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