Following retirement from the FBI, I worked for several large investigative firms as a subcontractor, usually with cases assigned directly to me. But when leads began to run dry on someone else’s case, I would be called in as a “new pair of eyes.” That happened in this fact pattern, which seemed, at first glance, to be a run-of-the-mill crime.
The young investigator called me and laid out his case. A large warehouse had a man-sized hole sledgehammered through the far back wall during the overnight hours. Many pallets of valuable goods were taken, perfume, watches, etc. The company, at first, had thought it was an “inside job,” with the night watchman far away in the front of the warehouse in an office. He claimed he had nodded off, missing whatever banging had taken place. Interviews of many connected with the company turned up nothing. Also the warehouse owners, a large well-known Japanese company, preferred to keep the police out of it.
I took a ride with the investigator to re-inspected the crime scene. It was a cavernous place a few miles west of Miami International Airport in a neighborhood full of warehouses. Tractor-trailer trucks drove the streets at all hours of the night. The air conditioning system was noisy, but the pounding of cinderblocks should have been heard. However, the small television the night watchman had may have held his attention. Video cameras viewed much of the inside of the warehouse, and while the great canyons between pallets were covered, the back wall was not.
We looked where the hole in the wall had been, because by the time I was brought in, it had already been repaired with block and mortar, now needing only a coat of paint to make it disappear. Scores—even hundreds—of pallets were neatly stacked and, once inside, a thief could easily take his pick. How did they know where to break through so they wouldn’t be on a camera? Who might have told them that? Was this a random target—a onetime break-in?
We went around back to see where the thieves had pounded through the wall. If they had gone through either side wall of the building, they would have been visible from the street, even by a passing Miami Dade PD cruiser, so it was safer for them in the back of the building. Perhaps a minivan had been driven there, the boxes of goods handed out through the hole, and then they drove away. There were impressions on the stubbly grass and dirt, but nothing helpful, as the crime scene had been trampled and re-trampled long before I saw it.
Looking around, there was a chain-link fence about 20 feet from the warehouse. Beyond it was a cemetery with an asphalt road running inside the fence. There was a shiny new fence section opposite where the break-in had occurred. I suggested we interview the cemetery people.
They were helpful and seemingly sincere. I mentioned the new section of fence across from the warehouse, and they said when they find a cut in the fence, they repair it right away. Asked why anyone would want to break into their cemetery at night, a middle-aged lady said they have valuable tools used to cut the headstones and carve the lettering. I asked if they had ever been stolen, and they had not, but, she said, they have a good lock on that door. She said she knew many had tried, because in recent months there were many break-ins through the fence at their cemetery. She noted that the main wrought-iron gates of the cemetery are locked at night. I decided not to dash her ego and tell her the cemetery really had nothing worth stealing, but thanked her for her help. Then we drove the ring-road of the cemetery’s perimeter fence.
It wasn’t easy to see, at first, but with the bright Miami sunshine, there were several spots where the chain-link, repaired numerous times over several months, was cleaner and shinier than the older weather-worn fence. We stopped at a spot with a fairly shinny recent repair and found that the back wall of a warehouse, also, only 20 feet from the cemetery, had a recently-replaced set of cinderblocks for a man-sized hole. The pink paint on the new repair was not quite the same hue as the rest of the wall. Then we drove a couple of hundred yards until another shinny fence section was located. In the not-so-far-away warehouse wall was another repair job, better than the last, but not perfect, if you knew what to look for.
Our next stop was outside the cemetery at a couple of the warehouses, and interviews with those managers. Yes, in recent months they had been broken into. No, they did not make a police report—the foreign owners didn’t want that—and insurance covered the loss. Were they aware of break-ins at nearby warehouses? No, they never had contact with any of them.
We had one more quick stop back at the cemetery admin offices. The men who repair their chain-link fence were just under instructions to repair damage, but never really reported specifics on their work. It turned out that each break-through of the fence included holes in two different locations. They didn’t know why, just that they were tasked to repair them. The cemetery administration did not comprehend the bigger picture of how their cemetery was being used.
A gang of thieves would pull a large truck up to a spot in the back end of a parking area adjacent to the cemetery fence, sometime in the late night hours. They would parallel park, which obscured their cutting out a section of the fence. Their truck would not fit under the eight-foot-high, top bar of the fence, but a golf-cart would, and it arrived in the truck, as well as some sort of matching trailer to pull.
The smaller vehicle was driven through the newly made opening in the fence and around the asphalt rim-road to a spot immediately behind a warehouse—actually, any one would do. They used their cutters to open a section of the fence and walk the 20 feet to the back wall of the warehouse where two men, as though on an old southern chain-gang, would efficiently pound their sledgehammers into the wall. If someone was alerted in the warehouse, it would be an easy escape back the same way they had come. Once the hole was large enough, they would carry out the boxes, take them through the cemetery fence opening, and load them onto the golf-cart trailer. They would take as much stuff as they could quickly get out, and make several trips to their larger truck a few hundred yards away. They would leave sliced-through fences, a smashed-in wall, and a lot empty pallets in the warehouse—a real morning surprise for the warehouse people.
There were really too many break-ins for there to be coordination with all the night watchmen to make these “inside jobs.” The lack of communication between the many warehouses, and even the cemetery administration, made the ignorance of their victims the thieves’ best asset.
So the case boiled down, not to a single break-in, where a company was targeted, and even questioned the integrity of its employees, but to a gang of thieves breaking into targets of opportunity, using a conveniently located cemetery as a platform to launch their months of warehouse thefts.
[The police were finally called in and provided with this information. All that was left was to set up hidden perimeter cameras and have nightshift officers briefed for when the next “event” took place. But the case had been “broken.”]