Nationwide Cargo Theft Ring Broken Up Following Trailer Heist of Canned Corn

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Aug. 25 print edition of Transport Topics.

Cindy Winslow likely will never forget that early Sunday morning phone call from the FBI informing her that authorities in Michigan had recovered a stolen trailer filled with a $30,000 load of Green Giant canned corn.

A manager of operations for Bryant Freight in Gainesville, Missouri, she had no idea the trailer was missing, much less that it was 700 miles down the road from where one of her company driver’s had parked it at the Snappy Mart Truck Stop in West Plains, Missouri.

Winslow said the company trailer had been in transit from Minnesota to a food bank in Little Rock, Arkansas. The driver had parked it for a weekend at home with the family on the way.

“This is the first time ever this has happened,” Winslow said. “We’ve been in trucking for 40 years. Who would think this would happen in West Plains, Missouri? This is Nowhereland.”

It wasn’t the first time a gang of Memphis, Tennessee-based cargo thieves, operating under the name Nu World Trucking, had hitched their tractor to an unattended parked trailer and sped off with a load of valuable goods.

But the thieves apparently were unaware that they were being closely watched by the FBI’s Memphis Cargo Theft Task Force.

They have since been arrested, and federal authorities alleged in court documents that the ring, led by Earl Nunn, 59, has stolen trailers in 14 states since 2009 and sold the illicit goods to “fences” in Chicago and Detroit.

Earlier this year, Nunn and his 49-year-old nephew, Michael Sherley, pleaded guilty to theft of an interstate shipment, according to Tammy Dickinson, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

Nunn’s son, Roderick, had pleaded guilty in a related case in Michigan, and is a co-defendant in a prosecution pending in Delaware County, Indiana, authorities said.

Earl Nunn and Sherley face up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

They have not yet been scheduled for sentencing, said Don Ledford, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Sal Marino, vice president of business development for Cargo Net, a cargo theft prevention firm, said there were 1,090 reported incidents of cargo theft in the United States last year and that the FBI says cargo-theft costs total from $15 billion to $30 billion annually.

Add to the dollar-value loss of cargo such indirect effects of cargo theft as re-importing, reshipping, secondary duties and taxes, expedited carriage, loss of sale and loss of customer confidence, and the damages are considerably higher, Marino said.

Ledford said that federal rules do not allow him to discuss details of the case until after the sentencing hearing.

Nunn and Sherley’s attorneys did not return a phone call requesting comment.

“This case is even a little bit more sensitive because we’ve still got some debate that’s going to happen in court over some issues,” Ledford said. “The government contends that there’s a greater loss amount when you include some of the relevant conduct that occurred elsewhere.”

Nunn and Sherley have pleaded guilty only to the West Plains heist, but the “relevant conduct” the government said it intends to prove at the sentencing hearing includes the other cargo thefts alleged to have occurred in 14 states, according to court documents.

Nunn has an arrest record dating back to 2003, when he was caught in possession of stolen property. Sherley was convicted of bank robbery in 2002, according to court records.

While the ring’s mode of operation wasn’t particularly sophisticated, it was nonetheless prolific.

Federal authorities said Nunn and his co-conspirators, some apparently yet to be charged, committed cargo thefts in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Nunn’s plea agreement said the ring “bobtailed” through truck stops and service stations located on or near interstate highways, looking for semi-trailers that had been parked and unattended, and were not coupled to road tractors.

When they located an unattended trailer, they would steal it and transport the stolen goods to Chicago and Detroit for sale, authorities said.

The West Plains theft proved to be a lesson for Winslow and her company, and could send a message to other motor carriers.

It’s not just pharmaceuticals and electronics that are being targeted for cargo thefts.

“My understanding is there is a big market in this type of thing for dry goods and grocery goods,” Winslow said. “Ours happened to be a trailer full of canned corn.”

Bryant Freight’s stolen trailer was parked in a public place and was locked. Now the carrier is wiser to the ways of scammers.

CargoNet advises truckers to never leave a loaded trailer unattended unless in an approved secure location. And, if you must stop, use reputable truck stops or a secured parking area.

“From now on, if a driver can’t park at home, they have to bring the trailer to a company garage,” Winslow said.