APPLETON, Wis. - For one hard-luck semitrailer driver, the routine task of hauling 20,000 pounds of fresh Wisconsin cheese led to a mysterious crime that remains unresolved a year later.
That night, the semitrailer pulled into a storage facility near Interstate 94. The Oak Creek, Wis., business seemed a safe place to temporarily leave his trailer while he got his truck serviced. The property had video surveillance and a chain-link fence. The truck had been traveling from Green Bay to the Milwaukee area.
But by 2 a.m., when the driver returned, his trailer was gone. Someone made off with $46,000 worth of stolen cheese.
Where did the cheese go? Where did the semitrailer wind up? Just who was the cheese bandit? A year later, detectives in Wisconsin still don't know.
The Oak Creek case from June 30 was one of three cheese heists last year — strange, unusual crimes that gave Wisconsin plenty of national notoriety.
A semitrailer filled with 41,000 pounds of Parmesan cheese was stolen in Marshfield and another trailer of assorted cheeses was taken in Germantown. That pair of crimes occurred in January 2016, about a week apart. Both of those loads were recovered. The Marshfield shipment of cheese turned up about two weeks later at a storage warehouse near Appleton, about 105 miles southeast. The trailer of cheese from Germantown turned up at a grocery store lot in Milwaukee, about 25 miles southeast.
"It's an organized type of crime," said Marshfield Police Lt. Darren Larson. "It's certainly very plausible because of the sophisticated nature of these crimes that you need knowledge of the (freight) shipping business."
Profiling a cheese thief
Why would someone steal a truck stocked with thousands of pounds of yellow cheddar? Police and industry experts say it's all about resale value. The cheese from Marshfield had an estimated retail value of $90,000. The cheese taken from Germantown was worth $70,000, while the cheese stolen in Oak Creek was worth $46,000.
But keep in mind, these are blocks of cheese. Not bags of money being hauled out of your local bank. Even in Wisconsin, you can't exactly go door to door with this stuff.
Unless your plan is to eat all the cheese, stealing a full cheese truck might be more trouble than it's worth.
"The harder part is figuring out what to do with it," agreed John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
One of the transportation industry's leading experts on cargo crimes said most thieves have already lined up a buyer before they steal a 53-foot semitrailer stocked with food or other merchandise.
"Food products are a bigger target than most people think; food gets stolen all the time," said J.J. Coughlin, author of the 2012 book, Cargo Crime: Security and Theft Prevention.
"You are dealing with people who are organized and true criminals," Coughlin said last week. "It's not mafia like you think, but it's very organized. It can be a ring or it can be one person, but it's usually a ring of two or three people."
Someone stealing a truck of cheese usually intends to sell off the product to a small mom-and-pop grocer or restaurant, Coughlin said.
He recalled a crime he investigated years ago in Texas involving a stolen meat truck. It was a back-alley deal. The thieves sold off the stolen meat for a flat $10,000 to a man who owned a chain of seven restaurants. "The person buying meat off the street, he's just looking for the best deal," Coughlin said.
However, now more than ever, it's increasingly difficult for black market smugglers to unload thousands of pounds of fresh cheese because the food regulatory industry has become wiser. Coughlin said it's inconceivable that a grocery store chain would buy a truck of cheese from someone pulling into their loading dock, offering a discount deal.
Packaged cheese is bar-coded with a "traceable trail" to track the history of the food-processing origin, Umhoefer said.
That means it's practically impossible to sell a truck of stolen cheese to a reputable grocery chain.
Fortunately for Wisconsin, the state is not regarded as a hot-spot for cargo thefts, Coughlin said. Most cargo thieves operate in the South, where there are more mom-and-pop restaurants, convenient stores and grocers. Smaller stores that aren't part of a national or regional retail chain often struggle to remain profitable. As such, there's a greater temptation for some of these little businesses to buy stolen merchandise by the bulk at a deep discount.
Although large-volume cheese heists are rare, they have happened before in Wisconsin. In 2011, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on four thieves who were charged with stealing quite a few semitrailers over several months. The stolen merchandise ranged from Nike sneakers to a tractor trailer filled with mozzarella cheese.
No suspect in mind
It's now been 10 months since Wisconsin's last great cheese truck heist, in Oak Creek. That crime and the two earlier cheese heists from January 2016 have netted no arrests.
"There were leads available, and we followed up on a possible suspect," said Marshfield police's Larson. "Unfortunately, it did not turn out. Right now, we don't have a specific suspect in mind."
Even though the cheese was recovered by police from the two crimes in January 2016, the damage was done. "I believe that was all destroyed," Larson said. "They could not verify that any of the stolen cheese was properly stored."
Whether the three Wisconsin crimes were carried out by three different perpetrators "it's hard to say," Coughlin said.
"Food gets stolen all the time," he said. "They're probably not going to get caught, if they have not been busted by now."
The best hope for police in Wisconsin is that their cheese bandits were part of an elaborate ring.
"People talk," Coughlin said. "The more people involved, the more of an opportunity for information slipping out."
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