Miami Heat

| April 07, 2005

Billions of dollars are lost and many lives risked every year as ever-bolder thieves loot the trucking industry.

Thick with Thieves
The roots of cargo theft reach inside and outside the industry.

Hijacked!
Some thieves turn to desperate measures to take cargo.

Dwindling Resources
Cargo theft takes a back seat to war on terror.

Protecting the Goods
Fleets, retailers and trucking organizations all have a vested interest in security.

Big Gain, Little Pain
Weak penalties, high profits make cargo theft more attractive than dealing in narcotics.

A sting operation hung in the balance on a sticky Miami night last summer. The edgy cleverness of an informant, the tense hours of dangerous work by an undercover detective and the exhaustive scheming by the TOMCATS (Tactical Operations Multi-Agency Cargo Anti-Theft Squad) came together as civilians were cleared from the area where lawmen positioned themselves for a possible takedown.

Part of the meticulous planning that led to this point involved covering the many contingencies of such an unpredictable operation.

“What if there’s a shooting, a fire, an escape attempt, an accident?” says TOMCATS commander, Ed Petow, whose team may create a planning document 50 pages long for such stings. “The plan is exhaustive and approved by the heads of all the agencies involved. It can be overwhelming getting it all down on paper.”

Then there are technicalities, such as limitations the agents face in establishing the sting. TOMCATS detective Hugo Gomez says an undercover lawman, for legal reasons, can do nothing to lead the thieves to act. “If they say they will, or might, use guns, I just say, ‘Hey, that’s up to you, don’t ask me.’ Any opinion of mine could be entrapment.”

Two previous TOMCATS stings helped put a dent in armed tractor-trailer robberies in South Florida. In the first, a man with a .25-caliber automatic died in a shootout with a SWAT team. In the second, a man was wounded after he and a cohort, shouting that they were FBI agents and demanding the driver open his door, were confronted by a real FBI SWAT team.

The case that led to the sting last summer began when suspects told an informant they wanted to do a home invasion. He played along. But two days before the invasion, the men suddenly called it off. “They said there were too many intangibles, too many things that could go wrong,” says Petow.

Just when the task force members thought the men were off their radar screen, the thieves made a stupid move. In a motel room, they photographed themselves playfully tossing $100,000 worth of currency into the air and laughing as the money rained down on them. A suspicious film processor alerted police. Aware their suspects were active again, the TOMCATS decided to attempt another sting.

When these laughing men photographed themselves playing with money, film processors alerted police. The result was a major TOMCATS sting that broke up the Southeast’s most active truck hijacking ring.

The informant, wearing a wiretap, again made contact with the two lead suspects and told them he’d met someone who moves very expensive merchandise on trucks. “Trucks? Oh, man, that’s a gift – we know about hijacking trucks,” they replied.

That “someone,” an undercover detective, had little knowledge of trucks, so he was given a crash course before being wired and sent into action. The undercover detective told the bad guys his story a little at a time, as the two sides felt each other out in meetings in fast-food restaurants and gas station parking lots. The undercover detective convinced the men he was a “mule,” someone who moves drugs around the country by truck for one of the big dealers in Miami.

The undercover detective told the suspects that he wanted revenge on the dealer, who had cheated him. He said the dealer was putting together a load with 55 kilos of cocaine to be hauled north. He said the drugs would be hidden in a trailer with a legitimate load of perfume and designer clothing.

The undercover detective said he was waiting for the word to go. The deal was the suspects could keep the perfume, clothing and most of the cocaine. The undercover detective said he wanted just five kilos to make his revenge a little sweeter.

Eventually they made a deal, and the sting was arranged. Task force detective Mickey Valenzuela recalled having a nervous time as the clock ticked down the night of the sting. The undercover detective was stalling so the thieves wouldn’t get to the truck too quickly or have too much time to thoroughly case the neighborhood.

But they were getting impatient. There was a cat-and-mouse game on cell phones as the undercover man told them he’d have the truck’s location any minute.

“After he tells them, they are there in just seven minutes,” says Valenzuela. “They drive around the site, but then another car comes and prowls around. We had no idea who it was until the second car stopped and talked to that first car. We knew then they were together. In the beginning there were two men, then four and now five.”

Waiting for the sting to go down, everyone in the task force was anxious. “It’s always real tense as the last few minutes go by,” says Danny Villanueva, who has served as the lead detective in previous TOMCATS stings, and was a part of this one. “But once we know it’s going to go, we hand over control of the area around the truck to the SWAT guys, cover our area, and it’s ‘Here we go.’ When it goes down there’s so much tension you could cut it. You keep wondering what could go wrong, what you’ve forgotten.”

Like the truck markings.

The intruders’ plan was to scale a wall behind the trailer, which was backed up at the end of a cul-de-sac surrounded by small warehouses. Then they would drop down the other side of the wall, break into the cab of the idling Peterbilt 379 and overpower the sleeping driver. But on top of the wall, the leader of the would-be thieves stopped, suspicious of the tractor, which had no DOT numbers or other normal commercial truck markings.

Lt. Ed Petow, commander of the TOMCATS, outlines a sting plan to his detectives.

The TOMCATS is made up
of the following personnel:

Miami-Dade Police Department: one lieutenant, two sergeants, 10 detectives, one analyst, one secretary
FBI: one supervisor, nine special agents, one secretary, one clerk
Florida Department of Law Enforcement: two agents, one analyst
Florida Highway Patrol: one trooper
FDOT: one officer
Customs: one special agent
Broward County Sheriff’s Office: two detectives

The four men soon overcame their suspicion of the unmarked truck, continued over the wall and dropped quietly to the ground. The fifth man remained in the car as a lookout. The four armed men quickly smashed the tractor’s windows with a golf club to break in. One of them was working on jumping the engine when the SWAT team, perched on top of the warehouses, shouted its warning.

Dazzled by the lights of the task force, the four men froze for a moment. The SWAT team opened fire with pepper balls, soft-coated projectiles the size of marbles. When the pepper balls hit the truck and the robbers, they burst open and filled the air with powdered cayenne pepper.

A man breaking into the Pete took off running with a shotgun. The SWAT team shouted a warning, and the man’s accomplices yelled, “Drop it, drop it, you fool or they’ll shoot you!” The runner stopped and dropped the weapon. On the other side of the wall, the TOMCATS arrested the fifth man. The truck was damaged, but no one was badly hurt.

The task force members soon discovered that the suspects were the most active cargo hijackers in the region, and have apparent roles in most of the open cargo cases that involve hijacking. At press time, two of the arrested men had accepted plea bargains and face sentences of 15 years or more, one was in plea negotiations, and two were awaiting to be scheduled for trial, said Lt. Petow. There has not been a truck hijacking in the area since this sting.

Task force members speculate that greed made the suspects keep going after their suspicions were aroused. Alex Peraza, the FBI’s supervisor in the TOMCATS operation, recalls how a man he once helped put behind bars for cargo theft saw Perazza, as an undercover agent, talking to a suspected cargo thief. “He’s a cop, he’s a cop!” warned the ex-con.

“You know what?” says Perazza. “That guy stayed with me all the way to jail while this other guy is telling him I’m a cop. He chose to believe me because I was carrying the money. Greed – it helps.”

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