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Capital of Big-Rig Piracy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A big rig lumbering at daybreak out of a San Bernardino truck yard with a million-dollar load of cigarettes is swarmed by at least three armed bandits. They jump on the running boards, smash the windows and douse the driver’s face with pepper spray.

Within seconds, they handcuff the driver and his passenger, then rumble down the road. The victims are later found unharmed, and that night California Highway Patrol officers, after a stakeout, arrest eight people unloading the cargo at an El Monte warehouse.

Investigators, however, are still searching for the actual hijackers.

The recent case was just a partial victory for law enforcement officers in their otherwise losing war against such heists in Southern California, which is the nation’s capital for cargo theft.

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It could be cigarettes, diapers, Christmas trees, frozen shrimp, computer chips, sex toys or manure. All of them and more have been snatched.

“Southern California is like a candy store to cargo thieves,” said Jim Harris of the 20-year-old Western States Cargo Theft Assn., a Cypress-based organization of security specialists.

All told, bandits in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties rip off about $2 million worth of assorted goods each day, authorities estimate. Harris calculates that consumers in the region pay as much as 20% more at retail to make up the losses.

In terms of dollar losses and reported cargo thefts, 2001 probably set a record, said FBI Supervising Agent Brett S. Millar. In Southern California, “cargo theft losses are already the highest in the country, with an estimated value of $600 million per year.”

The region has always been a breeding ground for such hijackers because of the massive amounts of cargo moving through it around the clock. The Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex--the nation’s busiest--each year handles more than 5 million shipping containers, with cargo valued in excess of $170 billion. Los Angeles International Airport ships 78% of the Western states’ air cargo.

Law enforcement authorities attribute the surge in thefts partly to the sheer increase in freight movement in recent years. And they say criminals have discovered that cargo heists generally carry lesser penalties than drug dealing, with no start-up costs.

Veteran Los Angeles Police Department cargo theft investigator Mark Zavala said the hottest merchandise on the black market right now includes laptop computers and computer chips, as well as baby formula, frozen seafood, toilet paper, clothing, dog food and cigarettes, all of which can be easily sold at small retail outlets locally, in Mexico and overseas.

Disposable diapers are also popular, given that they do not have serial numbers and sell quickly in low-income communities.

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“I haven’t seen this many reports of cargo theft in years,” Zavala said. “On Nov. 28, I recovered a load of stolen toys worth $100,000, and a trailer taken in a San Joaquin case valued at $100,000. The next day, I located a truck abandoned after a heist in Montebello. When I got back to my office I found a new report on my desk saying $500,000 worth of computer modems had been taken from El Monte.”

On the morning of Nov. 30, Zavala stood on a sidewalk in the shadow of a Harbor Freeway overpass in South-Central Los Angeles interrogating William Avery, 54, a truck driver from Hawthorne.

Looking bedraggled and jittery beside his orange-and-red big rig, Avery said: “I was sleeping in the cab about 3 a.m. when I heard someone knocking on the door. It was a girl. She was kind of cute too. She asked if she could come in.”

Wincing at the memory, Avery said, “There was a guy right behind her with a gun.”

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Avery said they forced him to drive a circuitous route, then emptied his trailer of 50 Christmas trees.

Avery then drove his truck back to the side street where the hijacking occurred and called police. The case is under investigation.

Even with the daunting statistics of theft, many drivers, warehouse operations and freight shipping companies say they cannot afford the best security systems available. Instead, they often rely on a few hired guards, chain-link fences and padlocks to safeguard millions of dollars in merchandise. Even so, law enforcement experts suggest that 60% to 80% of all cargo theft incidents are “inside jobs” in which a freight hauler or company employee shares information with thieves.

Federal law requires that all interstate carriers have cargo insurance. But few firms can survive more than two or three large cargo theft losses because their insurance carriers often refuse to renew, said Ron Lord, senior theft investigator for Great West Casualty Co. in Knoxville, Tenn.

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Pacer International Inc., a shipping company, saw two of its truck yards attacked by armed robbers in November, said the firm’s director of security, Norm Black.

On Nov. 5, three men wearing ski masks cut a neat hole through a security fence--just above an alarm wire and below the view of a video camera--at Pacer’s storage yard in Commerce, then sprayed a guard with pepper spray, Black said. A few minutes later, he said, a driver noticed the suspects “running around in the shadows” and leaned on his truck horn to summon help.

The intruders scurried off empty-handed. Ten days later, the company’s South Gate yard was raided by another band of robbers who wrapped a night watchman in duct tape, then drove away in three Pacer trucks with about $1 million worth of electronics equipment and Skechers athletic shoes.

The trailers, he added glumly, were found empty.

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In the Long Beach headquarters of the multi-agency Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cargo Criminal Apprehension Team, the latest heists are logged on a large memo board. One by one, cargo theft investigator Sgt. Jim LeBlanc lists hijacked trailers and victimized warehouses, and the value of their cargo.

Topping the list a few weeks ago were $850,000 worth of electronics products ripped off in Rancho Dominguez, a $175,000 load of electric razors stolen in Carson, $172,000 worth of computer monitors lifted in La Mirada, and $20,000 in food taken in South Gate.

“They steal anything on wheels,” LeBlanc said.

His Cargo Cats unit is one of four small law enforcement teams in Southern California dedicated to thwarting cargo theft. The others are the FBI’s Interstate Theft Task Force, the CHP’s Cargo Theft Interdiction Program and the LAPD’s Burglary Auto Theft Detail.

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All are struggling to keep up with mushrooming caseloads.

In all of 2000, for example, Cargo Cats recovered about $12 million in stolen property. As of Dec. 1, the most recent statistics show that it had recovered about $16.5 million worth in 2001.

Similarly, the CHP team opened 259 cargo theft investigations in 2000; it opened 437 in 2001.

Among them was the big cigarette cargo heist in San Bernardino. The hijackers drove the truck to an undisclosed location where they unhooked the trailer, CHP Sgt. John Antillion said. The criminals then drove the truck, including the handcuffed driver and passenger, to the nearby community of Bloomington, and left in another vehicle.

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The driver managed to call for help, and the CHP discovered his trailer that afternoon still loaded with cigarettes. Under CHP surveillance, several people picked up the trailer that night and took it to an El Monte warehouse. Antillion believes the eight suspects arrested there were hired to unload and broker the cigarettes.

“We’re still looking for the actual robbers, but I’m confident we’ll get them,” he said.

Even though its ranks have shrunk because of reassignments for the fight against terrorism, the local FBI team specializing in cargo theft continues to collect intelligence and advise smaller agencies. The FBI also participates in sting operations such as one that brought down a gang led by Juan Luis Villalobos.

Villalobos’ gang targeted trucks, truck yards and distribution centers across the West, authorities said, and returned to Los Angeles to fence the merchandise through a thriving domestic and international black market.

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From late 1998 to early 2000, the 44-year-old Mexican national and his gang stole an estimated $7 million worth of sleeping bags, electrical products, computers, athletic shoes, cereal, basketballs and tires, authorities said.

As is typical, the merchandise was offered to mom and pop stores and fence operations for as little as 25% of its retail value.

Villalobos, whose underground network included accomplices in Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Ore., was arrested by the FBI and Washington State Patrol officers about 15 months ago in Seattle, FBI Special Agent Eric Ives said. Villalobos recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to charges of conspiracy, theft, and possession of goods stolen from interstate and foreign commerce. He must pay restitution of $4 million and spend more than seven years in federal prison.

In an interview, Villalobos’ attorney, George Trejo Jr., said his client had no choice but to plead guilty.

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“The feds planted a bug on his tractor-trailer in Washington, then followed him all over the West,” he said.

Also convicted were members of Villalobos’ ethnically diverse gang, and brokers and shop owners who moved the items into local markets.

David Vigil, 29, of Aurora, Colo., a Villalobos underling who offloaded trucks for him and rented storage facilities and trailers for stolen property, must spend two years in prison and pay $1.6 million restitution.

In an interview just after his sentencing, a contrite Vigil said he was an unemployed Denver factory worker with a clean record when he was recruited into Villalobos’ crew. “It all started a few years ago when some guys offered me $50 to help unload a big truck,” he said. “After that, they started giving me rock cocaine, and I got hooked on it.”

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Before long, Vigil said, he was receiving payments of $1,000 to rent storage units under his name. “Next thing you know,” he said, “I was buying more cocaine, and renting more U-Haul trucks and storage units for them.

“I realized the stuff was stolen . . . but I didn’t care ‘cause I was high all the time,” he said. “I made about $15,000 over nine or 10 months, and I smoked it, man. Now, the government is making me pay back $1.6 million. That’s what I get for what I did.”

On the day Villalobos and Vigil were sentenced, cargo theft investigators were rushing from one fresh crime scene to another.

The LAPD’s Zavala recovered a 48-foot trailer in Rosemead containing 14 pallets of diapers that had been stolen in Alhambra.

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The Cargo Cats reported six new heists, totaling $907,000 in value: men’s shirts out of Rialto; watches in San Bernardino; TVs out of Pomona; camcorders in Montebello; baby products in Monrovia; and chrome auto wheels in Vernon.


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