By BOBBY CERVANTES
The FBI found a common thread to the scam: drivers and dispatchers with foreign accents, fake trucking company records and loads of meat that never showed up.
The thieves convinced transportation companies they were experienced haulers who could truck beef, pork and cheese from Texas, Idaho and Kansas facilities and drive them to their destinations, according to an ongoing FBI investigation.
A federal search warrant affidavit said the men — who made off with nearly $800,000 worth of food last year — also hit plants in Jerome, Idaho; Holcomb, Kan.; and Madison, Neb.
By the time frantic freight brokers called about their missing shipments, the unidentified thieves were long gone, the affidavit said.
FBI investigators have identified at least nine meat and cheese heists in 2011, including $137,750 worth of beef stolen in June from two Friona plants.
Scammers also targeted Nor-Am Cold Storage in Plainview in August, when they stole $38,496 worth of beef, according to the affidavit.
No one has been charged.
The FBI’s Amarillo office opened an investigation Aug. 19, when authorities learned “someone who had stolen the identity of a legitimate trucking company” stole beef valued at $82,704.56 from the Tyson Fresh Meats plant, the affidavit said.
Freight broker Redline Transportation of Clive, Iowa, advertised on three Internet websites that its client needed a load of packaged beef hauled from Tyson’s Amarillo plant to a meat supplier in Vernon, Calif., the affidavit said.
On Aug. 18, a man with a subtle accent who said he was a dispatcher with Gary Costin Trucking of Brea, Calif., called Redline. The caller provided Redline representatives with phone and fax numbers and two references without last names, court records show.
When Redline officials called the references, a man in Illinois and another in Oregon — both with subtle accents — vouched for the dispatcher, according to the affidavit.
Redline obtained a faxed copy of the liability insurance certificate from an Orange, Calif., agency and spoke to someone there who also had a “heavy foreign accent,” the document said.
“Redline Transportation awarded the load to who they thought was Gary Costin Trucking, and executed a written agreement” for the load, the affidavit said.
On Aug. 18, a driver arrived at the Tyson plant in Amarillo and picked up more than $80,000 in beef, the affidavit said.
Five days later, the load, due in California a day earlier, had not arrived. Redline called the driver, dispatcher and insurance company — but all the numbers were disconnected.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson declined to comment, citing the continuing investigation. “We’re cooperating with the law enforcement authorities investigating this matter, but don’t believe it’s appropriate to make any additional comment at this point,” he said.
The actual owner of the trucking company, Gary Costin, later told Redline he “had no involvement in the theft and that his company name and information had been used without his consent,” the affidavit said.
A phone number listed for Redline Transportation was disconnected Friday.
Costin, who is self- employed, said Friday he does not ship produce or meat and has not been to Texas in about 30 years. He said he hauls concrete and building materials, and he does not own a refrigerated trailer.
“It hasn’t hurt my business because I do something different,” he said. “I’ve never hauled at Tyson. The FBI said it is the new way of stealing loads.”
FBI spokeswoman Lydia Maese declined to comment Friday.
An FBI agent also assisted Kansas police during a Nov. 4 truck inspection stop in which Kansas Highway Patrol officers arrested two Armenian men “suspected of trying to pick up the loads,” the affidavit said. A search later revealed one of the men had two California driver’s licenses in different names, and the pair’s North Hollywood, Calif., truck “had tape marks on the door as though temporary signs had been affixed then removed,” the FBI agent said.
Kansas Trooper Mike Racy said Friday he had no further information about the inspection stop.
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