Estonian police nab boss of Lithuanian car thieves

Karel Reisenbuk
, ajakirjanik
The raid to arrest Aurimas Skirgaila.
The raid to arrest Aurimas Skirgaila. Photo: Kaader Leedu Politsei Videost

Luxurious way of life, follow-me cars and a complicated case. Estonian detectives worked for years to unravel a wave of car theft and trace it back to the infamous Kamuolys gang out of Kaunas.

It is no secret that Lithuanian car thieves have been a nuisance in Estonia for over a decade. The recent conviction of Aurimas Skirgaila, regarded as one of the principal architects of a recent wave of car theft in Estonia, in the Tartu County Court marks the first time a Lithuanian criminal has been convicted of creating a criminal organization in Estonia.

South District Prosecutor Aro Siinmaa said that proceedings involving Lithuanian car thieves are far from over.

“There have been four rulings concerning this group alone, while there are numerous other persons with ties to the criminal organization whom it has proved impossible to bring to Estonia for various reasons,” Siinmaa said.

This is the first time more light can be shed on the success of Estonian authorities as the leader of the group has been found guilty in court.

Lithuanian mob

Dangerous, armed and professional – this has been the description of Lithuanian car thieves active in Estonia for many years. While the police always had reason to believe the Lithuanian gang was run from a distance and that only small fish had been caught, it finally became possible to prove the role of the Kamuolys group and its grand theft auto specialist Skirgaila.

The Kamuolys mob group was founded around 1999 and is named after Giedrius Janonis, considered among the most influential and dangerous criminals in Lithuania. The group takes after his nickname Kamuolys that means ball and is rumored to be tied to Janonis’ love of soccer.

Even though the Lithuanian police have been going after the gang and arrested Janonis along with his chief lieutenants three years ago, many have been released from prison since then. The rumor in the Kaunas underworld is that The Ball may soon be a free man again himself.

But let us return to Estonia. It is June 25, 2020. An expensive Land Rover SUV, parked in front of an apartment building on Kalda tee in Tartu, is started and speeds off at around 4 a.m. It has taken the criminals just a few minutes to start the car. The police are notified soon after.

Because the authorities have been monitoring the situation for some time, they know that the thieves could be armed and dangerous. An operation involving the K-Commando special unit and police rapid response forces is launched. The stolen SUV now speeding toward Valga is tailed.

The ensuing chase sees speeds in excess of 200 kilometers per hour. Descriptions by police officers resemble an action movie.

The police erect several roadblocks on the Valga highway but these do nothing to deter the crazed thief. The driver of the Range Rover tries to ram police vehicles blocking his path, leaving officers no choice but to force the SUV off the road.

The driver jumps out and makes a run for nearby trees even before the SUV comes to a stop but cannot match the speed of service dog Deniro and is soon in custody.

Another suspect waiting in a follow-me car in Tartu is apprehended.

This was the Lithuanian group’s final Estonian venture. Handcuffs snapped shut next to the €10,000 watch of Aurimas Skirgaila six months later.

Prosecutor Siinmaa said that catching international organized groups is different from going after local thieves. Experience, instincts and persistence of detectives is key. Specialized detectives Priit Schvede, Viktor Brujev and Urmas Lätt have worked together for over a decade to make sure car thieves would give Estonia a wide berth.

“Cooperation between dedicated detectives and direct links to other countries’ police forces is what has brought us success,” Siinmaa said.

Conspiratorial schemes

The police have known the Lithuanians’ main scheme for years and the recent group’s modus operandi also differed only on the level of details. Members had clear tasks to minimize the risk of being caught. Siinmaa said that the group only hired experienced specialists and people willing to follow the principles and rules of the underworld.

Skirgaila was ordered by Kamuolys to put together a network sporting a fixed hierarchy for the purpose of funding the Kaunas mob’s common fund. Skirgaila hired brigadiers to handle affairs. According to Aro Siinmaa, men who knew how to handle specialized equipment used for stealing cars and handle logistics.

The brigadiers found drivers to take the cars out of Estonia. The drivers were given phones, single-use SIM cards and all manner of equipment. In most cases, the drivers did not have the skills needed to open and start the vehicles. Their task was to drive to a given location.

Once the drivers had been found and vehicles to be stolen picked during reconnaissance trips, the brigadiers drove the drivers to Estonia.

While the thieves initially entered vehicles by breaking windows or locks before starting the car with a digitally copied key, equipment at the thieves’ disposal became more sophisticated over time. Unto it being possible to steal an expensive luxury SUV in the span of ten seconds.

Devices that can pick up a modern car key’s signal and amplify it from a distance can cost up to €12,000. The brigadier picks up the key signal outside the door and amplifies it to reach the car, which the driver then enters and starts, with the brigadier in tow in a separate vehicle. The latter’s task is to make sure there are no patrol cars on the road.

Upon reaching Lithuania, the stolen cars usually met one of two fates. Newer and more expensive vehicles were sold to former Soviet republics further east as they are difficult to come by legally there. For example, the authorities have traced some of the vehicles to Tajikistan. Other vehicles landed in the group’s Kaunas body shop where they were taken apart and sold for parts.

“As with any efficient undertaking, the group was prone to rationalization. Time in Estonia until the target vehicle could be safely stolen was spent on scouting out new vehicles and locations and writing down addresses,” Siinmaa said. This meant that lists of addresses and cars were always awaiting new teams of thieves.

The prosecutor added that the criminals also became increasingly familiar with the legal system and police methods, with trips to Estonia becoming increasingly conspiratorial. For example, the thieves adopted the practice of regularly switching out follow-me cars that usually had UK plates to make it impossible to tie them to the criminals using the motor vehicles register.

The plates on stolen cars were replaced as soon as possible to rule out automatic detection when crossing the border.

The follow-me cars were equipped with scramblers to disrupt the signal of GPS monitoring devices on stolen cars. Members of the criminal group were prohibited from using debit and credit cards in the target country and told to only use cash.

Aro Siinmaa said that Estonia has not been a special location for Lithuanian car thieves and that the group stole cars all over Europe. Proceedings have shown that teams of thieves were sent to Germany, Austria, Czechia and Slovakia. Cases of theft even stopped for a few years in Estonia as teams were caught in other countries and the Lithuanians had no one to send here. The Prosecutor’s Office cannot go into more detail as many proceedings are still ongoing.

Crime and punishment

Things have been calm in Estonia on the grand theft auto front for some time. “That does not mean we can let our guard down as past experience suggests that another boss who hopes never to have the Estonian police knock on their door will crop up sooner or later,” the case prosecutor said.

The Aurimas Skirgaila group has been associated with 32 cases of theft going back to 2017, with 22 proving successful. Cars were lifted from four Estonian counties, with Harju and Tartu counties more popular.

Tartu County Court sentenced Skirgaila to seven years and five months in prison in December. He will have to serve two years and six months right away, with the rest of the sentence conditional. The Lithuanian was also handed a six-year entry ban.

Siinmaa said that criminals convicted in Estonia in the last decades have not returned. “A partially conditional punishment has proved optimal in similar circumstances. On the one hand, it is insensible for the Estonian state to keep paying for the upkeep of foreign criminals, while probationary periods and entry bans can prevent new criminal acts and make it possible for victims to sue for damages.”

The damage is considerable. A total of 25 victims are demanding €150,000 from Skirgaila. The criminal will have to give up a BMW in his mother’s name, €12,000 of cash and a €10,000 watch confiscated from his Lithuanian home. Next to Skirgaila, six brigadiers and 12 drivers have been identified, while some of them have not been apprehended yet or are serving punishments in other countries.