SEBRING - A couple of homes in rural Highlands County served as stash houses for stolen goods for a ring of thieves who stole parked tractor trailers and eventually trucked the pilfered merchandise to buyers in Miami, authorities say.
Three suspects have been arrested in the past three months and two more are being sought in the alleged cargo theft ring, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported Tuesday, but the current investigation, with other arrests, dates back about three years.
FDLE Sebring Office Special Agent Ryan Walker said so far there have been 17 arrests in the past three years during the ongoing investigation. The most recent arrests are the results of a racketeering case.
Walker said the FDLE became the lead agency in the racketeering investigation. The agency was involved in several surveillance operations around the state where arrests were made while watching a "theft crew commit the thefts."
"Because of the link with Highlands County having the stash houses, that's how our office became involved with the [cargo theft] task force," he said.
In September 2010, FDLE agents allegedly discovered that two houses on several acres of property on Park Land Drive, off of U.S. 70, were being used by the theft ring to off load stolen merchandise from stolen semi-tractor trailers.
A complaint affidavit filed in the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Polk County states that Rolando Lopez was identified as having the two five-acre properties. On Sept. 10, 2010, Lopez died in Miami and on Sept. 29, 2010 FDLE agents and Cargo Theft Task Force officers executed search warrants on the properties, the complaint states. Stolen goods reportedly were recovered that were taken from Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Haines City and Georgia, the complaint adds.
When law enforcement agents executed the search warrant, there were several semitrailers on the property, Walker said. The suspects allegedly were storing stolen cargo until they could get it to Miami, he said.
One trailer was fully loaded with bathtub enclosures that were still in the boxes, which were stolen from Valdosta, Ga., Walker said. Also, on the property was a cargo trailer that was stolen from Tampa in 2007, along with pieces of three semi-trucks that appeared to be used for parts, he added.
Those arrested recently were Iandy Jimenez, 34, of Lakeland; Alexis Palau, 48, of Miami Lakes; and Enrique Bernardez, 46, of Mulberry.
The investigation reportedly found that the leadership of the organization is made up of business partners and long-time friends and some members have known each other in Cuba, the affidavit states.
The stolen items were purchased by a network of buyers in Miami and sold through Miami businesses, including several cafeterias, the complaint states. These cafeterias have been identified by defendants as being gathering locations where organization leaders and members met to coordinate future thefts.
The evidence indicates that since 2004, or possibly earlier, this cargo theft organization has committed cargo thefts for personal profit. Most of the members have multiple prior cargo theft arrests, the complaint states. Lopez was first arrested by the State of Florida Cargo Theft Task force for cargo theft in 1997.
Walker explained how the theft ring allegedly operated.
Ring members traveled around the state targeting areas where tractor-trailers were parked overnight, such as truck stops and business parking lots, he alleged. The individuals reportedly would break into the trailer to determine if it was loaded and contained valuable merchandise. If it was a load they wanted, they hot wired the tractor and drove out of the area, he added.
Typically, they would get the tractor-trailer to a stash house or to Miami before the driver discovered his truck had been taken, Walker said.
At the stash houses, the stolen merchandise was off loaded from the tractor-trailers and then loaded into legally registered trucks, which were driven to Miami, he said. The stolen truck would be taken to an adjacent county where it was abandoned on the side of the road.
Many semi-trucks have GPS devices on them, but thieves have been disabling some of them, Walker said.
Walker noted that the theft ring targeted meat, chicken and shrimp.
A trailer of shrimp valued at $100,000, which was stolen from Haines City, was recovered at one of the stash houses on Park Land Drive, he said. Three were arrested at a Plant City stash house with a load of beef stolen from Pasco County. The suspects had freezers full of stolen meat.
The complaint states that the semi-tractor-trailer stolen during a Pasco County beef theft was later located abandoned in the Wauchula Walmart parking lot. Cell site records for Bernardez's cell phone showed that he was in the area of Wauchula where the stolen semi and trailer were abandoned and that he was in communication with three suspects during the hours prior to the theft, the affidavit alleges.
Jimenez was arrested May 10 in Polk County and booked into the Polk County Jail with bond set at $165,000.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office arrest report states that Jimenez was on felony probation for grand theft when a sheriff's detective stopped by a Lakeland residence to conduct a probation check. The detective had received information that Jimenez allegedly had recently been involved in cargo thefts in Polk and Lake counties.
The detective reportedly discovered a freezer in the master bedroom with about 200-300 pounds of meat that was not marked or stamped for retail sale, which made him suspicious that the meat may have been part of a stolen cargo, the arrest report states.
A confidential source told the detective that Jimenez was hiding underneath the residence and there was a trap door in the kitchen, the report states. After ordering the suspect out, Jimenez emerged from the trap door and was arrested, the report adds.
Palau was arrested June 2 in New Mexico by U.S. Customs officers and extradited to Polk County. He was booked into the Polk County Jail with bond set at $50,000.
Bernardez was arrested June 30 in Osceola County and booked into the Polk County Jail with bond set at $215,000.
The joint investigation involved multiple law enforcement agencies, including 10 sheriff's offices that includes Highlands, Polk and Hillsborough counties, The Florida Commercial Vehicle and Cargo Theft Task Force, Florida Highway Patrol, CSX Railroad Police and the Haines City Police Department.
Investigators believe the suspects committed dozens of cargo thefts in Florida, stealing millions in products such as electronics, food, tires, clothing and pharmaceuticals, the FDLE reports. The suspects are charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), grand theft over $100,000, cargo theft and burglary.