Organized Gangs Behind Growing Number of Cargo Thefts
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
They are multi-million dollar crimes that cost all of us money. Entire trucks, full of freight, stolen by well organized gangs.
Cargo thefts are on the rise here in Middle Tennessee and across the country.
A NewsChannel 5 investigation reveals weak penalties and big pay-offs for those involved only add to the growing problem.
Surveillance video from a Sumner County warehouse last October shows cargo thieves in action.
Professional burglars, wearing masks, dressed in black, disable the alarm system and take over the warehouse.
They load two stolen tractor trailers with more than $2 million of cigarettes.
"They actually cut a hole through the warehouse roof," said warehouse owner Crockett Parks.
The exclusive video obtained by NewsChannel5 Investigates shows that Parks' business was targeted by well organized thieves.
The burglars spent eight hours inside the warehouse and even used the company's own forklifts to load cigarettes onto the stolen tractor trailers.
"They'd done their homework," Parks said. "They'd been stalking us for a while I'm sure. They'd done this before."
Police say many of the organized gangs that commit these crimes are from South Florida, and they are targeting Middle Tennessee cargo more than ever.
In December, two trucks loaded with $750,000 of Jack Daniels were stolen from a secured lot on County Hospital Road.
Drivers crashed one of the trucks near Briley Parkway but got away with the other.
Just ten days later, thieves stole a truck containing $100,000 of clothes in South Nashville.
And police in La Vergne are still investigating the November robbery of two tractor trailers from a loading dock near a furniture store. One trailer was full of furniture.
"We're not focused on these crimes," said John McNamee, who tracks cargo thefts and is on the board of a task force out of Memphis that helps investigate the crimes.
He says many people are content to, "let the insurance company pay for it, but in essence we all pay for it through higher costs."
McNamee says many of the products stolen here are driven to Miami and sold overseas or on the black market. The FBI says profits from these crimes often fund large criminal organizations -- possibly even terrorism.
"It's easy for them to sell your products and the penalties are very minimal and the enforcement is very minimal," McNamee said.
Take the case of Ernesto Herrera from Miami. In 2007, Fairview Police caught him in a stolen truck with more than $640,000 of Dell Computers.
Police said Herrera followed the truck to the Flying J Truck Stop in Fairview, and waited for the driver to go inside.
"They would normally follow a truck and wait for the right moment to be able to take it," said former Fairview Police Detective J. R. Holt.
He investigated several cargo thefts before becoming Chief Deputy of the Dickson County Sheriff's Office.
Holt was thrilled they actually caught Herrera, but he couldn't believe Herrera's final sentence.
"I think anyone would say it's surprising he's not in jail," Holt said.
Despite being caught with more than a half million dollars in stolen computers, a Williamson County judge sentenced Herrera to just three years probation and sent him home to Florida.
"We have people right here in this county jail that are here for a lot less things than that, for months at a time," Holt said.
Part of the problem is local officials tend to treat cargo theft much like an auto theft.
"It's frustrating," said McNamee. "It's a slap on the wrist and they're back on the road."
But the reality is cargo thefts are hard to solve. Thieves can be hours down the interstate before people even know something is missing.
A day after the robbery at his warehouse Crockett Parks got some surprising news.
Police in Pennsylvania pulled over a truck for an illegal lane change. Inside, they discovered nearly a million dollars of Parks' stolen cigarettes.
The two men arrested were from Miami -- they face federal charges for crossing state lines. Parks says it's time to get tough on this type of crime.
"It's big time theft," Parks said. "I hope something happens to them and they stay locked up for a long time."
Right now, there are no assigned federal investigators in Middle Tennessee for these crimes. So they're almost always investigated by local police.
Parks is hoping local authorities will take the robbery of his warehouse seriously and prosecute along with the federal government. He hopes the prosecution is not for just stealing a truck, but for theft of more than $2 million.
Memphis already has a Cargo Security Council that has some federal authority to investigate thefts. Business and trucking company owners are pushing for a similar council here in Nashville.