Ringleader of International Truck Theft Conspiracy Sentenced to Prison
|U.S. Attorney’s Office December 23, 2009|
HOUSTON—A Houston man who recruited others to steal and transport millions of dollars of truck tractors, trailers and other heavy equipment to Central America has been sentenced to prison, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced today. United States District Judge David Hittner sentenced Yuri David Melendez, 43, to a total of nine years in federal prison for his leadership role in the truck theft scheme and in an unrelated narcotics charge during a hearing today.
Melendez, who was convicted of conspiracy to export and transport stolen motor vehicles after pleading guilty, was sentenced to five years imprisonment, the maximum punishment under the law. In addition, Melendez was also sentenced today to 108 months in federal prison on an unrelated narcotics trafficking charge filed in federal court in Florida. The Florida case was transferred to this district after Melendez was apprehended in this district and agreed to plead guilty to the narcotics trafficking charge pending in Florida. Judge Hittner ordered that the terms of imprisonment imposed on each count of conviction be served concurrently. Melendez was ordered to pay $815,951.91 in restitution and to serve a five-year term of supervision upon his release from federal prison.
Beginning in 2001, Melendez received requests from his contacts in Central America for stolen tractor trucks, trailers, tankers, and other heavy equipment. Melendez would then locate the requested equipment at various industrial and commercial sites in the Houston area and recruit co-conspirators to assist with the theft of the equipment. Once stolen, the equipment was transported south by Melendez’s recruits to staging locations near Edinburg, Texas. Melendez frequently accompanied the drivers in his own private vehicle on the way to Edinburg, serving as a guide and look-out for law enforcement.
Once in Edinburg, other unidentified members of the conspiracy would arrange for transportation of the equipment across the border into Mexico. Drivers took the equipment to Melendez’s customers—most of whom resided in Guatemala and Honduras. Following delivery, Melendez’s contacts would pay him by wire transfer or cash delivery in Houston. Melendez managed to evade law enforcement for a number of years until early February 2009 when two of his recruits were arrested in possession of recently stolen tanker trucks.
In mid-January 2009, after receiving an order for two tanker trucks, Melendez sent Victor Antonio Garcia, 27, who had stolen equipment for Melendez in the past, to Reynosa, Mexico, to recruit Orlando Gonzalez Huerta, 29, as a second driver for the job. Melendez then arranged for Garcia and Huerta to fly to Houston. The men stayed at a local motel while Melendez located two tanker trucks to be stolen.
On the evening of Feb. 8, 2009, Melendez drove Garcia and Huerta to the Colorado Oil Company in Sealy, Texas, where the two broke through a chain link fence with bolt cutters. Garcia and Huerta each drove a tanker truck out of the company’s compound south towards Edinburg and Melendez followed the pair in his private vehicle. Employees of the Colorado Oil Company reported the equipment missing. Using GPS tracking devices attached to the tanker trucks, officers with the Texas Department of Public Safety located and arrested Garcia and Huerta in Live Oak County, Texas. Huerta identified Melendez in a photographic line-up and within days FBI agents located and arrested Melendez at his home in Houston.
Investigating agents definitively linked Melendez and his conspirators to other thefts by viewing surveillance photographs taken at the Falfurrias checkpoint located north of Edinburg. Since March 2007, the photographs revealed more than 20 pieces of stolen equipment passing through the checkpoint, typically during early morning hours. In each case, the stolen piece of equipment was accompanied by a vehicle associated with Melendez. Since March 2007, Melendez and his co-conspirators were found to have transported more than $4 million of stolen equipment through the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint.
Garcia, Huerta, and a third co-defendant, Rito-Jasso-Zorilla, 32, all of whom also pleaded guilty to conspiring to export and transport stolen motor vehicles and equipment, were previously sentenced to terms of imprisonment of between 24 and 51 months.
In the Florida case, Melendez admitted to attempting to purchase two kilograms of cocaine. The United States seized and has forfeited Melendez’s interest in $33,000 in cash.
The investigation leading to the truck theft charges was conducted by the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety. The narcotics charges were investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Assistant United States Attorney David Searle prosecuted the cases.