Truck driver Fernando Sancho, a rifle at his side, was sleeping early Monday in a rig packed with $250,000 worth of frozen seafood when three men came in the night.
A repeat victim like many truckers, Sancho chased the men and didn't stop shooting until two of them fell, police say.
The 39-year-old independent trucker was arrested Monday on suspicion of attempted murder in the shooting of two men police say were no longer a threat to him or his cargo.
"Self-defense is when a person is under grave danger and their life is threatened," said La Habra Police Lt. Jerry Cline. "People don't have a right to take a life for property. What value do you put on a human life?"
Two men were hospitalized Monday with serious--but not life-threatening--injuries. They were arrested, along with a third man, on attempted burglary charges. All three were unarmed, police said.
A friend said Sancho was scared and stung by his bitter losses in a previous heist at the same spot on Beach Boulevard.
The roadside showdown comes at a time when cargo theft is running rampant and police and the industry are searching for answers. The FBI estimates that cargo thefts total $3.5 billion a year nationwide, and Southern California is the hub for the crime and the black markets that support it.
"They're moving targets, and it's more lucrative than bank robbery," said Deborah Whistler, managing editor of Truckers News, an Orange County-based magazine sold at truck stops nationwide. "The drivers are beaten, shot, found dead in their rigs. And the loot is on wheels. Ready to go."
Sancho and a friend had picked up the seafood in Florida last week and planned to ferry it to Los Angeles on Monday. On Sunday, Sancho headed to his La Habra home for a shower and change before parking the rig for the night in the 1000 block of South Beach Boulevard near Imperial Highway, according to police.
The spot in a dense, commercial strip is the closest convenient spot to Sancho's home and a common one for truckers. Sancho recently recounted to a friend how he arrived at the spot once before to find his rig and cargo had vanished.
"He warned me to be careful, because I park my rig there once a week when I stop in to have lunch with my mom," said trucker Jimmy Avalon, 40, of Las Cruces, N.M. "Robberies happen all the time. Things aren't like they used to be. You have to be careful."
It was about 1:30 a.m. Monday when Sancho heard stirrings outside, he told investigators.
Sancho climbed down and chased three men across the parking lot, apparently firing steadily, according to police and witnesses.
"At first I ran to the window . . . he was walking slow and had a gun," said Gerry Powers, a lodger at a nearby Sunset Inn who was awakened by the shots. "I didn't know who was shooting what, for all I knew it was someone on a shooting rampage."
Police said the men--later identified as Joel Montes, 20; Fernando Avilia, 21, and Alfonzo Rodriguez, 27, all of Los Angeles--made it to their car and drove to an all-night Fullerton warehouse, where someone called paramedics.
Avilia and Rodriguez were treated for gunshot wounds at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, police Capt. John Rees said.
The fact that Sancho could, if convicted of attempted murder, face far more prison time than the three men was a source of consternation for some within the trucking industry who are grappling with rampant crime.
"That's his life they were trying to steal," said Gail Toth, executive director of a security issues committee for the American Trucking Assn. in Virginia. "He was just mad. I hope somebody takes that into account. Drivers do what they have to to protect their investments and their lives."
More and more, Whistler said, truckers are driving in tandems, using sophisticated alarms and satellite tracking systems, and bringing dogs with them on long hauls to stave off the threat of theft.
Whistler's magazine published a 1995 series that estimated that more than 70% of truckers are packing weapons--although they drive through states that may forbid the practice.
"They're scared," Whistler said. "It's a scary life. They have to park and pick up cargo in the most seedy areas in the worst parts of town. The underbelly of the world is where they do business."
Sophisticated thieves and hijackers will shadow drivers and learn their routines, where they park, sleep and eat, and then pick the most opportune time to strike, said Sgt. Harvey Smith, part of a California Highway Patrol statewide cargo-theft team.
"Truckers are creatures of habit, and [thieves] use that against them," Smith said. The merchandise is then ferried to a warehouse or remote area where the cargo is carved up and parceled out through a network of small merchants, swap shops and street dealers.
Food--especially seafood--is a popular target. Smith said he worked a case where police seized stolen crab meat worth $65,000. The commodity moves quickly and is nearly impossible to trace.
Southern California is the ripest market for cargo thefts, with a mountain of merchandise arriving daily through Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, along with the dense region's airports and latticework of freeways.
"It's a growth industry, unfortunately," said Lt. Joe Lista, a member of the Los Angeles County sheriff's Cargo Criminal Apprehension Team, which has arrested 800 suspects in seven years and seized $120 million worth of stolen property.