By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Something wasn't right. Jack Cox could feel that in his gut. The seal on the trailer had been broken. The trailer's identification number had been painted over. And now the trucker didn't want to get out of the cab. Cox stood behind the spotlight mounted on his squad car and waited.
Up until that point, it had been a quiet night. Most nights were in Eminence, Missouri. Come summer time, when the tourists came to canoe the river or hike the Ozarks, things would pick up a bit. But it was February now, too cold to do much besides stay inside and watch television, which was fine with Cox. He was the only cop in town, so the slower the night, the better.
The call had come in just as Cox was pulling into a convenience store. An 18-wheeler had been stolen in Crawford County, 85 miles north. Dispatch gave him the description of the rig.
Twenty years before, Cox had been a trucker. He liked to joke that he became a cop because he wanted a safer job. Once, while carrying a load of explosives, Cox was nearly hijacked. He was pulling out of a truck stop near Philadelphia when he noticed he was being followed. When the car tried to run him off the road, Cox called the highway patrol, who told him to keep driving until a trooper could catch up. He took every exit he could, looping back and forth onto the highway, until the trooper arrived. He would later learn that he'd been followed since he left the warehouse where he picked up the explosives.
Cargo theft had always been a problem in the trucking industry, and in the 20 years since Cox quit driving, it had only gotten worse.
As soon as Cox got off the radio with dispatch, he heard a semi rumbling down the hill into town. He would remark later what an incredible coincidence it was. He waited for the truck at the convenience store, and when it passed him, he flipped on his lights and pulled it over. Now he was standing on the side of the road, waiting for the driver to come down from the cab.
He looked again at the truck. He couldn't be absolutely sure it had been stolen. The tractor didn't match the description dispatch had given him, but the trailer did. He ran his finger over the white paint that was obscuring the identification number. It was fresh. Besides that, truckers rarely if ever used Highway 19. There were too many hills. A semi on Highway 19 was either lost or avoiding the interstate on purpose.
Finally, the driver stepped out of the cab. He spoke little English but enough for Cox to make out that he was headed to Memphis in a hurry. Cox asked for his bills of lading, which would tell him that the driver was allowed to carry this load. The driver hemmed and hawed, said something about the owner of the truck and how he was a Cuban immigrant and the hurry that he was in. Finally, he just gave up and hung his head. "Just take me to jail," he said.
When Cox searched the truck he found a dismantled tracking device, two loaded handguns within reach of the driver's seat and a road atlas. As Cox suspected, the route the driver had marked snaked along backcountry roads. This had been a professional job.
The next morning, the FBI office in St. Louis called. They would be taking the suspect into custody. In the days that followed, Cox would learn the story behind the truck. It had begun its journey at a Motorola facility in Fort Worth, destined for Plainfield, Indiana. On February 27, the driver stopped at a truck stop in Missouri to shower and eat. When he came back out some time later, the trailer of his truck was missing.
Fortunately, the trailer was equipped with a GPS tracking device hidden in the cargo. Police were notified that the truck had gone off course and was probably stolen. It was carrying a load of cell phones worth $4.8 million.
The man who stole the truck, Jose Manuel Perez-Garcia, was sentenced in March to 30 months in prison. He and his attorneys both declined comment. But sources close to the investigation say Garcia, 44, was a reputed member of the Cuban Mafia, which is perhaps more actively involved in cargo theft than any other criminal organization in the United States. Garcia and an associate had been following the truck since it left Fort Worth, sources say. When the driver of the truck went inside the truck stop, Garcia and possibly one or more associates unhooked the trailer-load of cell phones and reattached it to a truck Garcia was driving. Had the truck made it to Memphis, authorities believe, the load of cell phones would have then been shipped to Miami and from there to the Middle East.