LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Florida authorities arrested three Miami, Florida, residents last week in connection with a series of frozen beef and pork thefts from packing plants across the Midwest, totaling about $9 million in losses.
The operation has been described by federal and state law-enforcement officials as a "sophisticated organized criminal enterprise."
The Lancaster County Sheriff's office in Lincoln, Nebraska, launched an investigation into the theft of several semi-trailers and loads of frozen beef in the county on June 27, 2022, according to a news release from the sheriff's office.
"In the initial investigation, the estimated loss was $1 million," the news release said.
Since then, the sheriff's office, working in conjunction with Homeland Security Investigation in Omaha, identified about 45 thefts that occurred across Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
On Oct. 20, law enforcement arrested "three principal targets" of the enterprise, according to the news release, recovering three tractor trailers with stolen merchandise valued at about $550,000.
Arrested were Yoslany Leyva Del Sol, Ledier Machin Andino, and Delvis L. Fuentes, all from the Miami area. They were charged with transportation of stolen goods and money laundering, according to the sheriff. Officials said the investigation is ongoing.
ACTIVITIES TRACKED BY POLICE
According to the complaint filed on Oct. 21 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, Homeland Security began tracking the three men's movements as they trekked across the country.
On June 26 and June 27, the Lancaster County Sheriff was notified about the two thefts of semi-tractors and trailers loaded with beef valued at nearly $500,000, stolen from a location near Emerald, Nebraska, a tiny town just west of Lincoln. The trailers were recovered but were empty.
The Lancaster County Sheriff executed telephone tower dumps of the time and locations where the thefts occurred. According to the complaint, the sheriff found a cellphone number that allegedly belongs to Fuentes, a Miami Gardens, Florida, resident.
Law enforcement discovered, according to the complaint, that Fuentes had made about 165 calls to two other numbers registered to Del Sol and Andino.
"On or about Aug. 25, 2022, pursuant to a cell phone search warrant and cell site analysis, law enforcement learned that both Andino's and Del Sol's cellular telephones were physically present at the same locations in Nebraska at the same times as the aforementioned thefts," the complaint said.
Then, on or about Sept. 16, 2022, law enforcement allegedly observed through GPS tracking a semi-tractor registered to Del Sol traveling on Interstate 80 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
"Within a few seconds, law enforcement observed two other semi-tractors with trailers following the semi-tractor registered to Del Sol," the complaint said. One of the semi-tractor trailers was registered to another individual not charged in the case.
"Video surveillance at a truck yard later revealed that on or about June 25, 2022, Fuentes, Del Sol, and Andino were together at a truck yard in Grand Island, Nebraska."
SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER MOVEMENTS
In September and October 2022, the Lancaster County Sheriff obtained warrants to track the phones belonging to the three men. Based on that information, the complaint said, the three men left Miami, Florida, on or about Oct. 10.
On Oct. 12, they were observed by law enforcement to have stopped at a Loves Travel Center in Columbia, Tennessee. Then, on or about Oct. 13, the complaint said, law enforcement observed the men driving near Des Moines, Iowa.
They allegedly were observed driving a white semi-tractor around semi-tractor yards in Iowa at "a slow rate of speed" for a few hours before returning to the other two semi-tractor trailers parked at another location.
"Based on training and experience, law enforcement believed Fuentes, Del Sol and Andino were casing semi-tractor yards where trailers are commonly stored looking for product to steal," the complaint said.
The three men were next observed driving in Sioux City, Iowa, and "doing the same type of activity, driving in and out of various semi-tractor lots at a slow rate of speed."
On or about Oct. 13, 2022, law enforcement placed a GPS tracking device on one of the white semi-tractors driven by the men. Law enforcement then observed the three men driving around Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on Oct. 14. The complaint said a trailer was reported stolen from Thermo King in Sioux Falls on or around Oct. 15.
"The trailer contained approximately 19 pallets of ham, valued at approximately $40,000," according to the complaint.
"GPS tracking data of Fuentes, Del Sol and Andino, revealed that the white semi-tractor previously driven by Del Sol was present at the same location in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and present at the approximate time when the trailer was stolen."
The trailer was later located and recovered in Sioux Falls on Oct. 15. The men then were observed through GPS tracking to be driving from Sioux Falls to Worthington, Minnesota. On Oct. 16, law enforcement learned that on Oct. 15, two-semi tractors and three electric pallet jacks were reported stolen from Pipestone Veterinary Services Overstock Warehouse in Pipestone, Minnesota.
Law enforcement on Oct. 15 were able to place a silver semi-tractor previously driven by Fuentes at the same location where semi-tractors were stolen.
On the night of Oct. 15, the complaint said, Fuentes' semi-tractor was tracked to the area of JBS in Worthington, Minnesota. Later that night, all three semi-tractors driven by the three suspects were tracked to a Shopko parking lot in Worthington.
Then, on Oct. 16, two semi-tractors and trailers were stolen from JBS in Worthington.
"Each trailer contained 22 pallets of pork valued at approximately $150,000," the complaint said. "A GPS on at least one of the trailers showed that the trailer was taken from JBS to the Shopko."
At around 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, the three men left the Shopko parking lot bound for Miami. Two days later, Tennessee Highway Patrol conducted a traffic stop and inspection of Fuentes' semi-tractor.
The inspection, according to the complaint, allegedly found 19 pallets of pork. "This merchandise matched the stolen items, which was confirmed by the box labels on the meat, from the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, theft on Oct. 16," the complaint said.
"Fuentes provided law enforcement with what appeared to be a fake bill of lading for the pork commodity. Based on training and experience, law enforcement was able to flag the fake bill of lading."
Homeland Securing Investigation in Miami continued to monitor the GPS trackers for all three of the tractor-trailers as they traveled toward the south Florida area, the complaint said.
On the morning of Oct. 20, 2022, Florida Highway Patrol troopers observed all three tractor-trailers pass them on I-75 E in the Weston, Florida, area and began following them.
While following the truck driven by Fuentes, the FHP initiated a traffic stop for a faulty equipment violation, leading to the arrests.
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @DTNeeley
(c) Copyright 2022 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.