Thursday, June 20, 2024

Fencing rings that netted $18 million in L.A. railroad thefts are taken down, authorities say

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Two theft rings that netted more than $18 million worth of merchandise stolen from railroad cars have been dismantled, authorities said Thursday, months after images of a sea of discarded containers along Union Pacific tracks in Lincoln Heights drew national attention.

In the months-long operation aimed at curbing rail theft across Los Angeles County, a task force has made more than 700 arrests and recovered millions of dollars in stolen goods, including designer handbags, power tools and a pair of empty coffins, authorities said.

“This needed a dedicated series, and it also needed police resources outside of just LAPD, California Highway Patrol, the Sheriff’s Department, law enforcement agencies,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said at an afternoon news conference. “People’s willingness to buy something at a discount and seeking that out is fueling the greed of receivers to go find individuals who’ll go out and who’ll commit burglaries.”

Though the Los Angeles Police Department had previously investigated rail theft, the task force was formed in January in response to “the unrelenting assault and the continued loss and the proliferation of debris and the dangers that were posed by this ongoing threat,” Moore said.

Some of the thefts were the work of opportunists working alone, but authorities said they identified two organized fencing rings. Two dozen members of those rings have been arrested, about half of them charged with crimes including burglary and receiving stolen property, authorities said. Their operations reached as far east as Texas; authorities said they also traced some of the stolen goods to Mexico.

The rise of e-commerce and Southern California’s role as a hub for the movement of goods drew thieves looking for a target, Moore said. Other observers see the increase in such thefts as emblematic of the desperation that has engulfed parts of the country since the outbreak of the pandemic, which cost millions of people their jobs.

The thefts also raised concerns about vulnerabilities in a key element of the supply chain.

Of particular concern was the theft of firearms, authorities said, including more than 40 handguns and rifles taken from a train bound for Tennessee, which wasn’t discovered until the train reached its destination.

In a letter to L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón in December, Union Pacific reported that thefts targeting its trains in Los Angeles County had increased by 160% over the year before, with a particularly sharp surge in the lead-up to the peak holiday season. The railroad company has argued that the theft problem was made worse by Gascón’s approach to prosecuting criminal offenders.

“Charges are reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense, and the criminal is released after paying a nominal fine,” Adrian Guerrero, a director of public affairs for Union Pacific, said in the letter.

In response, Gascón chastised Union Pacific for having poor security and said that his office was filing charges against the suspects.

Moore echoed that sentiment Thursday, saying the district attorney’s office’s position on such cases had “evolved.”

It’s still unclear how widespread train thefts are because nationwide data about such crimes is spotty at best.

Union Pacific and other rail companies operate their own private police forces and frequently collaborate with law enforcement agencies. Rail operators have taken steps in recent months to beef up permanent security measures around rail lines, including bringing in extra security, installing lighting and using more secure locks to deter would-be thieves.

Jordan Lippel, vice president of sales for ECamSecure, said the Long Beach security company worked with Union Pacific to increase surveillance of its property through monitoring enhanced with artificial intelligence.

“The artificial intelligence is set up to detect people and vehicles in restricted areas, and once those restricted areas are created through an invisible geofence, they alert our command center in Long Beach, where our specialized agents are able to take appropriate, real-time action,” he said.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said the task force, which ballooned to roughly 40 policing agencies, underscored the importance of law enforcement collaboration.

“It’s a reminder to all of us that for every major problem in our region, typically, we have to bring together multiple agencies, whether it’s a criminal issue or a quality-of-life issue or housing,” he said.

Times staff writers Rachel Uranga and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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