Cargo Theft: The Case of the Dusty Lot
Cargo theft was once a fairly low priority for law enforcement, but a growing understanding of the crime's real cost and impact, as well as its links to national security issues, has fostered a new approach to combating the problem. Interjurisdictional teams and task forces are now combining local, state and even federal enforcement resources to fight a crime that's as mobile and quick-moving as trucking, the industry it preys on.
Crime statistics and descriptions of new enforcement tactics offer a broad picture of the problem, but it takes a real-world account to bring life to law enforcement's renewed efforts to counteract cargo theft. Here is the story of a gang dedicated to stealing truck cargo and how one of the first multi-jurisdictional teams formed in this country broke up that gang and brought its members to justice.
The dust swirled and eddied among the trailers parked in the hardpan and gravel lot 60 mi. due west of Los Angeles. Ringed with a 12-ft.-high rusting and worn chain-link fence and home to a small, dilapidated two-bay repair shop, the lot didn't deserve anything more than a sidelong glance and a dismissive sneer if anyone driving by even bothered to look.
Except for Sgt. Mike Arriaga.
From a discreet distance in his unmarked cruiser, sipping on an ice-cold soda to fight off the 95 deg. temperatures that cooked this valley even in late October, Arriaga scanned the three-acre lot with a practiced eye. And practice focused that eye on two plain-vanilla box trailers parked right up against the fence about 40 yd. down. With the nonchalance of regular Joes working a boring, routine job, he and his partner drove up to the gate, exchanged a few pleasantries with the lone security guard sitting by the entrance, and positively ID'd the trailers as the ones for which they'd been searching.
In plain clothes, Arriaga and his partner evoked no suspicions, raised no eyebrows on this particular broiling Monday afternoon. Hell, people passed through the lot at all hours of the day and night. It was a convenient spot for truckers to stash a trailer for the night — or even a week — with few, if any, questions asked. Even RV owners regularly frequented the lot looking for a low-cost place to mothball the 35-footer that wouldn't fit in their driveway. In short, the lot proved to be a well-trafficked, very public place, only loosely guarded.
Arriaga and his partner drove down the long line of intermodal chassis, 53-ft. dry vans and flatbeds easily and slowly, making a wide looping turn, then exited the lot to find a spot where they could sit in their car on a stakeout unnoticed, for days if need be, with nary a second glance from a passersby.
In position, he radioed his team as they spread out around the lot in unmarked cruisers of their own. “Both trailers are there. Keep your eyes open.”
Then he and the rest of the Cargo CATs detectives settled down to wait.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept. (LASD) founded its cargo theft investigative unit called the Cargo Criminal Apprehension Team, or “Cargo CATs” for short, back in January 1990 to combat what was becoming a newly popular form of criminal activity — the theft of freight. Assigned to the Major Crimes Bureau of the LASD's detective division, the Cargo CATs are what's known as a “multi-jurisdictional” team designed to specialize in surveillance, investigation, and the apprehension of cargo thieves across southern California.
The Cargo CATs work both in uniform and undercover (hence, you won't see their pictures in this article) and can call on local police departments throughout southern California to help conduct arrests if the need arises.
On stakeout duty at the dusty trailer lot, Arriaga pretty much knew he'd need to call in the local police for this case — just a gut response based on years in law enforcement.
Though a newcomer to the cargo crime beat with only a year under his Cargo CATs belt, Arriaga is nonetheless an LASD veteran with the background and skills the specialized team prizes. He joined the LASD in the early 1980s, worked for a year in the L.A. County Jail (as all rookie sheriff's deputies must), then spent time in narcotics, street patrol, and as a station detective investigating crimes against people and property. His experience with undercover operations, his skills as a detective, and a sixth sense honed by years on street patrol made him a natural fit when a spot opened up on the Cargo CATs.
“In our department, you have to look long and hard to solve crimes,” Arriaga said. “The information you can get on what's stolen is vague; few truck drivers know the license plate or container number on the trailer they are hauling, much less what's in it. We can get a report of a theft days after it occurs — and hours, even minutes, matter in cargo theft. It doesn't take long to transport stolen goods a far distance from the crime scene.”
This case out at the dusty lot, however, proved the exception to the rule, an exception the Cargo CATs and other law enforcement groups fighting cargo criminals hope will become more frequent as truckers and shippers learn what it takes to thwart even sophisticated cargo hijackers.
It started at a computer logistics company warehouse at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning as police responded to a burglar alarm. Rats, wiring shorts and all sorts of things trigger false alarms frequently, so when they couldn't find anything wrong, the officers left.
Just as the cargo thieves planned.
Arriaga said the thieves knew that the warehouse was protected by both primary and backup alarm systems. They broke in knowing full well they'd set off the main alarm. Though the police responded in less than six minutes, it gave the thieves enough time to disable the secondary alarm, then exit the building before the first cruiser showed up. After the police left, the thieves waited three hours to make sure the coast was clear, then re-entered the building at 4 a.m. The heist was under way.
Fortunately, Arriaga says this level of organization — the thieves had obviously targeted this warehouse and cased the facility for some time — is still a rarity in the cargo theft world.
“It is difficult to identify a ‘typical’ cargo thief as they come from many different backgrounds. We have seen an increase in more sophisticated cargo thefts, but they're still rare,” he said. “Most cargo thefts involve little or no planning … with some as simple as hooking up to a trailer parked in a yard with no idea what's inside.”
Take the cleaning case earlier this year. A trailer load of steam cleaner solution was boosted and then left 20 mi. down the road. “Obviously, they realized they couldn't do anything with that,” says Arriaga.
The computer warehouse job, however, was another story; the thieves made off with $4.5 million worth of electronics, very fungible electronics on the underground markets for stuff that falls off the back of a truck.
The computer company had left a single trailer at the warehouse dock — conveniently empty. So the thieves put it to good use, hooking it up to one of the two tractors they'd brought along for the job.
But $4.5 million in computers and monitors and other electronic doodads fill a lot of boxes, and one trailer wasn't enough. But these were lucky thieves that Sunday morning. A small trucking company had a terminal just next door with several empty trailers prepped and ready to go, so they went next door and grabbed one.
However, they weren't as lucky as they felt. Taking that fleet's trailer would ultimately prove to be their fatal mistake.
It seems it was the Cargo CATs' turn to get lucky. After receiving a courtesy message about the “false alarm,” employees from the computer company came down to the warehouse later that Sunday just to check things out. Realizing they'd been robbed, they quickly called police, who in turn sent them to the Cargo CATs.
“Time is your enemy in these crimes,” says Arriaga. “From L.A., you can be in Las Vegas in four and a half hours, in Phoenix in six. Once you cross the state line, you are harder to catch. And with all the trucks and trailers out on the highway — at all hours of the day and night — it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack when one is reported stolen a couple of days after the theft.”
This time would be different. The Cargo CATs would soon have the exact location of the needles and the particular haystack they'd been hidden in.
After getting the call, the Cargo CATs immediately drove to the warehouse. Some of the team's members cased parking lots and back alleys in the area known to be used as drop sites for stolen trailers and cargo, while the rest concentrated on the crime scene.
First and foremost, Arriaga and his team wanted to know if the computer company used GPS or other satellite systems of some sort to track their cargo, trailers, or both. In the past, tracking devices had proven their usefulness in quickly hunting down cargo thieves.
Unfortunately, the computer company did not. But the small trucking company next door did. That “extra” trailer pilfered by the thieves carried a GPS device and a transmitter for broadcasting its location. And for Arriaga's team that proved to be the jackpot.
“Trucking and shipping companies need to use the current technologies available” to track assets and cargo, he says. “We have found that the majority of companies don't. We aren't asking them to use these systems on every load, but at least the high-value ones.”
By Monday morning, they'd gotten a fix on the stolen trailer's location, some 60 mi. west of L.A. off the main highway. Which brings us back to the Cargo CATs on their stakeout around the dirt and gravel lot, waiting to see if and when the thieves would return.
Even though violence is rare on the cargo crime beat, Cargo CATs would take no chances if the thieves did return. In the trunks of their cars were revolvers and shotguns, armored vests, and windbreakers with the words “Sheriff's Department” on them in big, bold letters. The local police were also alerted by the multi-jurisdictional team and were ready with armed backup as well.
“We haven't encountered many armed cargo [theft] suspects over the years, and we don't believe individual deputies worry about ‘shootouts’ with cargo thieves,” says Arriaga. “But we're always aware that the possibility exists. Law enforcement has to be prepared for an armed confrontation with any suspect.”
Also fresh in everyone's mind was the recent bust of a Miami-based ring of cargo thieves that had traveled to California to rob a warehouse. Several were armed with handguns, and one of them had pistol-whipped an elderly security guard. The officers staking out the dusty lot would not take any chances.
Arriaga had been on a lot of stakeouts in his career and he was prepared for a long wait. With extra bottles of water on hand, he and his partner took turns watching the lot — with the naked eye as well as binoculars. Every so often one of the team's unmarked cruisers would pass through the lot just to make sure nothing was going on.
Then, just half an hour into their stakeout, a bobtail tractor and straight truck drove in, kicking up dust as they quickly made their way down to the two stolen trailers. Six men jumped out, hooked up the tractor to one of the trailers, and prepared to pull it away from the fence so they could open the doors and transfer some of the stolen computer goods into the smaller truck.
With a quick nod to the local police, the Cargo CATs team suited up in their raid gear — armored vests and gunbelts, windbreakers, and badges. In minutes, with local officers now by their side, the Cargo CATs drove slowly into the lot to close the circle on their suspects.
That's when things shifted into high gear.
“We drove in casually, but as soon as the suspects saw the local police ‘black and white's’ they started running,” Arriaga says. The team responded the way they do on every cop show you've ever seen. “We got out and chased them on foot. They made it close to 20 yd. to the fence, but they couldn't climb the fence fast enough.”
The Cargo CATs grabbed five of the hijackers at the foot of the fence, the lone escapee getting a lucky break by finding a hole in the fence large enough for him to squeeze through. “It's a flat, rural, dusty area, so we elected to let that suspect go in favor of concentrating our resources on detaining the five we apprehended,” Arriaga explains.
In the end, all five were charged with grand theft and are currently awaiting trial. All the stolen goods and equipment were recovered and returned to their owners. Final score: five arrested, no shots fired, no one hurt, and $4.5 million worth of stolen goods recovered. Not a bad day for any law enforcement professional.
Just the Facts
One of the biggest issues surrounding cargo theft deals with facts or rather, the lack of them. Part of the problem is that cargo theft remains widely under-reported. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), cargo theft is estimated to cost the U.S. $15 billion to $30 billion a year, though the true numbers may be even higher, since some businesses are reluctant to report thefts out of concern for their reputations or insurance premiums.
Another issue is lack of cohesive data gathering on specific cargo theft crimes, according to Ron Koziol, the assistant section chief of the FBI's violent crime section criminal investigative division. “Since the FBI does not track cargo theft data, we depend on several industry partners that do track this type of data,” he told Fleet Owner. “But … no national centralized data system exists for all cargo theft reporting. Today, cargo thefts that are reported to the police may be entered into the uniform crime reporting (UCR) system as a larceny/theft or even as a motor vehicle theft, if the theft of the tractor/trailer occurred.”
However, Koziol says, this will soon change. In 2005 Congress passed a law that mandated the development of a UCR cargo theft category to track these thefts. “This category will not be fully operational for a year or two,” he says.
“But even though this will eventually give some quantitative numbers reporting of thefts by product category, location and estimated loss, it does not provide all of the information necessary so that a comprehensive crime analysis of the problem can be conducted. That's why the cargo industry and law enforcement are working to centralize reporting of cargo crimes and then conduct analysis of those crimes. These steps will help law enforcement and industry to better understand the crime problem, the trends and the methods of operation.”
As the FBI begins the process of gathering specific cargo crime statistics, private companies are conducting their own studies to shed some light on the issue. According to the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, of 1,316 cargo theft incidents studied over the last three and a half years, 52% occurred on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Truckstops and rest areas were the location for 39% of those cargo thefts; modal yards owned, operated or managed by trucking companies, railroads or steamship lines comprised 27%; and unsecured locations — drop lots, motel, restaurant and mall parking lots and on-street sites — were the locations for one-fourth of the thefts. Warehouse burglaries accounted for 6%, and hijackings represented 3%.
While time and location has remained fairly constant, the mix of what is being stolen appears to be changing.
Chubb found that consumer electronics, primarily televisions and DVD players, were stolen in 15.1% of the incidents, followed by food and food products (14%), clothing and footwear (10%), computers and related equipment (8%), metals (5%) and pharmaceuticals (5%).
Lately, however, food and related products moved to the top of the list, according to a study done this year by LoJack Supply Chain Integrity. Foodstuffs comprised 13% of the thefts LoJack SCI studied, closely followed by pharmaceutical/medical and building supplies (both 12%).
“According to our analysis of the data, food and drugs are essentials and are always a target of thieves, but especially so in a depressed economy,” says Robert Furtado, the company's CEO. “That may explain why those items topped the list, while ‘nice-to-have’ items like music, movies and software came in at only 1%.”
Since food is broadly distributed, available everywhere and not traceable, it doesn't draw the attention from law enforcement that a load of cigarettes or electronic components might receive, he explained.
Furtado added that initial efforts to reduce cargo theft focused on high-value cargo such as computers, electronics, pharmaceuticals and tobacco. “But as trucking and law enforcement focused on protecting those goods, it increased the challenge and risk involved to steal them, compelling thieves to go after other ‘less protected’ shipments such as food.”
— SEAN KILCARR