Estates, Lehigh Acres hubs of truck chop-shop operations

A flatbed tow truck carried away the remains.

The illegal leftovers of a search gone subterranean were carted off.

Detective Eddie Palmer with the Lee County Sheriff's Office uncovers a piece of safety glass that was part of a stolen dump truck in a yard in Golden Gate Estates on Thursday afternoon. Members of the Florida Commercial Vehicle and Cargo Theft Task Force, which includes deputies from Collier and Lee counties and the Florida Highway Patrol, found pieces of several stolen dump trucks buried outside a home at 1955 Ivisa Ave., off Smith Road.

Photo by Darron R. Silva, Daily News

Detective Eddie Palmer with the Lee County Sheriff's Office uncovers a piece of safety glass that was part of a stolen dump truck in a yard in Golden Gate Estates on Thursday afternoon. Members of the Florida Commercial Vehicle and Cargo Theft Task Force, which includes deputies from Collier and Lee counties and the Florida Highway Patrol, found pieces of several stolen dump trucks buried outside a home at 1955 Ivisa Ave., off Smith Road.

The yard where pieces of truck frame were uncovered Thursday was called the scene of another Collier County chop shop by police.

Stolen dump trucks, some of them costing more than $150,000, were disassembled by thieves and rebuilt. Then, they'd be rolled back onto the road in "recycled" condition, unsafe for the drivers who bought the reworked trucks and other motorists who share the roads with them – and illegal.

With torches in hand, the thieves cut up the trucks, reassemble the engines, transmissions and other parts and then bury the rest in remote locations such as 1955 Ivisa Ave., off Smith Road, not far from the Collier County landfill off Collier Boulevard.

"They know what they're doing," said Collier sheriff's Cpl. Jose Lopez, part of the Florida Commercial Vehicle and Cargo Theft Task Force.

This group, made up of Collier and Lee deputies, Florida Highway Patrol troopers, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of Transportation, targets stolen dump trucks and the people who steal them.

Last week, Julio Uritaga, 19, and his father, Julio Uritaga, 43, were both arrested on various charges related to a chop shop operation at 1925 Ivisa Ave. Deputies found several weapons at the house.

Thursday's find was within yards of that remote home on an unpaved road and most likely linked, authorities said.

The house was newly built and a relative of the father and son was to live there. No one has been arrested on this latest discovery and the case is still under investigation.

So while deputies ran metal detectors around the yard, the ground was dug up and the pieces unearthed.

"They like the remote area," said FHP Lt. Paul Henry. "There's not a lot of traffic out here."

In Southwest Florida, dump trucks can be stolen from industrial parks or even from neighborhoods in more rural areas, such as Golden Gate Estates or Lehigh Acres, where their owners often park their trucks in yards, authorities say.

Throughout Florida, 256 dump trucks were stolen, with about a half dozen each stolen from Collier and Lee counties within the past year.

The yard was part of a chop shop, where stolen trucks were chopped up, reassembled, then sold.

Photo by Darron R. Silva, da

The yard was part of a chop shop, where stolen trucks were chopped up, reassembled, then sold.

"One time we were doing a dump truck operation and the owner saw a guy driving his truck," said Lee sheriff's Sgt. Chip Pakulis.

In Collier County, there were six trucks stolen in the past 18 months or so. And there were nine attempted thefts, Lopez said.

The most recently unearthed trucks were stolen from Polk County, Haines City and Pasco County, authorities say.

But they've had them stolen from as far away as Jacksonville and discovered in pieces in Southwest Florida.

Professional truck thieves often will have equipment, such as a vertical compressor, which the Uritagas had on their property, to crush the leftovers from the trucks.

It's a complicated strategy to steal the trucks, using other drivers to get them to the trucks so they can drive off in them.

Sometimes, they'll even pursue a certain model of truck. Often, the thieves will let the trucks cool off to make sure authorities aren't looking for them and park them in the thick woods.

It can be a profitable business because they might sink $5,000 into the rebuilt truck and end up making a hefty $65,000 profit, police say.

"They go to work every day to steal trucks," Pakulis said.

While the Miami area was once the hot place to run a chop shop, tough enforcement and the decreasing rural areas there sent thieves west to places like the Estates and Lehigh Acres. Some of the groups in Collier and Lee counties are related, authorities say.

One discovery at Ivisa Avenue led them to a truck registered to fugitive Tomas Velez Valdivia, who once lived in Lehigh Acres. He's wanted in connection with running down a trooper and is a Crime Stoppers fugitive, so deputies are hoping the possibility of a reward will lead to his arrest.

"His truck was there so we know he was there at one time," Pakulis said.

Lopez said residents in rural areas might see some of the chop shops and not realize it.

"If you see a dump truck going in and not coming out, you've probably got one," he said. "Call the Sheriff's Office. Maybe it's something and maybe it's not. But we can check it out."

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features