LOS ANGELES (KTLA) — Officials with the Los Angeles Police Department on Thursday announced that a yearlong investigation of train cargo burglaries netted 22 arrests and $18 million in recovered merchandise.
In January, the Union Pacific Railroad Company reported a 160% nationwide increase in rail thefts, with more than 90 containers compromised every day.
“The Commercial Crimes Division detectives’ investigative efforts resulted in not just countless hours of surveillance, 49 search warrants, but also the recovery of more than $18 million worth of merchandise stolen from these cargo containers. Those containers were on trains headed to all points across the country,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said.
Robert Vega, owner of A&A Auto Wrecking, had a front-row seat to the train burglaries.
The railway is right in front of his family-owned business in Lincoln Heights and was often littered with debris from merchandise that was meant to arrive at warehouse facilities around the U.S.
Vega said thieves climbed aboard the cargo trains, broke into containers and hundreds of packages with products ranging from family portraits and holiday gifts to more expensive things like medication, COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment.
Even more concerning were the dozens of guns also stolen from the raided trains.
“It was a joke because these guys are hanging onto the trains while they’re running or they’re stopped. They have tools, they’re opening up the containers, throwing everything out. It was like a free for all,” Vega told KTLA’s Rachel Menitoff.
The 22 people arrested are now facing charges of burglary, cargo theft and receiving stolen property. Officials said they stored the stolen merchandise in their homes, cars and other warehouse facilities, and that they sold items in L.A. County and as far as Arizona.
Authorities also said that four storage locations that contained drugs and assault weapons were shut down.
“So, it gives you a sense of that those allegedly involved in these crimes were involved not just in thefts from these train lines, but much more broadly and intercepting at this moment can solve a lot of crimes in this region,” City Attorney Mike Feuer said.
In cooperation with the railroad company, LAPD said additional fencing, lighting, surveillance and foot patrols have improved the situation.
“So, at night you can hear the cameras go off when someone approaches the tracks… they’ll tell them to get off the tracks,” Vega said. “So, that’s working out pretty good.”
Police said they are still working to identify more people involved in these thefts, but believe they have completely shut down this particular group of thieves.
In a statement to KTLA, Union Pacific said it’s made considerable investments to strengthen security in L.A., to ensure the safety of its employees and customers, and that it’s looking forward to working with law enforcement to see these cases through.