The high price of produce, especially for tomatoes after the deep winter freezes, has attracted more than heightened attention from consumers. A ring of sophisticated vegetable bandits was watching, too.
Late last month, a gang of thieves stole six tractor-trailer loads of tomatoes and a truck full of cucumbers from Florida growers. They also stole a truckload of frozen meat. The total value of the illegal haul: about $300,000.
The thieves disappeared with the shipments just after the price of Florida tomatoes skyrocketed after freezes that badly damaged crops in Mexico. That suddenly made Florida tomatoes a tempting target, on a par with flat-screen TVs or designer jeans, but with a big difference: tomatoes are perishable.
“I’ve never experienced people targeting produce loads before,” said Shaun Leiker, an assistant manager at Allen Lund, a trucking broker in Oviedo, Fla., that was hit three times by the thieves. “It’s a little different than selling TVs off the back of your truck.”
Industry and insurance company officials said it appeared to add a new wrinkle to a nationwide surge in cargo theft.
In the case of the stolen tomatoes, the thieves seemed deeply versed in the ways of trucking companies and the produce industry. Transportation company executives and a law enforcement official said the criminals appeared to have set up a bogus trucking company with the intention of stealing loads of produce and other goods.
"They were just sitting and waiting, watching the produce because they knew it was climbing. It was like a snake in the grass and they struck."
The company, based in Miami, was called E&A Transport Express, according to Master Cpl. David M. Vincent of the Florida Highway Patrol’s cargo theft task force. The company registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in late February, according to the agency’s online database. That was right around the time produce prices were soaring.
“They were just sitting and waiting, watching the produce because they knew it was climbing,” said Clifford Holland, the owner of the transportation brokerage firm Old North State, which was a victim of the gang. “It was like a snake in the grass and they struck.”
In the produce industry, buyers and sellers typically use freight brokers as middlemen to hire the trucking companies that carry goods from place to place.
The thieves apparently began watching Web sites where brokers posted notices trying to connect trucking companies with loads they need carried.
In late March, they contacted Allen Lund. The broker carried out a standard series of checks, including verifying the company’s federal registration and its insurance coverage. Then it assigned the company to pick up a load of tomatoes from a shipper in Miami on Monday, March 28.
Over the next four days, working through Lund and three other freight brokers, E&A Transport picked up four more loads of tomatoes, a load of cucumbers and a load of frozen meat from shippers across Florida, including in the Miami area, Palmetto and Punta Gorda.
At each pick-up, a driver working for E&A showed up at the wheel of a tractor with a refrigerated trailer. The shippers loaded the pallets of tomatoes or the other goods into the trucks and the driver drove off. None of the loads got to their destinations.
The load of frozen meat, worth about $48,000, was picked up from a meatpacker north of Miami. It was bound for Salem, Ore. It is missing, too.
“This was definitely a smart organization,” said Mr. Holland, who was the broker on the load of meat. “They were smooth as silk.”
The thieves sought out loads headed for Detroit, Hartford, the Hunts Point market in New York, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Mr. Holland said that gave them time to carry out multiple thefts before the alarm was sounded, since in each case it would be from two to four days before the loads were due at their destinations. Brokers and shippers suspect the thieves had a buyer for the produce.
Tomato growers said that there had been occasional thefts in the past when prices were high, but the sophistication of this trucking ring was something new.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bob Spencer, an owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, Fla., which lost a load of about 40,000 pounds of tomatoes that he said was worth about $42,000.
Interviews with several police departments in Florida revealed an investigation that might be lacking coordination.
The thieves appear to have benefited by stealing loads in several jurisdictions, with the result that some police departments were slow to share information about the crimes.
The Florida Highway Patrol said the cargo theft unit of the Miami Dade Police Department was leading the investigation. But Detective Roy Rutland, a spokesman for the Miami Dade police, initially denied that the department was aware of the thefts. He later said the department had been asked to assist in the investigation, but that it was not taking a lead role.
“We’re trying to figure out who’s handling this,” Mr. Rutland said on Wednesday. “We just learned that most of this occurred outside of our jurisdiction.”