The high price of produce, especially tomatoes after the deep winter freezes, has attracted more than heightened attention from consumers. Sophisticated vegetable bandits have been watching.
Late last month, a gang of thieves stole six tractor-trailer loads of tomatoes and a truck full of cucumbers from Florida growers. They also stole a truckload of frozen meat. The total value: about $300,000.
"I've never experienced people targeting produce loads before," said Shaun Leiker, an assistant manager at a trucking broker in Oviedo, Fla., that thieves hit three times.
Transportation company executives and a law enforcement official said the criminals appeared to have set up a bogus trucking company.
The company, based in Miami, was called E&A Transport Express, according to Master Cpl. David Vincent of the Florida Highway Patrol's cargo theft task force.
The company registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in late February, according to the agency's online database. That was right around the time produce prices were soaring.
Clifford Holland, owner of a transportation brokerage firm that was a victim of the gang, said, "They were just sitting and waiting, watching the produce because they knew [the price] was climbing."
In the produce industry, buyers and sellers typically use freight brokers as middlemen to hire the trucking companies that carry goods.
The thieves apparently began watching Web sites where brokers posted notices trying to link trucking companies with loads they need carried.
The thieves sought out loads headed for Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Hartford, and Sacramento.
Mr. Holland said that gave them time to carry out multiple thefts before the alarm was sounded, because in each case it would be from two to four days before the loads were due at their destinations. Brokers and shippers suspect the thieves had a buyer for the produce.
Tomato growers said there had been occasional thefts in the past when prices were high, but the sophistication of this trucking ring was new.
"We've never seen anything like this," said Bob Spencer, an owner of West Coast Tomato in Palmetto, Fla., which lost a load of about 40,000 pounds of tomatoes that he said was worth about $42,000.
The thieves appear to have benefited by stealing loads in several jurisdictions, and some police departments were slow to share information about the crimes.
The Florida Highway Patrol said the cargo theft unit of the Miami Dade Police Department was leading the investigation. But Detective Roy Rutland, a spokesman for the Miami Dade police, initially denied the department was aware of the thefts. He later said the department was asked to assist in the inquiry, but was not taking a lead role.
We're trying to figure out who's handling this," the detective said. "We just learned that most of this occurred outside of our jurisdiction."