On Nov. 5, three men wearing ski masks cut a neat hole through a security fence--just above an alarm wire and below the view of a video camera--at Pacer's storage yard in Commerce, then sprayed a guard with pepper spray, Black said. A few minutes later, he said, a driver noticed the suspects "running around in the shadows" and leaned on his truck horn to summon help.
The intruders scurried off empty-handed. Ten days later, the company's South Gate yard was raided by another band of robbers who wrapped a night watchman in duct tape, then drove away in three Pacer trucks with about $1 million worth of electronics equipment and Skechers athletic shoes.
The trailers, he added glumly, were found empty.
In the Long Beach headquarters of the multi-agency Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cargo Criminal Apprehension Team, the latest heists are logged on a large memo board. One by one, cargo theft investigator Sgt. Jim LeBlanc lists hijacked trailers and victimized warehouses, and the value of their cargo.
Topping the list a few weeks ago were $850,000 worth of electronics products ripped off in Rancho Dominguez, a $175,000 load of electric razors stolen in Carson, $172,000 worth of computer monitors lifted in La Mirada, and $20,000 in food taken in South Gate.
"They steal anything on wheels," LeBlanc said.
His Cargo Cats unit is one of four small law enforcement teams in Southern California dedicated to thwarting cargo theft. The others are the FBI's Interstate Theft Task Force, the CHP's Cargo Theft Interdiction Program and the LAPD's Burglary Auto Theft Detail.
All are struggling to keep up with mushrooming caseloads.
In all of 2000, for example, Cargo Cats recovered about $12 million in stolen property. As of Dec. 1, the most recent statistics show that it had recovered about $16.5 million worth in 2001.
Similarly, the CHP team opened 259 cargo theft investigations in 2000; it opened 437 in 2001.
Among them was the big cigarette cargo heist in San Bernardino. The hijackers drove the truck to an undisclosed location where they unhooked the trailer, CHP Sgt. John Antillion said. The criminals then drove the truck, including the handcuffed driver and passenger, to the nearby community of Bloomington, and left in another vehicle.
The driver managed to call for help, and the CHP discovered his trailer that afternoon still loaded with cigarettes. Under CHP surveillance, several people picked up the trailer that night and took it to an El Monte warehouse. Antillion believes the eight suspects arrested there were hired to unload and broker the cigarettes.
"We're still looking for the actual robbers, but I'm confident we'll get them," he said.
Even though its ranks have shrunk because of reassignments for the fight against terrorism, the local FBI team specializing in cargo theft continues to collect intelligence and advise smaller agencies. The FBI also participates in sting operations such as one that brought down a gang led by Juan Luis Villalobos.
Villalobos' gang targeted trucks, truck yards and distribution centers across the West, authorities said, and returned to Los Angeles to fence the merchandise through a thriving domestic and international black market.
From late 1998 to early 2000, the 44-year-old Mexican national and his gang stole an estimated $7 million worth of sleeping bags, electrical products, computers, athletic shoes, cereal, basketballs and tires, authorities said.
As is typical, the merchandise was offered to mom and pop stores and fence operations for as little as 25% of its retail value.
Villalobos, whose underground network included accomplices in Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Ore., was arrested by the FBI and Washington State Patrol officers about 15 months ago in Seattle, FBI Special Agent Eric Ives said. Villalobos recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to charges of conspiracy, theft, and possession of goods stolen from interstate and foreign commerce. He must pay restitution of $4 million and spend more than seven years in federal prison.
In an interview, Villalobos' attorney, George Trejo Jr., said his client had no choice but to plead guilty.
"The feds planted a bug on his tractor-trailer in Washington, then followed him all over the West," he said.
Also convicted were members of Villalobos' ethnically diverse gang, and brokers and shop owners who moved the items into local markets.
David Vigil, 29, of Aurora, Colo., a Villalobos underling who offloaded trucks for him and rented storage facilities and trailers for stolen property, must spend two years in prison and pay $1.6 million restitution.
In an interview just after his sentencing, a contrite Vigil said he was an unemployed Denver factory worker with a clean record when he was recruited into Villalobos' crew. "It all started a few years ago when some guys offered me $50 to help unload a big truck," he said. "After that, they started giving me rock cocaine, and I got hooked on it."
Before long, Vigil said, he was receiving payments of $1,000 to rent storage units under his name. "Next thing you know," he said, "I was buying more cocaine, and renting more U-Haul trucks and storage units for them.
"I realized the stuff was stolen . . . but I didn't care 'cause I was high all the time," he said. "I made about $15,000 over nine or 10 months, and I smoked it, man. Now, the government is making me pay back $1.6 million. That's what I get for what I did."
On the day Villalobos and Vigil were sentenced, cargo theft investigators were rushing from one fresh crime scene to another.
The LAPD's Zavala recovered a 48-foot trailer in Rosemead containing 14 pallets of diapers that had been stolen in Alhambra.
The Cargo Cats reported six new heists, totaling $907,000 in value: men's shirts out of Rialto; watches in San Bernardino; TVs out of Pomona; camcorders in Montebello; baby products in Monrovia; and chrome auto wheels in Vernon.