, the stores’ owners knew the phones were on the blacklist but purchased them anyway. In September, according to the court records, an undercover detective sold 77 blacklisted phones to Muhibullah Nuristani at MJ Wireless, who told the detective he couldn’t pay full price because the phones were locked, and he couldn’t resell them in the U.S. until he found a way to unlock them.
But only two out of the 150 phones undercover detectives sold to Torspin and MJ Wireless were ever activated in the United States. The others – all over the globe – in Mexico, China, Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, Dubai, and Australia, among other countries, Zemlok said.