Hey you there, stop thief!

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MONTREAL, Que. – Early morning last July 26 a driver pulls out from a Rothman’s Montreal Island distribution centre with a load of cigarettes worth about $1.2 million.

At 7:20 a.m. thieves hijack the truck and kidnap the driver. He fails to report in – he is supposed to call in every five minutes – so Rothman’s quickly phones the police.

At 9:00 a.m. a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system is activated leading police to a warehouse where the thieves are busily transferring the cigarettes into another trailer. Busted!

This crime, one of 220 trailer or container thefts on the Island of Montreal last year, and last of a string of seven hijackings in the past 18 months, had a happy ending. Normally though, the job of the two officers responsible for truck cargo theft in the City of Montreal Police Services’ organized crime division (OCD) is far tougher.

“Very often we find the empty trailer before the complaint is lodged,” says Sgt. Det. Daniel Picard.

Sgt. Det. Norman Vaskelis, the other half of this under-funded but tightly knit team adds, “We have the best thieves in Canada.”

Consider the setting where 200 of those 220 trailer thefts took place: carriers’ yards.

“On Friday afternoon the thieves will send a guy over to watch a yard from the road to see what is being loaded into the trailers,” says Vaskelis. Picard jumps in: “They fill the van on Friday and leave it alone in the yard all weekend, with only a pin lock and a Frost fence as protection. Most of the time there is no guard.”

Where is the traditional slobbering guard dog?

Vaskelis grabs the ball: “They kill (any) dogs with a slingshot.”

The security guard?

It is Picard’s turn. “When you have a security guard they always make the same mistake. He stays in his little cabin, makes a patrol once an hour and he doesn’t count the trailers. Sometimes you have a guard on one side of a yard and a theft taking place on the other side.”

Often, if a guard does notice a trailer is missing, he will wait until Monday to tell his boss.

What is a carrier to do?

Some have invested heavily in better security, and have come to Vaskelis and Picard for advice. Some plant GPS trackers inside the load.

But Picard still insists, “Don’t leave your trailers unguarded on the weekend.”

Most, however, just hope for the best. Some park loaded trailers with the doors up against a wall, but that’s just an ad that there is something far more valuable than diapers inside.

“The thieves are not stupid,” says Picard.

Thieves will scramble up onto trailers, poke a hole in the roof and peek inside.

If they like what they see, they just pull everything out through the top of the trailer. Drivers have hauled trailers all the way to Toronto only to open the doors to find they’ve just hauled a load of sailboat fuel.

Thieves will steal anything maintain Picard and Vaskelis. An arrest last Dec. 13 netted peanuts, flour, ham, cereal, cheese, peas, pizza, cakes, fish – the haul from five separate thefts. Alcohol and cigarettes are the best gigs though.

The casual eye might never notice, but trucks hauling smokes across the Island follow routes that are planned out to the very last street and turn in operations reminiscent of a Brinks delivery.

Sounds bulletproof, right? Not at all.

The driver isn’t even safe when he gets to his destination.

“Sometimes the thieves will jump the driver when he is writing his log book inside the depot,” says Vaskelis. His partner adds, “Two years ago Gougit Transport had a truck in the Simard Transport yard in Lachine. The driver was taking his sandwich and coke for lunch and two guys jumped in the trailer and drove away with him.” Then they simply waited for a moment of privacy.

Once thieves nab a trailer they may head off flanked fore and aft with two other vehicles; all three drivers are generally networked together via walkie-talkies. The guy out front might warn that a weigh scale is open and that the rig had better strike off onto a country road. If the guy behind spots curious cops in a patrol car, he will sacrifice himself with some kind of infraction to distract the police. The thefts are made by groups of guys who have contacts to sell the hot goods to organized crime groups. The Hells Angels, the Rock Machine, the Italian Mafia … they never do the stealing, say Picard and Vaskelis.

“The gangs,” adds Vaskelis, “have the contacts to take the load overseas or to another province. Once we found a load of shrimp stolen in Lachine that turned up in Vancouver.”

Insiders, some willing accomplices, others victims, are sometimes in on the crimes. Maybe an O/O with financial difficulties tips off a thief in return for some quick cash.

“We ask carriers to make a contract with O/Os stating that if there is a theft, the O/O will agree to a polygraph,” says Picard.

Blackmail inspires some. Driver, dispatcher, vice-president, owner, it does not matter.

“Often it is a guy with financial problems,” says Vaskelis. Pick your vice. “Gambling, bookies, prostitutes, bars … If you have a weakness they will exploit it.”

The two-man OCD team urges people who’ve encountered these sorts of tactics to come to them, tell them everything and let them use this information in sneaky ways; Ways Vaskelis and Picard refuse to discuss as they’re the best ways to snare the thieves without harming their victims.

Carriers are advised to screen job applicants for criminal records, using a service such as Identification Canada Inc, Pardon Waiver Expert or International Fingerprint Services Canada.

“If you don’t ask questions, all the bad guys will apply at your place. It is as simple as that.”

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