Highway Robbery

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

"You have your levels of crime," Peters said. "At the bottom level you have your crimes of opportunity. That might mean a driver turning over his load to support a drug habit. Say he's got a load of watermelons; he'll go down the road and sell them to every mom-and-pop store along the way. Then you've got the ones where a driver drops his trailer to get something to eat. He'll drop his trailer any place: at a truck stop, on the street, on back roads. Drivers are lazy and irresponsible. So [a thief] comes along with his bobtail, hooks up the trailer and takes off."

It's a well-known secret that trucking companies regularly hire drunks, drug addicts and ex-cons. In fact, Peters knows drivers-turned-pimps who've gone back to trucking. After a seven-month investigation, The Dallas Morning News reported that the inadequate vetting of drivers was one of the biggest problems facing the trucking industry. By law, trucking companies are required to ask prospective drivers how many times they've been in an accident, the number of traffic tickets they have and their last three years of employment, but they are not required to do a criminal background check.

One night Peters introduced me to a driver-turned-pimp called Ced, who we found on a road behind the truck stop. He was working the area with a girl named Kitty Kat, who stood leaning against Ced's convertible as we talked. Kitty Kat was only 36, but already one of her teeth had gone gray.

Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.

Girls were just a way to get in the truck, Ced said. The goal was to get the driver to the point where he'd spent all his money on crack or whores. "Then he starts selling his tires, selling his freight, selling his gas to other drivers. They sell fridges, whatever they are carrying."

"Anything to support a habit," Peters interjected. "Once it's stripped—of its seats, of its radio, of everything—they'll drop it somewhere and report it stolen."

Like every other big city in America, Dallas has a vast underground network for stolen merchandise. Most of it ends up in the places you'd suspect: eBay, flea markets, bazaars, fly-by-night mom-and-pop stores. Peters once recovered a stolen load of toilet paper from an Oak Cliff dollar store that is still in business. In 2003, Dallas police officers discovered that a load of Best Buy appliances stolen by a trucker from a Grand Prairie warehouse was being sold out of a house in Richardson.

"Scum talk to scum" is the way Peters explains how stolen products find their way into the black market. "They have their connections just like you do. Business is business."

That explains how word recently got out that a trucker in Dallas was selling gas to other drivers on a stolen credit card. Over a two-week period, selling diesel fuel for cash at a buck a gallon, the trucker put upward of $200,000 on the card.

In March 2004, Dallas police, working with the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force, got word from an informant that a load of stolen cell phones was going to a warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard. Police executed a search warrant and found the warehouse was stacked to the rafters with stolen goods, including a trailer half-full of Maytag appliances, boxes and boxes of cheap electronics and about 50 motorized scooters. The owners of the warehouse were suspected of buying other stolen merchandise as well and fencing it to locally owned stores.

Crimes such as these represent the highest level of cargo theft, and they are above Peters' pay scale. The gas theft, for example, was more than a crime of opportunity. The credit card belonged to a trucking company. The suspect in the case had someone inside the company who could change the PIN on the card each time it reached its limit.

These sorts of cases often fall to agencies such as the FBI or the Secret Service, which investigated the gas case. In Dallas, there is no cargo theft task force, which melds the efforts of the FBI and city police to take down cargo gangs. Instead, there is one detective assigned to cargo theft—David Wallace—and he is the only officer in town who works cargo heists that involve organized crime. Walt West, who heads the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force and regularly works cargo theft cases (most of which end up in Dallas), said organized cargo gangs that operate in the area almost always come from out of town.

In the next few months, Wallace plans to file cases against several of these gangs, but he was reluctant to talk about any of them for this story, worrying he might spoil an open investigation. He did say that one case involved the heist of Maytag appliances from a facility in Farmers Branch. Another, which has already resulted in one conviction, involved a truck driver who stole 3,000 Samsung cell phones.

Proving a load of cell phones is stolen is one thing—each phone is marked with a serial number—but there is no way to prove a load of toilet paper or cereal is stolen unless it's still on the crate it was originally shipped on. There's also no way to prove the warehouse storing it knew it was stolen when they bought it.

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