It was a regular day on May 11, 2013, when a semi-cab (or semi-truck) was bobtailing its way up Interstate 555 from Memphis, Tennessee to Jonesboro, Arkansas. The driver was a career trucker – a Memphis man – and he was with his nephew. They were driving between warehouses and shipping facilities – as truckers usually do when picking up a new load – but these two weren’t looking to stock up.
Well, not legally, that is. This trucker and his nephew were cruising the truck stops along the I-555 for unattended trailers so they could steal the goods inside. These thieves are referred to as “pirates of the highway,” only they don’t wear eye patches and say “ayyy.” No, these are modern-day bandits – ones who, for some reason, don’t make it to the news headlines. So, on that note, let us fill you in on what’s been going down on America’s fast lanes. This is the story of how one pair of bandits were finally caught and how this whole trucking underworld ever began.
Truckers occasionally leave their trailers at truck stops, or sometimes in parking lots, so that they can drive the cab home for the weekend. It’s something only people in the trucking industry would really know about or pay attention to.
So, for this seasoned trucker and his nephew, it was only a matter of time until they came across an unattached and unattended trailer. It’s not difficult to find an overlooked trailer among the bustle of a busy truck stop. Their experience came in handy when it came to pulling off the stealth mission. Working as a team made things go faster.
All they needed to do was hook up to a trailer, crank up the landing gear, connect a few hoses, and drive off in a matter of minutes. Working quick and as a pair allowed them to blend in with the constant stream of highway traffic – in order to stock up and disappear before the trailer’s driver could even realize what just hit him.
It was now 5:40 p.m., and the men found what they were looking for. There was a 52-foot Wabash trailer sitting in the Snappy Mart Truck Stop parking lot in West Plains, Missouri. The nephew jumped out of the cab, ran over to the trailer, and directed his uncle as he backed up.
Once they were clanked in and locked into place with the trailer, the nephew hopped into the trailer and connected a few hoses and cables. He looked around the lot before returning to the cab and slamming the door. They figured they were good – that no one had seen them. So, they drove off as if nothing had happened.
The trailer itself is worth $7,500 empty, not counting the value of what is inside. The men, assuming the value would be high, hightailed it, staying vigilant, bsut feeling like giddy kids at Christmas. A crooked kind of Christmas, though. Regardless, they cranked it and cruised along the interstate, heading through Chicago and into Indiana and then into Michigan.
By the time they arrived in Michigan, it was the early morning of May 12. They were far from the scene of the crime in that Missouri parking lot, but the route they took wasn’t especially noteworthy for seasoned long-haul truckers who cruise the U.S. highway system on a weekly basis.
The pair of crooks already had buyers waiting in obscure warehouses. These were people who knew how to get rid of bulk goods efficiently and swiftly. This is how it works: The sellers get a cut of the proceeds, meaning higher-value goods result in a heftier payday.
As the bandits headed towards their potential buyers, they grew more and more eager to see what kind of payday they were going to get this time. They had no idea what was inside the locked trailer. Pulling off the initial lock-and-go procedure didn’t really leave them enough time to peruse the stock and decide whether or not to continue or choose another trailer.
So, above the risk of pulling off the mission itself was the chance that they had stolen a trailer that had nothing of high value, like a truck-full of toilet paper, for instance. But then again, the surprise was all part of the excitement. But in this case, it wasn’t toilet paper…
As these guys would later find out, their prize trailer was filled with $30,000-worth of Green Giant canned corn. The trailer came from a food processing facility in Montgomery, Minnesota, and it was headed to a food pantry in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The bandits stole 40,000 cans of corn, begging the question: “Would they have gone through with it if they knew the trailer was full of corn? Well, surprisingly enough, the answer is yes. A trailer stocked with canned corn isn’t such a bust. Cheap food like this easily finds its way into mom-and-pop shops, swap meets and is even sold over the Internet.
And once it’s all gone, it’s untraceable. “If you have enough of something and you can sell it for cheap enough, you can make it disappear very quickly, and your profit is 100 percent,” said Manteca Police Department Sgt. Joe Ahuna. He’s worked on numerous cargo theft cases in California’s Central Valley.
As it turns out, some of the highest-valued and most-targeted truck loads in recent years have been… wait for it… snack nuts. Why? Well, it’s because there had been a drought that greatly diminished the supply of nuts, which raised the demand for the item.
Seasoned truck thieves started becoming more interested in stealing nuts than big-ticket electronics or medicine. In fact, nut theft reached its peak in early 2015, with a total of 31 reported nut heists, costing carriers more than $5 million.
But one of the problems is tracking them down. “How are you to track individual nuts?” said Sgt. Shawna Pacheco, a member of California’s Cargo Theft Interdiction Program. “When those nuts get transported to a warehouse where they are processed — some are legal, and some are stolen — but all are crushed and bagged, so good luck telling the difference.”
This all means that $30,000-worth of canned corn doesn’t sound like a dream haul, but the steal was well worth their effort. The two crooks continued along the roads of Michigan, driving into the horizon like all the other anonymous truck drivers, delivering the goods that each and every one of us relies on.
The truck thieves’ names were Earl Stanley Nunn and his nephew Michael Lee Sherley. Neither Nunn nor Sherley were rookies when it came to ripping off trucks. They worked with a crew that had conducted similar operations in over a dozen states, essentially spreading the crimes across countless jurisdictions.
They knew what they were doing, but what they weren’t aware of was that they were carefully watched by the FBI’s Memphis Cargo Theft Task Force. The force was tracking them and knew exactly where the trailer of canned corn was at all times.
As it turns out, Memphis sees some of the most cargo thefts in the country, so it wasn’t the first time the U.S. Marshals on the task force placed a GPS tracking device on a trailer. This time, however, Nunn and Sherley were the targets.
The canned corn crooks crossed Michigan on Interstate 94, taking them across Jackson County in the southeastern part of Michigan. As they drove on, the Marshals of the Michigan Police’s Southwest Commercial Auto Recovery (SCAR) Unit to tell them that they had a stolen load coming their way.
The SCAR team was actually already aware of Nunn, as he had been on their radar since 2009. But it wasn’t until 2012 that they ramped up surveillance after his son Roderick Nunn was arrested for stealing a trailer with 39,000 pounds of Wrigley’s gum. The value? $175,000.
Roderick ripped off a trailer at a shipping facility and tried to drive it to Detroit, but the heist led to a 15-minute chase with a Michigan cop and ended up with Roderick running and jumping the cab and his accomplice trying to hide in a field.
As for his father and his cousin, Nunn and Sherley, the two had no idea they were closely monitored. As they entered Michigan at around 7 a.m., they gazed out the window to see the rising sun. They didn’t hear the siren at first – perhaps they were tired and slightly dazed. But once they saw the red and blue lights in their rearview mirrors, they knew they weren’t daydreaming.
Rather than put his pedal to the metal, Nunn slowed down, hoping that he could talk his way out of the stop. He coasted onto the shoulder, stopping approximately 80 miles from their destination in Detroit. The officer purposely took his time getting out of his vehicle, taking notes, and delaying contact – a tactic meant to intimidate the drivers.
Eventually, he walked up to the cab and asked Nunn and Sherley to exit the vehicle. When asked where he got the trailer, he said, “We picked it up just outside of Gary, Indiana. A guy named Charlie told us to grab it from the Blue Ox truck stop.”
Nunn explained that they were getting paid $1,000 for the trip but that there wasn’t any paperwork associated with the load. He said he knew nothing more than that. The officer’s expression – or lack thereof – didn’t change. Obviously, he knew this wasn’t true.
Still, he let them continue talking. They hoped that their blatant lies would convince the cop that they were just a bunch of shady delivery guys, not career crooks. Nunn and Sherley were arrested and taken to Jackson, Michigan, to be questioned by detectives. Sherley’s story was that he just came along for the ride.
As for Nunn, he said he was starting to worry about his safety since the load had yet to be delivered to “Charlie.” The detectives listened to both of their stories, unamused, before finally revealing that they had been tracking Nunn’s tractor across four states.
They knew that this Charlie wasn’t real, as they had been watching Nunn for a year, tracking every step of his latest escapade. The trailer was then towed to a storage facility in Michigan and eventually sent back to its intended recipient. The manager who organized the delivery was stunned, saying, “We’ve been in trucking for 40 years. Who would think this would happen in West Plains, Missouri? This is Nowhereland.”
Nunn and Sherley were charged and jailed, yet they somehow held out hope about their fate, mistakenly thinking that cargo of lesser value leads to proportionally smaller punishments. But they were wrong. A felony is a felony, and even theft of that magnitude is still a crime.
They were shocked to learn that they were each facing a minimum of 10 years in prison, in addition to the $250,000 fines. It also didn’t help that the arrest exposed a much larger network of truck thievery – of highway pirates. This particular arrest was just one piece of a much larger crime puzzle.
“We’ve found on more than one occasion solving one crime gives us pieces of information to solve another. That’s why you’ve got to have patience and a willingness to keep cold cases alive in the back of your head, so to speak,” said Scott Cornell, the vice president of Travelers Insurance, which insures cargo against theft.
Roderick, Nunn’s son, was one accomplice in the canned corn heist. He was already facing charges in the Wrigley’s gum heist, which is what led authorities to track his father’s truck. Roderick was no rookie, either, having stolen hauls with microwaves, beauty products, and computers.
The FBI discovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars were moving in and out of Roderick Nunn’s bank accounts as well as those of his girlfriend. The FBI estimated that with a 10 percent commission, the total value of Nunn’s trailer thefts was in the realm of $8 million.
“He has been stealing cargo for 16 years, undeterred by any prior sentence of imprisonment,” wrote the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Clay Stiffler. In 2015, 65-year-old Nunn was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison without parole, the maximum sentence for such an offense. Nunn was also ordered to pay $3,514,521 in compensation. Sherley, 55, was sentenced in 2014 to four years and six months in federal prison without parole.
Nunn and his truck thievery ring are just one of many. Truck thievery is surprisingly common. Whether it’s canned corn, construction materials, or thousands of cell phones, the truck underworld is thriving. CargoNet is an industry group that tracks cargo theft, and they counted roughly 2,600 truck thefts in 2019 alone. The average value of a trailer theft is about $148,000.
When you think about it, truck hijacking has obviously been around for as long as there have been trucks. Before trucks, there were train and stagecoach robberies (just think Jesse James).
The phenomenon became particularly prevalent during the Prohibition years when gangsters would hijack trucks moving booze-running operations as well as other crimes. Incidents became so frequent that insurance companies started refusing to insure shipments going through Chicago. A feature in The Chicago Tribune reported on hijacking incidents from the 1930s. In one story, a black car packed with men with machine guns pulled up next to a truck carrying a load of tires.
They got the truck driver to pull over, and they proceed to blindfold and tie him. The thieves then drove the truck to a secret warehouse on a farm, where all the goods were unloaded. The only reason the authorities were able to find the stolen tires was because the driver heard turkeys while he was being held captive. There were, after all, only a few turkey farms in the area.
In another case, a driver who was hauling thousands of dollars’ worth of butter was captured and tied up, then taken to a warehouse where the truck was swiftly unloaded. The driver, however, managed to untie himself and quietly make marks in the wooden stairs where they made him sit.
That way, he could later prove he’d been held captive there. He eventually escaped and found a policeman, who indeed verified the driver’s story based on those marks on the stairs. But this was the way it was, more or less, in the old days…
Today, most truck thieves avoid the fuss of using violence or kidnapping. They prefer instead to rely on unattended trailers. It’s actually how many cargo thieves get their start. Truck theft happens to be a crime of opportunity that’s been refined over the decades.
Anyone who’s capable of stealing a trailer most likely knows the kind of people who can make the cargo disappear. And that’s how a full-on thievery ring develops. The deliberate lack of indication on many trailers means that goods (and their payoff) depend heavily on the luck of the draw.
When a truck full of computers, medicine, or electronics goes missing, it usually means that there was an issue somewhere along the delivery chain. “Take a guy working at a dock or a warehouse making $12 to $15 per hour. You throw him a few hundred bucks and all he has to do is the text you the number of a truck carrying a load of brand-new TVs,” said Arthur Schwarzer, a logistics specialist from a third-party shipping firm in Chicago.
Schwarzer isn’t his real last name. He asked that his real name and his company’s name remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of his firm’s operations. He indicated that cell phones and other electronics are the cargo that goes missing most often.
For a period in 2019, trucks seemed to be disappearing every week, prompting one major phone provider to threaten to cancel all shipping contracts if nothing was done to prevent such heists. But deterring thefts is difficult since these thieves know the ins and outs of the trucking industry.
They also know where the exploitable kinks in the system are. They look for victims on internet hauling boards where truckers often piece together deliveries for different companies. These crooks troll these boards, looking for a promising target. There are also thieves that pretend to be the truck crew who are scheduled to pick up the load and beat the real drivers to the punch.
The most common method of hijacking a truck is, in reality, the dullest: Thieves simply know where to look for unattended trailers. But at truck stops, it’s basically open season – trailers galore for the taking. Not too long ago, a 12-member Louisville-based truck theft ring operated a complex network across more than 10 states.
They conducted surveillance on facilities that were shipping high-value goods. They then followed trucks until they stopped for gas, which was when the trailers would be stolen. The trailers were driven miles away to be hooked up to a different tractor and then taken back to Louisville to be sold.
This group took all kinds of cargo, from cigarettes to kitchen appliances to baby formula. One shipment of cellphones was valued at almost $12 million. The group managed to steal $30 million worth of cargo between 2012 and 2015, but it was the cell phone heist that took them down.
How did it happen? Well, an FBI-led task force “injected false intel” into the thievery ring in the form of another haul of cell phones leaving Louisville. “We knew they were going to be watching the facility in Louisville,” FBI Special Agent Paul Meyer said. “They took the bait. We watched them steal the load, and then we took them down.”
In 2018, the members of the group were given sentences of between one and 12 and a half years. It happened around the same time as a similar but different 11-man crew was arrested and charged in New Jersey. The head of the state police said they took “everything they could get their hands on,” including loads of granite, landscaping equipment, and clothing.
It makes Nunn’s operations seem modest in comparison. Once he was put in prison, his trucking business was dismantled. Any leftover assets, such as the truck itself, were seized. His nephew, Sherley, was released in 2017.
The truck of canned corn obviously didn’t steal itself, but according to long-haul trucker Jonathyn Arthurs, the smugness of the truck’s operator is what lead to the theft. That specific truck’s rightful driver had dropped his trailer at the truck stop on a Friday.
He then went home (which was nearby) for the weekend. He said he checked on the trailer twice that Saturday and saw that it was still there. It actually isn’t uncommon for trailers to be left if a driver can take a day off. But this routine lulls driver into a false sense of security.
Come early Monday morning, he was stunned to see that his trailer had simply vanished. Many truck carriers prohibit the practice of dropping trailers like that. Arthurs’ carrier, for one, is much stricter. It only permits its drivers to drop their trailers at company-approved warehouses or other secured locations.
Truckers also need to get explicit permission from their carriers to do so. Schwarzer (the guy with the fake name) said his company puts two men in the cabs that carry expensive loads for double accountability. Those trailers are also outfitted with GPS tracking devices, cameras and specialty doors.
In 2019, three days after Christmas, officers from an auto theft task force quietly surrounded a house in Livingston, California. They were hot on the trail of a hijacked trailer that had been filled with the belongings of three military families who were being relocated as part of their active duty service.
The truck went missing on Christmas Day from the yard of a moving company subcontracted to help with the move. Two employees of the moving company, Michael Travis Forward and Anthony John Cruz, entered the yard and drove off with the truck.
Forward and Cruz both drove the semi to Forward’s home, where they unloaded it all by hand, then drove the trailer a few towns over and left it by the side of the road. Forward wasn’t there when the task force arrived at his home, but the officers knew they hit the jackpot.
The house and its garage were packed with boxes of appliances, toys, and bikes. The theft was bold and heartless, but sadly, it’s not unheard of. During the holidays, truck theft is higher. Trucks from Amazon distribution centers are particularly known to go missing.
Stealing three families’ stuff is bad enough, but the scenario grew more serious when the authorities realized that at least 14 guns were stolen in the heist and were yet to be recovered from Forward’s home. They likely sold them.
Officers finally caught Forward on New Year’s Day, riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that he found in the back of a moving truck. He was arrested, charged with possession of a stolen vehicle, as well as grand theft and receiving stolen property. His accomplice Cruz was arrested a few weeks later.
“This was a random crime. But these guys were not real bright. They made the case easy for us,” said Sgt. Jim Sheeran. According to Forward’s fiancée, he’s actually a good guy, and the heist was partly a protest against how he was being treated by his employers.
It’s hard to say that someone who steals a family’s belongings on Christmas is a good guy. Contrary to what some might say, truck theft is not a victimless crime. “There’s no worse day than Christmas to steal from someone, and then you steal from a military family, no less,” patrol officer Rubin Jones said in a TV interview. “Just leave people’s stuff alone.”