Stung by national attention drawn to railroad thefts and rail industry criticism of prosecutorial priorities, Los Angeles authorities announced the takedown of two theft rings they allege were responsible for more than $18 million in stolen merchandise from railroad cars, the Los Angeles Times reports. Months of work by a multi-agency task force has led to more than 700 arrests and the recovery of millions of dollars in stolen goods. Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said the task force was formed in January in response to “the unrelenting assault and the continued loss and the proliferation of debris and the dangers that were posed by this ongoing threat." Michel blamed the thefts on consumer demand. “People’s willingness to buy something at a discount and seeking that out is fueling the greed of receivers to go find individuals who’ll go out and who’ll commit burglaries," he said.
Some of the thefts were the work of opportunists working alone, but authorities said they identified two organized fencing rings. Two dozen members of those rings have been arrested, about half of them charged with crimes including burglary and receiving stolen property. Their operations reached as far east as Texas; authorities said they also traced some of the stolen goods to Mexico. In a letter to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón last December, Union Pacific reported that thefts targeting its trains in Los Angeles County had increased by 160 percent over the year before, with a particularly sharp surge in the lead-up to the peak holiday season. The railroad company argued that the theft problem was made worse by Gascón’s approach to prosecuting criminal offenders. “Charges are reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense, and the criminal is released after paying a nominal fine,” Adrian Guerrero, a director of public affairs for Union Pacific, said in the letter. In response, Gascón criticized Union Pacific's poor security and said that his office was filing charges against the suspects. Moore echoed that sentiment Thursday, saying the district attorney’s office’s position on such cases had “evolved.” Outside of prosecuting criminals after the crime is done, preventive measures have been taken by rail operators to beef up permanent security measures around rail lines, including bringing in extra security, installing lighting, and using more secure locks to deter would-be thieves.