(KTLA) – Officials with the Los Angeles Police Department announced Thursday that a yearlong investigation of cargo train burglaries resulted in 22 arrests and $18 million in recovered merchandise. In January, the Union Pacific Railroad Company reported a 160% nationwide increase in rail thefts, with more than 90 containers compromised every day. Images of train tracks near downtown Los Angeles littered with opened and empty packages showed the scope of the problem.
“The Commercial Crimes Division detectives’ investigative efforts resulted in not just countless hours of surveillance, 49 search warrants, but also the recovery of more than $18 million worth of merchandise stolen from these cargo containers. Those containers were on trains headed to all points across the country,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said.
The 22 people arrested are now facing charges of burglary, cargo theft and receiving stolen property. Officials said they stored the stolen merchandise in their homes, cars and other warehouse facilities, and that they sold items in California and out of state.
Authorities also said that four storage locations that contained drugs and assault weapons were shut down.
“So, it gives you a sense of that those allegedly involved in these crimes were involved not just in thefts from these train lines, but much more broadly,” city attorney Mike Feuer said.
Robert Vega, owner of A&A Auto Wrecking, said he had a front-row seat to the train burglaries, as the railway runs in front of his business. Vega said thieves would climb aboard the cargo trains, break into containers and open up packages.
“It was a joke because these guys are hanging onto the trains while they’re running or they’re stopped. They have tools, they’re opening up the containers, throwing everything out. It was like a free for all,” Vega said.
In cooperation with the railroad company, LAPD said additional fencing, lighting, surveillance and foot patrols have improved the situation.
“So, at night you can hear the cameras go off when someone approaches the tracks… they’ll tell them to get off the tracks,” Vega said. “So, that’s working out pretty good.”
Police said they are still working to identify more people involved in cargo thefts, but believe they have completely shut down this particular group of thieves.
In a statement, Union Pacific said it has made considerable investments to strengthen security in Los Angeles, to ensure the safety of its employees and customers, and that it’s looking forward to working with law enforcement to see these cases through.