Highway Robbery

Crime doesn't pay? Tell that to truck cargo thieves.

And yet in most cities there is no concerted effort to topple cargo gangs. Task forces in Miami, New York, Memphis and Los Angeles recover millions of dollars in stolen freight every year. In fact, the Los Angeles County CargoCats have recovered more than $250 million in stolen property since 1990. But the success of these task forces has done little to slow cargo gangs or the flow of stolen merchandise into the black market. If anything, it has only pushed them farther inland, from port cities to major transportation hubs such as Dallas. Call it the balloon effect—push them out of one area, and they will pop up in another.

Part of the problem, perhaps the single biggest problem when it comes to cargo theft, is that, unlike other major crimes, the FBI is not tracking it. As a result, local police departments have no idea how big the problem is in their cities. They also have little incentive to chase it. When a tractor-trailer is stolen, it is categorized as a vehicle theft. Most cops don't worry about the cargo.

For decades, trade groups representing the trucking and retail industries have tried to get the FBI to add cargo theft to its Uniform Crime Report, and for decades they have been ignored. That changed after September 11, 2001, when securing the nation's supply chain became a top priority. When the Patriot Act was reauthorized in March it included several provisions relating to the trucking industry. It increased prison terms for cargo theft and mandated that the FBI start tracking cargo heists beginning next year.

Stolen cargo recovered from a dollar store in Oak Cliff and a warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard
Stolen cargo recovered from a dollar store in Oak Cliff and a warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard
Dallas police officer Terry Peters is one of three officers in the Southeast Patrol Division who targets cargo theft. In the last nine months they've recovered more than $7 million in stolen freight.
Mark Graham
Dallas police officer Terry Peters is one of three officers in the Southeast Patrol Division who targets cargo theft. In the last nine months they've recovered more than $7 million in stolen freight.

"I think cities are going to hate it because it's going to be of such high value, and it's going to up their crime stats," says David Wallace, a detective in Dallas who investigates cargo thefts. "People are going to be surprised at how big it is."

On the outskirts of southeast Dallas, past a neon blur of fast-food restaurants, a cluster of truck stops dot a five-mile stretch of road where three interstate highways intersect. If you want to see how big of a transportation hub Dallas has become, there is no better spot than the Pilot Truck Stop off Interstate 20 and Lancaster Road. Five thousand trucks a day pass through it.

I went there in August with Dallas police officer Terry Peters, better known to Dallas Observer readers as the whore cop. When Peters isn't chasing truck-stop hookers and pimps, he's chasing stolen freight. In the last nine months, Peters and two other officers in the Southeast Patrol Division have recovered more than $7.4 million in stolen freight.

"If we three cops, just targeting it a little bit, are recovering that much cargo, that tells you how big it is," Peters said.

On my first night with Peters we found a pimp named Country in a field beside the truck stop. He'd been smoking crack with a hooker named Cookie Monster. Peters knew them well—he'd arrested both several times. "How you doing?" he asked Country, shining a flashlight in the pimp's eyes. Country, who was dressed in dirty shorts sagging halfway down his butt, simply nodded and looked away. "Country's just a small-time dope head," Peters said as we drove away.

A few weeks later, Peters called to say he'd run into Country again. This time, Country had really gotten himself into trouble: He had tried to steal a tractor-trailer loaded with telephone poles.

It happened like this: Country and two hookers named Peaches and Blue Eyes convinced a trucker to rent a room near the truck stop where they could smoke crack and have sex. When the driver went to check in, Country decided to steal the truck.

By chance, Peters was near the hotel, towing a truck that had been stolen and stripped. When he saw the stolen rig barreling toward him, he shined his flashlight in the cab to see who was driving. "Country," he muttered. "That dumb-ass." Seconds later, the driver of the truck came running out of the hotel. "My truck's been stolen," he hollered at Peters. So Peters jumped in his squad car and took off after Country, who thought he could lose Peters, but the cop cut him off before Country could get the rig on the highway. Country jumped in the back of the cab and threw one of the hookers he had with him in the front seat. He wasn't driving, he insisted. But Peters knew better. So he threw Country in jail and notified the owner of the load that he had his telephone poles.

In all likelihood, Country wouldn't have known what to do with the telephone poles, Peters said. But he would have sold everything else on the truck. There are trucking supply stores up and down Highway 175, especially in Pleasant Grove, that will buy stolen tires, wheels, seats or anything else that can be stripped out of a truck, Peters said.

This is the most common type of cargo theft in Dallas, and it happens all the time. Peters regularly comes across trailers abandoned in empty lots. Sometimes they are full of cargo, and sometimes they are empty. He's recovered stolen loads of furniture, lettuce, televisions, tires, cigarettes and electronics.

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