Los Angeles railroad theft rings are taken down, police say


Two theft rings that netted greater than $18 million price 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.

Within the months-long operation geared toward curbing rail theft across Los Angeles County, a task force has made greater than 700 arrests and recovered tens of 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 a day news conference. “People’s willingness to purchase something at a reduction and looking for that out is fueling the greed of receivers to go find individuals who’ll exit and who’ll commit burglaries.”

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

A few 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 in addition they traced a few of the stolen goods to Mexico.

The rise of e-commerce and Southern California’s role as a hub for the movement of products drew thieves on the lookout for a goal, Moore said. Other observers see the rise in such thefts as emblematic of the desperation that has engulfed parts of the country because the outbreak of the pandemic, which cost tens of millions of individuals their jobs.

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

Of particular concern was the theft of firearms, authorities said, including greater than 40 handguns and rifles taken from a train certain 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 yr before, with a very sharp surge within 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 tremendous,” Adrian Guerrero, a director of public affairs for Union Pacific, said within 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 firms operate their very own private police forces and steadily collaborate with law enforcement agencies. Rail operators have taken steps in recent months to beef up everlasting security measures around rail lines, including bringing in extra security, installing lighting and using safer locks to discourage would-be thieves.

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

“The substitute intelligence is about as much as 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 in a position to take appropriate, real-time motion,” he said.

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said the duty 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 each major problem in our region, typically, now 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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