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07/09/2010

5 charged in West Coast rail cargo theft scheme

Thieves suspected of heisting hundreds of thousands of dollars of high-end cargo

LOS ANGELES - Five men were indicted here Friday by a federal grand jury for their role in a large-scale theft scheme targeting railroad freight cars carrying costly cargo, including flat screen televisions.

The men were arrested shortly after midnight on June 25 near Ludlow, Calif., after several of them unloaded 45 flat-screen 3-D televisions valued at nearly $200,000 from an eastbound freight car that was parked temporarily on a railroad siding. The arrests capped a two-month investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Union Pacific Railroad Police, with assistance from the sheriff's departments in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad Police and the California Highway Patrol.

Grainy night-vision video shot by investigators at the scene just prior to the arrests shows three shadowy figures, allegedly including two of the defendants, removing large boxes from a rail car, then carrying them away from the tracks and hiding them in the brush. ICE HSI agents say the thieves would scout trains departing the Los Angeles area to identify those potentially carrying high-end cargo.

In a conversation described in the criminal complaint, one of the defendants tells a confidential informant how he and the others would travel to Barstow, where some members of the crew would hide in the rail cars. If their activities went undetected, the defendants would begin removing cargo from the cars. If the defendants suspected they were being watched, they would ride the train farther east seeking another opportunity.

"Not only did this theft scheme result in significant property losses, but given the tactics often employed by rings like this, there could also be serious safety issues," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for ICE HSI in Los Angeles. "We know of documented cases of rail cargo theft involving BNSF trains in neighboring Arizona and New Mexico where thieves actually cut the air hoses on the train's brakes so they could stop it and steal merchandise."

Four of those indicted in connection with the theft scheme are from Los Angeles - Leo Meza-Cruz, 41; Filemon Rios-Ramos, 42; Hector Bernal Anaya, 25; and Jesus Reyes Galvez, 38. The fifth defendant, Eric Lopez, 41, is from Pomona, Calif. The charges in the four-count indictment include conspiracy, theft of interstate commerce, receipt of stolen property from interstate commerce and breaking and entering a carrier facility.

Authorities underscore the investigation into the ring's activities is ongoing.

"These are significant arrests and the message is clear - if you break into a train or deal in stolen merchandise from a train you are committing a federal crime and you will be caught," said Lt. Joshua Closson, with the Union Pacific Railroad Police Special Operations Team.

Anyone having information regarding suspicious and/or criminal activity involving the rail industry is encouraged to call Union Pacific's toll-free tip line at - 1-888-UPRR-COP.

All five of the theft ring defendants remain in federal custody at this time. Three of the men - Rios-Ramos, Meza-Cruz and Lopez - are scheduled to be arraigned July 19. The arraignment for the remaining two defendants - Anaya and Galvez - is set for Aug. 2. Three of the counts contained in the indictment - theft of interstate property, receipt of stolen interstate property and breaking and entering a carrier facility - carry a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years. The conspiracy violation is punishable by up to five years in prison.

For more information, visit www.ice.gov.