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Trucker guilty of arson for ‘maliciously’ torching multiple Swift Transportation trailers in California

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On Tuesday, a Michigan-based trucker accused of torching multiple Swift Transportation trailers was found guilty by a California jury.

California Arson Conviction

On March 12, 2024, Viorel Pricop, 66, was found guilty on six counts of arson of vehicle or property in interstate commerce, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

Authorities say that from December 2021 to September 2022, Pricop maliciously set fire to six semi-trailers belonging to Phoenix-based trucking company Swift Transportation in the state of California. The trailer fires were set in San Bernardino County and in Riverside County.

Pricop faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison and a statutory maximum of 20 years in federal prison for each count.

Man Accused Of Multiple Additional Trailer Fires Outside Of California

In addition to the six California trailer arson cases, Pricop is also accused of setting fire to “at least 18 additional Swift Transportation semi-trailers in other states from June 2020 to March 2022 … [from] Barstow, California to McCalla, Alabama, with most incidents occurring along Interstate 10 and Interstate 40.”

In each of the arson incidents, Swift-owned trailers were parked at or near a truck stop when a fire occurred on or near the trailer tires.

Navigation Device Tipped Off Investigators

Swift Transportation hired an investigator to look into the trailer fires after noticing a pattern. After reviewing cell tower data, the investigator determined that a particular commercial vehicle navigation device was near many of the trailer fires. Law enforcement then determined that the navigation device was installed in Pricop’s vehicle. Law enforcement also determined that Pricop’s cell phone was present in the location of more than a dozen trailer fires across the country.

In 2022, a search warrant was issued for Pricop’s semi truck, personal vehicle, and home. Authorities found a gas torch, torch-style lighters, and record keeping documents containing location information, such as cargo pickup and delivery dates which coincided with the time and location of several fires in the series of 24 fires across the country.

“Bait Trailer” Used to Catch Defendant

Authorities suggest Pricop was motivated to set the fires following his conviction in previous cargo theft incidents:

Swift Transportation and other trucking companies were victims of thefts between 2010 and 2014. Swift initiated its own investigation into those thefts and utilized bait trailers to catch thieves. In 2015, someone broke into one of the bait trailers and took boxes of electronic goods containing tracking devices. Swift investigators tracked those boxes to a storage facility in Michigan, and local law enforcement in Michigan arrested Pricop in possession of the boxes of electronic goods from the bait trailer.

Pricop was convicted in 2018 in the Eastern District of Michigan for a tax offense and for transportation of stolen goods, charges stemming from the investigation conducted by Swift. Pricop was sentenced to time served in that case, amounting to approximately 26 months’ imprisonment. His term of supervised release ended in June 2019, approximately one year before the arsons in this case began.

“Rampage of Retaliation”

“This defendant went on a rampage of retaliation against a victim of his last crime,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “Rather than take advantage of the second chance offered to him, he chose an incredibly reckless and dangerous path. We will not accept arson and other violent crime on our streets, and I am grateful that this defendant will now be held to account.”

“We have methodically worked each of the fire scenes, collected evidence, interviewed witnesses, and reviewed video footage to help us solve these arson cases,” said Special Agent in Charge Brendan Iber of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) Phoenix Field Division. “ATF’s certified fire investigators will continue to enforce federal laws pertaining to arson and support our state and local police and fire investigators.”

“Since beginning the work to solve this case, our arson investigators did a great job of looking at each fire to put the pieces together,” said New Mexico State Fire Marshal Randy Varela. “We know how important our partnerships with other agencies are, especially with a case that spans across multiple states, and we are proud of the work that we were able to do together to catch this arsonist.”

 

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