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Thefts of Container Cargo Soaring in Harbor Area : Crime: Bold thieves are hooking up to huge containers and just driving off with the goods. The Sheriff’s Department is considering setting up a special team to investigate.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Monday, Oct. 23, Greg Smith arrived at work to find his Freddie Krueger dolls missing--all 3,700 of them.

The dolls--$92,000 worth of stuffed likenesses of the gruesome “Nightmare on Elm Street” film character--had come from Taiwan, via the Port of Long Beach. Like much of the merchandise imported today, they were packed in a cargo shipping container.

Upon its arrival, the container was loaded by crane onto a trailer. A truck driver hooked the trailer to his tractor and drove the goods to Smith’s warehouse in Carson. There, employees were to unpack the Freddie dolls and distribute them to Toys R Us stores throughout Southern California.

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But Freddie never got out of the box.

“They broke through our fence, tore the gate down, stole a company tractor and pulled the container out,” Smith said. “When we came, the truck was missing and the container was missing. It was just one big headache.”

That’s how Smith and his company, Western Sunset Warehouses, joined the growing ranks of victims of what authorities say is a very lucrative crime: container cargo theft.

According to law-enforcement officials, thefts of shipping containers are on the rise, especially in the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor areas and in the industrial communities that surround the two ports. Thieves are heisting container loads of everything from L.A. Gear footwear to Sony compact disc players to deluxe bicycles that sport Batman logos.

Sometimes, the thefts occur at the ports themselves, where containers arrive by the thousands each week on massive ships from Japan, South Korea and other nations of the Pacific Rim.

But far more often, authorities said, the goods are swiped from warehouses like Smith’s, which act as way stations between the ports and the final destinations of the imported goods. And with the rapid growth of the ports and the containerized shipping business, authorities said the opportunities for thieves are growing.

“We’re in the midst of a boom, and so are the thieves,” said Harry Hunold, chairman of the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach Cargo Theft Security Council. Hunold, a Los Angeles Port Police detective, founded the 110-member organization, which focuses on prevention and recovery of stolen goods.

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Said FBI Special Agent Randy Ferguson, who investigates cargo theft from the agency’s Long Beach office: “It’s just been a steady reign of theft. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t have one or more containers stolen.”

The trend has prompted the Los Angeles Harbor Department to review its security measures. Ron Kennedy, director of operations for the port, said Harbor Department officials are discussing the problem with their shipping terminal operators--one of whom lost six containers in a rash of thefts earlier this year--and will be issuing recommendations sometime in January on how to improve port security.

Moreover, the chief of the county’s Multijurisdictional Criminal Apprehension Detail is proposing that his group establish a team of officers who would handle nothing but cargo theft.

The detail, a joint operation of the Sheriff’s Department and suburban police departments, already has officers who specialize in recovering stolen cargo. But Lt. Jim Harris, the sheriff’s deputy in charge of the detail, said his proposal--which has not yet been approved--would enable the organization to devote more time to the problem.

Although cargo theft is not limited to the Long Beach and Los Angeles harbor areas, much of it is concentrated in the ports and the communities that surround them because they are the hub of Southern California’s shipping activity. Each year, more than 1.5 million cargo containers are shipped through the Los Angeles port alone. While they are on their way to and from the port, they are often stored in warehouses in Wilmington, Carson, Compton and other nearby communities.

Because so many different law- enforcement agencies investigate container theft, complete statistics are not available on the total number of containers stolen or the amount of merchandise lost each year, either in harbor area communities or elsewhere in Los Angeles County. Nevertheless, Hunold, Ferguson, Harris and other law-enforcement agents interviewed all said there has been a marked increase in cargo theft over the past few years, and this year especially.

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That growth is reflected in Los Angeles Police Department statistics, as well as in numbers provided by the Multijurisdictional Criminal Apprehension Detail. According to Hunold, the cargo security council chief, the Los Angeles police handled 105 cargo thefts this year, up from just 20 last year.

And the Multijurisdictional Criminal Apprehension Detail, which collects data from the Sheriff’s Department, the California Trucking Assn., the FBI’s Long Beach office and the Compton police reported that during the first half of this year, those agencies investigated as many cargo thefts as they did during all of last year.

Harris said the detail’s statistics have shown a dramatic increase since 1985. That year, the agencies reporting to the detail handled 23 stolen containers, with merchandise valued at nearly $2.4 million wholesale. From 1986 to 1988, those same agencies handled between 50 and 58 thefts each year. In those cases, the annual loss of merchandise ranged from $2.6 million to nearly $7.1 million.

Yet by July of this year, Harris said, the Multijurisdictional Criminal Apprehension Detail had received reports of 60 container thefts involving merchandise valued at $3.5 million--an indication that the number of containers stolen, if not the value of the goods, is on the rise.

Harris also said his officers have recovered more stolen cargo this year--nearly $4 million, up from $1 million last year.

Authorities say cargo theft is popular because it is a low-risk, high-profit crime. One container of stolen goods can be worth as much as $750,000, as was the case with the Sony compact disc recorders stolen from the Port of Los Angeles this year.

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The stolen merchandise winds up in a variety of places. Law- enforcement officials say it is sometimes sold at swap meets, sometimes in stores whose proprietors may know they are purchasing stolen equipment but look the other way. Some of it is sold out of state and some out of the country, often just across the border in Mexico.

The FBI’s Ferguson said that, on occasion, authorities have discovered entire warehouses filled with stolen merchandise, and sometimes it is earmarked for specific buyers.

“Whether they sell it all in one bunch or just sell it 50 at a time, it’s pure profit,” Ferguson said. “You steal a $500 car stereo unit, turn it around and sell it for $200. You get a couple of thousand of them, and that’s a pretty nice piece of change.”

Moreover, Ferguson and others said, the crime is not that difficult to commit. Many warehouses have only fences and locked gates to keep trespassers out. They generally do business in out-of-the-way industrial areas, and warehousing companies often find it too expensive to employ security guards at night and on weekends.

That was precisely the case at Western Sunset Warehouses, according to Smith, the company president. But after the Freddie Krueger dolls were stolen, the company installed a $28,000 security system with an electric gate that opens only from the inside, video cameras and motion detectors that will set off strobe lights and alarms if an intruder enters.

Stealing containers from the ports is a bit more difficult than stealing from warehouses, because most shipping terminals have security guards at night. Nevertheless, said Hunold of the Los Angeles Port Police, this year thieves swiped 12 containers from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports--double the number stolen last year.

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“They come into the terminal at night, physically cut the fence, drive a stolen tractor into the fence line, hook up with a trailer with a container on it and drive out,” Hunold said. “It’s very, very bold, and they’re getting away with it.”

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