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Los Angeles

Cargo Theft Unit Falls Victim to Budget Cutbacks

Crime: The demise of the special team distresses some law enforcement officials and shippers at the nation's busiest port complex.

July 16, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is eliminating a special unit created to fight the growing problem of cargo theft, drawing fire from law enforcement officials and shippers who say the action is ill-advised in the nation's capital of truck hijackings.

Cargo Cats, as the multi-agency unit is called, costs Sheriff Lee Baca's department about $1.5 million a year and has recovered an estimated $18 million worth of stolen freight, trucks and trailers in the last year.

Since its inception in 1990, authorities said, the unit has been responsible for 1,150 felony arrests and the recovery of an estimated $176 million in stolen items, including computers, clothing, frozen pastries, car parts, lightbulbs and dog food.

"I'm shocked that this is happening, because of the void it will create," Sgt. Jim LeBlanc, who has been assigned to the unit for eight years, said Monday. "I don't think you can find a more productive law enforcement task force operation anywhere in the country."

But Baca, under pressure from the county Board of Supervisors to cut $60 million in services from his $1.6-billion budget because of new operating costs, decided that the unit, which has its headquarters in Long Beach, could be eliminated.

The sheriff was unavailable for comment Monday. But Chief of Detectives Mike Soderberg said, "We made a decision to cut non-life-saving units." In addition to Cargo Cats, the hate crime unit and other services will be cut.

"We hate that this is happening. Cargo Cats is one of our most productive units. Our position is this: The sheriff didn't cut these units; the Board of Supervisors cut them by a 3-2 vote," said Soderberg. The cuts were recommended by Baca and then accepted by the supervisors.

Cargo Cats Lt. Joe Arteaga said, "We're out of business effective Aug. 4." The unit quit accepting new cases July 5 and has started reassigning working cases to the nearest sheriff's substation.

Facing a sudden vacuum in security at the nation's busiest port complex, cargo companies and freight security organizations across the nation have been lobbying Baca and the Board of Supervisors to reconsider.

Many of those firms have donated thousands of dollars to Cargo Cats over the years to help defray costs related to informants' fees and storing information about criminal activity.

"What they're doing is beyond comprehension," said Joe Baker, executive director of the National Cargo Security Council. "To see Cargo Cats closed up tears my heart apart."

In a letter to Baca, John J. Tomancy, director of corporate security for Warnaco Group, a $2-billion apparel conglomerate that moves 3,000 containers and 1,500 full trailer loads through the Port of Los Angeles each year, asked, "Why should I feel comfortable operating in Los Angeles County if I have no qualified help to turn to if we have a load stolen?"

Warren Hoemann, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., which represents 2,500 companies, said, "Our members have been writing, both to Sheriff Baca and the Board of Supervisors, urging a continuance of the unit....

"This is very sad news, and it sends the wrong message at a time when cargo theft is rampant," Hoemann said. "Our members feel they are losing the most effective measure available for combating those who would hijack trucks and steal loads."

Because of the severity of the problem in Southern California, where the FBI estimates that nearly $1 billion worth of cargo is stolen annually, Los Angeles Port Police Chief Noel Cunningham has begun assembling a new unit to take the place of Cargo Cats.

"I think the sheriff is making a big mistake. But we can't allow this vacuum in security," Cunningham said. "So we are working with other law enforcement agencies to come into the fold."

Because of the regional nature of cargo theft, Cargo Cats was formed by combining officers from the Sheriff's Department, the Los Angeles and Vernon police departments, and the FBI. It is largely run by the Sheriff's Department.

The unit made 367 arrests and recovered nearly $52 million in stolen property during its first two years.

The unit's efforts have been directed not only at thieves--who steal trucks at gunpoint or plunder them in storage yards--but also at the so-called brokers. Like drug kingpins, brokers keep themselves isolated and above the operations, setting up deals to store and sell stolen goods to independent retailers or ship them to Mexico.

Over the years, Cargo Cats has cultivated informants who have helped the unit track down stolen cargo and conduct sting operations. Though it focuses on cargo moving through the ports, the unit operates countywide and has served as a model for similar operations coast to coast.

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