The Pirates of the Highways

On America’s interstates, brazen bands of thieves steal 18-wheelers filled with computers, cell phones, even toilet paper. And select law enforcement teams are tasked with tracking them down.

The Pirates of the Highways

On May 11, 2013, a semi cab made its way up Interstate 555 from Memphis, Tennessee, northwest to Jonesboro, Arkansas. The man driving — a career trucker from Memphis — was accompanied by his nephew, and the pair was bobtailing, meaning their truck wasn’t pulling a trailer. Drivers often have to travel between warehouses and shipping facilities to pick up a new load, and these two men were indeed in search of new cargo to haul. Only in this case, they weren’t looking to do it legally. They were cruising the truck stops along I-555 for unattended trailers to pick up and steal.

Truckers sometimes leave their trailers at truck stops or even in parking lots in order to visit a mechanic or drive the cab home for the weekend. So the men knew it was only a matter of time before they came across an unattached trailer, overlooked in the bustle of a busy truck stop. The pair’s combined experience came in handy, as either one of them could hook up to a trailer, crank up the landing gear and connect a few hoses, then drive right off in a matter of minutes. Working as a team would make the process faster, allowing the thieves to blend in with the endless streams of highway traffic and be gone before the trailer’s rightful driver realized what had hit him.

At around 5:40 p.m., the men found what they were looking for. A 52-foot Wabash trailer, sitting in the parking lot of the Snappy Mart Truck Stop in West Plains, Missouri. The nephew dropped out of the cab and ran over to the trailer, directing as his uncle backed up. They maneuvered the large, U-shaped coupling on the back of the tractor, under the trailer’s enormous kingpin, which clanked into place and locked automatically. The nephew hopped up and walked through the space between the tractor and the trailer to connect a few hoses and cables. He took a quick look around the lot as he hopped back into the cab and slammed the door. It appeared that nobody had seen them. The two men drove off with the errant trailer, itself worth $7,500 even empty, and hightailed it with whatever cargo was inside, intensely vigilant but giddy like kids at a criminal Christmas.

They drove up through Chicago and into Indiana before cutting northward into Michigan in the early morning of May 12. The distance was substantial but not especially noteworthy for long-haul truckers who crisscross the U.S. highway system on a weekly basis. The pair already had buyers set up in obscure warehouse locales, people who knew how to efficiently get rid of bulk goods. The men would get a cut of the proceeds, with higher-value merchandise meaning a heftier payday. They grew more and more eager to see the fruits of their pull. They had no way of knowing what was inside the locked trailer — it truly could be anything — but this was all part of the excitement.

As they would later find out, their prize haul was $30,000 worth of Green Giant canned corn, headed from a food processing facility in Montgomery, Minnesota, to a food pantry in Little Rock, Arkansas. The 40,000 cans of corn weighed many thousands of pounds. Would they have gone through with the theft had they known what the trailer contained? Surprisingly enough, yes. A trailer full of canned corn isn’t a bust of a heist. Cheap food disappears easily into mom-and-pop shops, swap meets, and over the internet, and it is virtually untraceable once it’s gone.

“If you have enough of something and you can sell it for cheap enough, you can make it disappear very quickly, and your profit is 100 percent,” said Manteca Police Department Sgt. Joe Ahuna, who has worked on cargo theft cases in California’s Central Valley region.

In fact, some of the highest value and thus most targeted loads in recent years have been snack nuts. When a drought greatly diminished the supply of nuts, thereby raising the demand for them, seasoned truck thieves became more interested in going after nuts than they were big-ticket electronics or medicine. Nut theft reached a peak in early 2015, with 31 nut heists costing carriers more than $5 million.

“How are you to track individual nuts?” said Sgt. Shawna Pacheco, a supervisor in the California Highway Patrol’s Golden Gate Investigative Services unit and a member of its Cargo Theft Interdiction Program. “When those nuts get transported to a warehouse where they are processed — some are legal and some are stolen — but all are crushed and bagged, so good luck telling the difference.” (Similar networks of licit and illicit buyers are relied on to fence everything from lunch meat to designer clothes, and the same strategy is at play today in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Sheriffs in North Carolina recently tracked down a stolen semi carrying 18,000 pounds of toilet paper.)

And so, while $30,000 worth of canned corn wasn’t necessarily a dream haul, the steal was well worth their effort. The two thieves lumbered along the roads of Michigan, driving into the horizon like so many other anonymous truckers delivering the goods on which we all rely.

The two truck thieves, Earl Stanley Nunn, and his nephew, Michael Lee Sherley, were no slouches when it came to ripping off trucks. The crew they were working with had previously conducted similar operations in more than a dozen states, spreading the felonies across countless jurisdictions. What they didn’t know was that they were already being carefully tracked by the FBI’s Memphis Cargo Theft Task Force, who knew exactly where the trailer full of canned corn was at all times. Memphis has some of the highest cargo theft rates in the nation, and the U.S. Marshals on the task force had placed a GPS tracking device on Nunn’s tractor.

The canned corn thieves made their way across Michigan on Interstate 94. Their route took them across Jackson County in the southeastern part of Michigan’s mitten. As they drove, the Marshals contacted the Michigan Department of State Police’s Southwest Commercial Auto Recovery (SCAR) Unit to let them know they had a stolen load coming their way. The SCAR team was already aware of Nunn, who authorities had been keeping an eye on since 2009. But they’d ramped up surveillance a year earlier, after his son Roderick Nunn had been arrested for stealing a trailer full of 39,000 pounds of Wrigley’s gum, valued at $175,000, from a shipping facility and attempting to drive it to Detroit, a heist that led to a 15-minute chase with a Michigan State Police officer, and culminated with Roderick Nunn running from the cab and his co-conspirator attempting to hide in a field. (The younger Nunn had also been convicted of bank robbery in 2002 and of stealing $92,000 worth of sugar and powdered lemonade mix in 2008.)

Nunn and Sherley had no idea that their progress was being closely monitored. It was a cooler than average morning, and the two men gazed out the window as the rising sun brought out the details of the dense foliage of Michigan’s verdant roadside ecosystems. The men didn’t hear the siren at first; it only intruded on their consciousnesses when they saw the emergency lights of a Michigan State Police vehicle in their rearview mirrors. Hoping he could talk his way out of the stop, Nunn slowed down and coasted onto the shoulder, stopping right between mile markers 141 and 142. It was 7 in the morning, and they were approximately 80 miles from their presumed destination in Detroit.

The officer took his time exiting his vehicle, taking notes but deliberately delaying contact to intimidate the drivers. He ambled up to the cab and asked the driver and passenger to get out.

The officer asked where he got the trailer. “We picked it up just outside of Gary, Indiana,” Nunn said. “A guy named Charlie told us to grab it from the Blue Ox truck stop.” He explained they were to be paid $1,000 for the trip, that there was no paperwork associated with the load, and that was all he knew.

The officer’s stoic expression didn’t change. He knew this wasn’t true. But he let them continue talking, cataloging the lies that could be parlayed into charges of obstructing justice, tacked on to the more serious charges.

The arrest was uneventful. Nunn and Sherley were taken to Jackson, Michigan, and questioned again by detectives. Sherley said he’d just been along for the ride, while Nunn said he was starting to worry a bit about his own safety, since the load hadn’t yet been delivered to Charlie. The detectives listened with inscrutable expressions before they revealed that they had been tracking Nunn’s tractor across four states. They knew Charlie wasn’t real, as they’d been watching Nunn for almost a year, including every step of his most recent escapade.

The trailer was towed to a nearby storage facility in Michigan, and the agents worked on getting the load back to its intended recipient. A manager with the Missouri-based shipping company who organized the delivery was stunned after speaking to authorities. She hadn’t even known that the load was missing, and now she was being told it had been recovered more than 700 miles away. “This is the first time ever this has happened,” she told reporters at the time. “We’ve been in trucking for 40 years. Who would think this would happen in West Plains, Missouri? This is Nowhereland.”

As the thieves were charged and jailed, they held out some hope about their fate, under the mistaken impression that cargo of lesser value yields proportionally smaller punishments. But a theft of that magnitude is a felony regardless of what is stolen; they were dismayed to learn that they were facing at least 10 years in prison each, along with $250,000 fines.

It didn’t help that their arrest revealed that the men were operating a much larger network of truck thievery, one that was almost like a family business.

“We’ve found on more than one occasion solving one crime gives us pieces of information to solve another. … That’s why you’ve got to have patience and a willingness to keep ‘cold cases’ alive in the back of your head, so to speak,” said Scott Cornell, a vice president with Travelers Insurance, which insures all kinds of cargo against theft, in an interview with FleetOwner.

Roderick Nunn, the driver’s son, was named as a co-conspirator in the canned corn heist. He simultaneously faced charges related to the Wrigley’s gum heist, which had led authorities to track his father’s truck to begin with, plus additional charges for nabbing eight other trucks between 2006 and 2012, with hauls that includes microwaves, Freon, beauty products and computers. The FBI noted hundreds of thousands of dollars moving in and out of Roderick Nunn’s and his girlfriend’s bank accounts during the same period, which agents figured to be the couple’s cut of the proceeds. Based on the estimated 10 percent a driver would receive, the FBI extrapolated that the total value of Nunn’s trailer thefts was likely in the realm of $8 million. “[He] has been stealing cargo for 16 years, undeterred by any prior sentence of imprisonment,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Clay Stiffler wrote.

The distributor and recipient of the canned corn were lucky that the trailer and its contents were returned.

“My understanding is there is a big market in this type of thing for dry goods and grocery goods. Ours happened to be a trailer full of canned corn,” the shipping company’s manager said. “From now on, if a driver can’t park at home, they have to bring the trailer to a company garage.”

The shipper learned a valuable lesson, and the men involved would soon appear in court to await the consequences of their ill-fated crimes.

Whether its loads of canned corn or construction materials or 25,000 cell phones, truck thievery is surprisingly common. CargoNet, an industry group that tracks cargo theft, tallied roughly 2,600 truck thefts in 2019, with the average value of a trailer theft at around $148,000. Truck hijacking has of course been going on as long as there have been trucks — and before that, train and stagecoach robberies emerged an indispensable part of American folklore. The phenomenon became particularly widespread during Prohibition, when gangsters would jack trucks to fund booze-running operations and other crimes. Incidents became so numerous that insurance companies refused to insure shipments going through Chicago. A contemporaneous feature in the Chicago Tribune recounts hijacking incidents from the 1930s. In one, a black sedan filled with men with guns pulled alongside a truck carrying a load of tires, got the truck to pull over, blindfolded and tied up the driver, and drove the vehicle to a secret warehouse on a farm, where the goods were unloaded. Authorities were eventually able to find the load of stolen tires because the driver heard turkeys while captive and there were only a few turkey farms in the area.

In another instance, a driver hauling thousands of dollars’ worth of butter was similarly captured and tied up, then taken to a warehouse where his truck was quickly unloaded. The bound driver managed to untie himself and quietly began making marks in the wooden stairs where he was sitting, so that he could later prove he’d been held captive there. He then escaped and found a policeman, who was able to verify the driver’s story and confirm that the warehouse was indeed full of stolen goods, based on the marks the driver made on the stairs.

Today, outright hijacking of trucks is fairly rare in the United States, and when it does happen, it doesn’t require a Fast & Furious–style tech-filled sports car hanging from a helicopter. Most important is the element of surprise — overwhelm the driver, toss him out of the vehicle, and drive off — the same now as it was in the 1930s. But most truck thieves avoid the muss and fuss of violence or kidnapping, preferring instead to take an unattended trailer. One detective told me that’s how many cargo thieves get their start — it’s a crime of opportunity that is refined over time. Anyone capable of stealing a trailer likely knows people who can make the cargo disappear, he said, and from there a more robust thievery ring can develop.

The deliberate lack of indication on most trailers about what’s inside means that returns on the theft can depend heavily on the luck of the draw. When a truckload of computers, medicine or other high-value targets goes missing, it usually suggests an issue elsewhere along the delivery chain.

“Take a guy working at a dock or a warehouse making $12 to $15 per hour — you throw him a few hundred bucks and all he has to do is text you the number of a truck carrying a load of brand-new TVs,” said Arthur Schwarzer, a sales and logistics specialist from a major third-party shipping firm in Chicago. Schwarzer (who asked that his real name and his company’s name not be used because of the sensitivity of his firm’s operations) says that truckloads of cell phones and other electronics are what go missing most often. For a stretch in 2019, a truck seemed to disappear every week, prompting a major phone provider to threaten canceling shipping contracts unless more was done to prevent the heists. But deterring thefts can be more difficult than it seems, Schwarzer said, especially if the thieves know the ins and outs of the trucking industry, and where there are exploitable kinks in the system.

Thieves look for victims on internet hauling boards (such as truckstop.com), where truckers who don’t work exclusively for one business often piece together deliveries for different companies — one on the way to a destination, a different one on the way back. Thieves troll these boards and can home in on a shipment that looks promising. The job boards don’t mention any specifics about a haul, Schwarzer said, but an enterprising thief likely knows how to call a shipper and obtain specifics without raising any suspicions. They could use this information and doctored paperwork to pick up a load before anyone is the wiser.

Alternately, the thieves sometimes pretend to be the truck crew legitimately scheduled to pick up the load, and simply beat the real drivers to the punch. A shipment’s bill of lading — a manifest describing the weight, contents and tracking number of a shipment, which is a critical piece of paperwork for any legitimate delivery — can be faked with information obtained by skilled social engineers.

But the most common method of jacking a truck is generally the most banal: Thieves know where to look for unattended trailers. At truck stops, it’s open season, with trailers galore for the taking, especially if you’ve got a seasoned crew.

In recent years, a 12-member Louisville-based outfit operated a complex cargo-thievery network across more than 10 states. They would conduct surveillance on facilities shipping high-value goods, then follow departing trucks until they stopped for gas, at which time the trailer would be stolen, driven miles away, hooked up to a different tractor, and taken back to Louisville to be sold off. The group took everything from cigarettes to appliances to baby formula, as well as a load of thousands of cell phones, a single shipment valued at almost $12 million. All told, the group stole $30 million worth of cargo from 2012 to 2015, but the high-value cell phone heist proved to be their undoing.

An FBI-led task force “injected false intel” into the group in the form of another shipment of cell phones leaving Louisville. “We knew they were going to be watching the facility in Louisville,” said FBI Special Agent Paul Meyer. “They took the bait. We watched them steal the load, and then we took them down.”

In May 2018, the men were sentenced to between one and 12 and a half years for their crimes, around the same time another 11-man truck-jacking crew was arrested and charged in New Jersey for taking “everything they could get their hands on,” as the head of state police put it, including loads of granite, landscaping equipment and clothing.

Earl Stanley Nunn’s operations may have seemed modest in comparison, but that didn’t mean the law wouldn’t come down on him with equivalent force. Nunn appeared in court in Missouri in September of 2014. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the maximum possible, and ordered to pay more than $3.5 million in restitution to the businesses he was convicted of ripping off. His trucking business was dismantled, and any salvageable assets, such as the truck used in the heist, were seized. His nephew, Michael Lee Sherley, got four and a half years for the corn theft and for breaking his parole on an unrelated prior conviction. He was released in 2017.

Roderick Nunn was named as a co-conspirator in the canned corn incident and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for the Wrigley’s heist. He has since been paroled.

Though the truck of canned corn certainly didn’t steal itself, long-haul trucker Jonathyn Arthurs, who drives for a megacarrier and spoke to me from the road in West Virginia, said that the complacency of the truck’s operator is what lead to the theft. The truck’s rightful driver dropped the trailer at the truck stop on a Friday, then went to his nearby home for the weekend. He checked on the trailer twice on Saturday and saw that it was fine. It isn’t uncommon for trailers to be left alone like this if a driver can take a day off or haul a different load first. The routine of leaving a trailer unattended, even in seemingly problem-free truck stops and even with the cargo doors sealed and secured, can lull drivers into a false sense of security. The driver intended to leave early on Monday and was stunned to see that his trailer had completely vanished.

Many carriers expressly prohibit the practice of dropping trailers. Arthurs’ carrier, like many big trucking firms, only permits its drivers to drop trailers at company-approved warehouses and other carefully secured locations, and truckers must get explicit permission from their carriers to do so.

In addition to the strict rules about where and how to park, carriers have been taking steadily more proactive measures to deter truck theft. Schwarzer said his company has taken to putting two men in the cab of trucks carrying expensive loads, for double accountability. Trailers carrying high-value loads will also be outfitted with GPS tracking devices, numerous cameras and specialty doors.

Carriers often require drivers go at least 200 miles (about four to five hours) without stopping after picking up a load to deter potential thieves from following them. Many thieves won’t travel that far in pursuit of a load, Arthurs said, and it is a distance that will likely ratchet up the seriousness of the crime: 200 miles can take you across state lines and thus turn the act of thievery into a federal crime.

Three days after Christmas in 2019, officers from a regional auto theft task force quickly and quietly surrounded a house in Livingston, California. Alongside them were members of the California Highway Patrol’s Cargo Theft Interdiction Program. They were hot on the trail of a stolen trailer filled with the belongings of three military families being relocated as part of their active duty service. The truck had gone missing on Christmas Day from the yard of the Stockton moving company subcontracted to help with the move.

Two employees of the moving company had come into the yard and drove off with the truck. (There is a statistical increase in truck-jackings during the holidays, when trucks are more likely to contain valuable goods.) The men were identified as Michael Travis Forward and Anthony John Cruz, who both worked for the moving company. The two men drove the full semi to Forward’s home, where they unloaded it by hand, then drove it a few towns over and left it on the side of the road.

Forward wasn’t home when the task force arrived, but they soon realized they’d hit the jackpot. The house and the attached garage were packed with boxes and appliances, toys and bikes, some bubble-wrapped and some loosely strewn about.

The theft was brazen but not totally unheard of, said Sgt. Joe Ahuna. The area is home to numerous shipping warehouses, and trucks carrying shipments to and from places like Amazon distribution centers are known to go missing. Those thefts, like the moving truck heist, are likely inside jobs organized with the participation of an employee. Stealing a truck requires some knowledge of driving huge vehicles, a skill set that helped the task force to narrow the list of suspects to people involved with the moving company.

Stealing three families’ worth of belongings was bad enough, but the situation grew even more serious when authorities realized that at least 14 guns stolen in the heist were not recovered from Forward’s home. Officers expected that Forward and Cruz came across the guns while unloading the truck and sold them off as soon as possible.

Officers nabbed Forward on New Year’s Day, riding a Harley-Davidson he’d found in the back of the moving truck. He was arrested without incident, charged with possession of a stolen vehicle, grand theft and receiving stolen property. Cruz was arrested a few weeks later, and both men have been arraigned and are awaiting the next step in their prosecution. Officers were able to prove that the men had indeed sold off the guns when a search of their cell phones revealed photos of the missing weapons. Fourteen additional charges of grand theft of a firearm were levied against them.

There was no indication that the men were part of a larger truck-jacking crew, but either way, filling your house with stolen goods and leaving a truck traceable to the business you work for only a few miles away is probably not the most advisable way to commit a crime.

“This was a random crime. But these guys were not real bright. They made the case easy for us,” said Sgt. Jim Sheeran of the California Highway Patrol and supervisor with the Delta Regional Auto Theft Team, in a TV interview at the time. (Forward’s fiancée told reporters that he is a good guy and that the theft was in part a protest against how he was being treated by his employers.)

The sheer volume of truck traffic ensures steady targets for enterprising thieves, but, referencing the Stockton moving truck caper, California Highway Patrol officer Rubin Jones made a plea that could apply to loads taken from Memphis, Chicago and rural Missouri too.

“There’s no worse day than Christmas to steal from someone, and then you steal from a military family, no less,” Jones said in a TV interview, concluding with a simple request: “Just leave people’s stuff alone.”