By Greg Ritchie
EAST TEXAS – It seems there is an organized effort by a dedicated gang of criminals to exploit Houston County and surrounding areas, stealing trucks and moving them south to be used in trafficking both narcotics and humans.
The gangs are reported to be using several methods to find targets and for now, seem most interested in more rural areas and in stealing bigger pickup trucks from unsuspecting residents. So far, those caught at the border with the stolen vehicles have been made up of gangs from Honduras, although authorities are not yet sure how the operation works.
Sometimes, the gang will show up at a residence or property and claim to be there for some reason or another, but are in fact, looking for vehicles or other items to steal. Some residents have reported seeing drones flying over their properties before a theft occurs.
Jeff Taylor is a narcotics investigator with Frankston Police Department. He had noticed a drone fly over his property a few days earlier, but didn’t think much of it. On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 26, his wife got up about 3:30 a.m. to let the dog out. By the time Taylor himself got up two hours later, his 2021 Ram truck was gone.
Thinking it might have been one of the people he had busted at some point or another, Taylor called the theft in to the authorities and to his insurance. Taylor was shocked to learn the true fate and long route his truck had taken.
“About a week later, I was contacted and they told me they had located the contents from my vehicle on a county road in Caldwell, Texas,” Taylor remembered. “Wow. That morning, I went down there to pick up the contents to bring back for evidence or to be fingerprinted for Anderson County. I received a call about to two o’clock in the afternoon from Atascosa County – they had located my truck and had five in custody.”
Taylor still hasn’t gotten his truck back – it’s still being processed for any additional evidence. Atascosa County Sheriff David Soward told how officers were able to stop the truck in a dramatic operation.
“Multiple officers pursued the truck down several county roads before a helicopter was called and found the truck rammed into some brush on a ranch southeast of Christine. The helicopter located several individuals and directed officers to the location where five suspected Illegals were taken into custody,” the sheriff’s statement read. “While officers were leading a tow truck into the ranch, additional Illegals went back to the truck, got it out of the brush and headed east through the ranch. The helicopter was quickly dispatched back to the area and located the truck. The helicopter stayed on the truck until the occupants bailed out and fled on foot. The helicopter stayed with the driver until ground units moved in and arrested him.”
Officials are still not entirely clear if a local group is stealing the truck and selling it on, or if the Hondurans themselves are coming into East Texas to do the work themselves. It seems they are, from some reports, but the gang is sophisticated, changing the license plates immediately after the theft to avoid detection. The plates come back good and unless law enforcement runs the actual VIN number, they will not know it is a stolen vehicle.
Taylor said the gangs will come to local properties using various excuses, such as looking for work, to seek out targets for their thefts. Taylor said drones now seem to play a big part.
“There are ranchers that have lost their vehicles and broken into their barns. Usually within a couple of weeks, they observed drones being out there over their place. As I further made contact with my neighbor in reference to my truck, he advised me two weeks prior to my truck being stolen, there was a drone over his barn and over my house.”
Taylor noted law enforcement from San Antonio down to the Mexico border are seeing numerous cases of these thefts. He said residents in all of East Texas, including Houston and Anderson counties should be on the lookout for this gang before it’s too late.
“Lock your vehicles. Take your contents out. No firearms. Just be vigilant of your surroundings,” Taylor warned.
Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]