MIL-OSI Security: Detroit-Area Man Found Guilty of Maliciously Setting Fires to Truck Trailers of Major Commercial Trucking Company

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Source: United States Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)

RIVERSIDE, Calif — A Michigan man was found guilty by a jury today of maliciously setting fires to six semi-trailers belonging to a major commercial trucking company in the Inland Empire and High Desert during a 10-month span.

Viorel Pricop, 66, of Allen Park, Michigan, was found guilty of six counts of arson of vehicle or property in interstate commerce. Pricop has been in federal custody since October 2022.

According to evidence presented at a 16-day trial, from December 2021 to September 2022, Pricop maliciously set fire to six semi-trailers belonging to Swift Transportation, a Phoenix-based commercial trucking company. Four of the arsons occurred in San Bernardino County (Newberry Springs, Ludlow, Barstow, and Hesperia) and two occurred in Riverside County (Coachella).

In each of the incidents, the Swift-owned trailer was parked at or near a truck stop when a fire occurred on the trailer portion of the vehicle, mainly on or near the trailer tires.

Pricop set on fire at least 18 additional Swift Transportation semi-trailers in other states from June 2020 to March 2022, according to an affidavit previously filed in this case. These incidents occurred at locations spanning from Barstow, California to McCalla, Alabama, with most incidents occurring along Interstate 10 and Interstate 40, the affidavit states. Federal criminal charges associated with some of these fires were filed against Pricop in the District of New Mexico and the District of Arizona.

“This defendant went on a rampage of retaliation against a victim of his last crime,” said U.S. 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.”

Swift Transportation hired a fire investigation consultant to assist with fire scene examinations. A pattern began to develop when multiple reports noted substantially similar methods of lighting the trailers on fire, including where on the vehicles the fires began, and the fact the fires occurred during the middle of the night.

A review of cell tower data near some of the fires showed that a specific device – later found to be a navigation device installed in a commercial tractor-style truck – connected to cell towers near many of the fires at or around the times of the fires. Law enforcement determined that this device was installed on a vehicle operated by Pricop. Law enforcement also identified the cellphone subscribed to Pricop and, after obtaining court authorization, obtained historical cellular data and real-time location information for Pricop’s cellphone. Analysis of this data showed that Pricop’s cellphone was present in the general area of all California fires, as well as the 18 additional fires across the country.

In September 2022, search warrants were executed on Pricop’s tractor-trailer, personal vehicle and residence, yielding additional evidence corroborating his involvement in this series of arsons. This evidence included 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.

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.

U.S. District Judge Sunshine S. Sykes scheduled a June 7 sentencing hearing, at which time Pricop will face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison and a statutory maximum of 20 years in federal prison for each count.

ATF and the New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s Office investigated this matter.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cory L. Burleson, Sean D. Peterson and Mitchell M. Suliman of the Riverside Branch Office are prosecuting this case.

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