Protecting Truck Cargo on Nation's Highways

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

But it's not just ethnic gangs that are involved in cargo theft. In 2002 a Memphis trucker named Catherine Harris testified that she twice sold stolen loads of cereal and cough syrup to a warehouse that was a known fencing operation. On one occasion she was paid $14,000 for a load of Kellogg's cereal. On another she was paid $22,000 for a load of Procter & Gamble pharmaceuticals.

Cargo theft pays and that's why organized crime does it. Compared to dealing drugs or robbing banks, its penalties amount to a slap on the wrist. Maldonado, for example, was arrested dozens of times between 1993 and 2003 on cargo theft-related charges. Each time he would wag his finger at police and smile according to the New York Daily News. "You know, you know," he would say, meaning that within days or even hours he would be back on the streets.

Investigating these crimes is a nightmare. Typically the company that owns the property doesn't want it back because they can't re-sell stolen goods. That means police have to store it. Usually the cargo ends up being auctioned off. John Albrecht vice president of Transport Security Inc. in Minnesota, estimates that it takes $10 to $15 in increased revenue to make up for every dollar lost to theft a cost that's passed on to the consumer.

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.

"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.