Law enforcement agents in Southern California have recovered stolen trademarked plastic products with a value of $5 million over four months.
“And we are just scratching the surface” of a problem having national implications, Sgt. Nabeel Mitry, supervisor of the plastic industrial theft task force of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said in an interview.
Typically, grocery stores leave trademarked plastic pallets, milk crates, baskets, totes and trays on loading docks for vendors to pick up and return.
“Scavengers steal [plastics] from the back of the grocery stores and can fill up a box truck in a couple of hours,” Mitry said. “They take the material to a grinder where it is chopped into pieces, loaded in 2,000-pound gaylord bags and then sold to manufacturers of plastic products.”
City of Industry, Calif., Mayor David Perez said he heartily approves of the deterrence program and noted that Alta Dena Certified Dairy, Coca-Cola Co. and some pallet companies are among the victims.
City of Industry's council authorized a pilot program in mid-2011 with two deputies and allocated $1.5 million for a one-year trial program that began Sept. 1. As supervisor, Mitry has access to four deputies. Separately, the city contracts with the county for its police services.
Among their duties, task force members also conduct checks of recycling companies for compliance with the state's business and professions code.
The task force has terminated six large illegal plastic grinding operations, inspected more than 100 businesses and arrested at least seven people on felony charges of possession of stolen property and illegal possession of trademarked plastic products.
In one case, the task force confiscated stolen pallets worth $2 million at a rented warehouse in Compton, Calif., and found 650 marijuana plants being grown on the second floor. “They were grinding enough [plastics] to fill 10 gaylords a day, about 20,000 pounds, with which they were making about $20,000 a day,” Mitry said.
Mitry said the U.S. Postal Service spends about $40 million annually to manufacture pallets at $70 each and, “of that, 75 percent is stolen.”
The task force is working with the USPS in seeking a federal indictment against one individual and asking for Internal Revenue Service assistance in the possible seizure of property and assets of several suspects.
Mitry disclosed details about two cases in southeast Los Angeles.
On Jan. 10, the task force arrested owner Regelio Casimiro, 50, and three employees of R and P Industries for possession of stolen property and illegal possession of trademarked property. The site had stacks of stolen intact trademarked plastic pallets, crates, totes and bread baskets. In addition, the team found an industrial-type plastics-grinding machine and 60 gaylord bags that were filled with plastic grind.
On Dec. 19, the task force arrested Juan Manuel Arellano, 43, president of New Horizon Plastics Inc., and two employees after recovering pallets and crates belonging to Trader Joe's Co., Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Domino's Pizza Inc., Kroger Co. subsidiary Ralphs supermarkets, Safeway Inc. division Vons Co Inc. grocery stores and USPS at two New Horizon locations.
Pallet pooling-system operator iGPS Co. LLC of Orlando, Fla., said it owned some of the pallets at New Horizon.
“With the rising value of plastics, the theft of plastic pallets and other reusable containers is on the rise,” Al Farrell, iGPS vice president of asset management, said in a statement.
“We have actively supported and cooperated with the sheriff's task force in LA County to combat these thieves. This arrest and others like it are proving that the task-force approach is effective and serves as a model for other law enforcement agencies to adopt.”
Of the task force investigations, “a lot is clandestine” with most sites in Los Angeles or Compton, Mitry said. “We are still working on cases.”
Theft-deterrence countermeasures have met with varying success. Manufacturers, vendors and owners of plastic pallets and milk cases have branded their products, hired private investigators, used global-positioning-system tracking and inserted metal bands to impede grinding operations, the task force reports.
Perez wrote a generic letter requesting businesses to donate to a special account allowing the task force to acquire night-vision goggles and other devices and, as needed, to have members stay overnight in tracking suspects.
The task force is working with 25-30 companies, two of which each donated $10,000 in support of the program. “But in my opinion,” Mitry said, “a lot are waiting to see if it is just talk” in addressing the problem.
Mitry plans to meet with all the businesses the task force deals with in two months to tell them what has been done “and convince them that we have more than an idea.”
As Mitry noted, “we are asking them to donate pennies” in comparison to the value of the recoveries made.
During one telephone interview, Mitry was calling from San Francisco where task force members were helping a business deal with a theft problem.
Capt. Michael Claus, commander of City of Industry sheriff's station, estimated the theft of plastic trademarked products in that area exceeds $10 million annually. The task force has found documentation that domestic thefts may involve trademarked plastics worth more than $500 million annually.
Perez is adamant. “We are going to wake up the crooks.”