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7 Held in Breakup of Equipment Theft Ring

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Times Staff Writer

Seven men have been arrested in connection with the breakup of a theft ring that operated throughout rural California and stole at least $1.3-million worth of truck rigs and farm tractors, the California Highway Patrol reported Friday.

Some of the suspects dabbled in drugs and counterfeit money and one was identified as the owner of one of the state’s largest agricultural trucking firms.

The ring apparently started stealing trucks and equipment from truck stops and farms in late 1982 and continued until August of last year, according to CHP Investigator Gene Rutledge. He said the thieves ranged from El Centro in the south to Stockton in the north, stealing in one place and selling in other farm areas.

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“Sometimes they would steal a truck and trailer, drive it to a farm and steal a tractor, drive to another town and sell them there,” Rutledge said. “Steal in El Centro and sell in Gilroy. . . . All told, they took 40 trucks and farm tractors. Some of the trucks were disassembled and sold for parts, but most were sold intact.”

Sold at Discount

Rutledge said the equipment was sold at huge discounts from actual value.

“For example,” he said, “they stole a Caterpillar tractor worth $180,000 and sold it for $13,000. . . . It was a very large and very sophisticated operation.”

Alfred DeFrancesco, 44, arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen property, is the owner of Westside Transportation Co. of Gilroy, Calif. A CHP spokesman said the company owns 100 tractors and 300 to 500 truck trailers.

Others suspects include Salvadore Bernal, 53, of Whittier, a truck driver; Abel Garrido, 50, of El Centro, a truck driver; Calvin Wright, 35, a pilot from Cottage Grove, Minn., and Bernard Montgomery, 46, a Knights Ferry truck owner. All were named in warrants charging grand theft.

B. Darrell Mauldin, 44, of Lancaster, owner of a welding and truck repair shop, was named with DeFrancesco as a receiver of stolen property. Lawrence McCaas, 33, owner of a truck repair shop in Bakersfield, was booked on suspicion of grand theft and receiving stolen property.

The operation began to fall apart last summer when, in an apparently unrelated crime, Bernal was arrested for passing a counterfeit $20 bill in Fresno, and authorities found 26 other counterfeit bills in his possession. Assistant U.S. Atty. Ed Moffat said Bernal pleaded guilty to the counterfeiting-related charge and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.

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Moffat said Bernal, Montgomery and McCaas also were charged with manufacturing methamphetamine at two factories near Modesto in another case.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Paul Murphy in Minneapolis said that Wright was arrested there last Dec. 26 as a felon in possession of a firearm. He was carrying a .45-caliber pistol in his luggage at the airport, according to Murphy.

Wright was convicted on that charge earlier this month. He also was charged with jumping bail, but pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. The jury acquitted him on that charge, Murphy said.

Rutledge said an eighth suspect is being sought in the equipment theft case, but declined to give his name.

He said the CHP was assisted in the investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, Los Angeles, Imperial and Kern County sheriff’s departments and the Stanislaus County drug enforcement unit.

Rutledge and his partner, Roger Long, began their investigation a year ago on a tip from the Kern County sheriff’s office.

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