Two months ago the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office busted an alleged chop-shop at 331 Sawgrass Road in Bunnell. Details have now emerged indicating that detectives had the shop under surveillance the nights of March 8 and 9, when they observed and heard what to them was a chop-shop operation involving large trucks.
On March 9, detectives served the first of two search warrants on the property: the second search warrant had to be secured when deputies realized that half the building they were searching was under the control of a different person than the one named in the first search warrant. There was no one there when they served either warrant. Deputies got to work surveying the place and discovered vehicles and equipment that they concluded had been stolen and some of it chopped up.
Among the stolen items were a forklift and a tractor trailer stolen from Lowe’s in Palm Coast, according to a sheriff’s report, and several other tractors and trailers: in the last six months of 2015, eight commercial tractors and trailers had been reported stolen in the county.
Among the equipment seized those two days were three potentially valuable vehicles: a 2005 tractor Frieghtliner Conventional ST120, a 2003 tractor Freightliner Conventional (whose last reported mileage, in 2012, was almost 680,000 miles, according to a Carfax report), a 1997 Great Dane trailer, and a long list of tools that include air compressors, a 22-ton hydraulic jack and several other hydraulic jacks, a laptop, ladders, hoists, polishers, welders and so on.
On April 21, and even though no arrests had been made or even charges leveled at anyone–with one exception, though the charges against that individual were soon dropped–the sheriff’s office filed the necessary court papers to win a forfeiture judgment that would enable the department to take possession of the goods and sell them, cashing in on the proceeds.
Civil asset forfeiture laws enable federal, state and local police agencies to seize property believed to be involved in the the commission of crimes. The threshold for seizures is very low: agencies don’t have to prove in court that a crime took place. Suspicion is enough. In Florida agencies do have to give individuals from whom assets are seized a chance to contest the seizure. Two of the individuals named in the forfeiture complaints, Palm Coast residents both, have retained lawyers.
Sheriff Jim Manfre has been personally involved in seeking to strengthen regulations over asset forfeiture laws, and one such measure passed the Florida Legislature last spring. But that’s not stopping the sheriff’s office from pursuing such assets.
Flagler detectives were tipped off to the alleged chop-shop case last Dec. 21, when a detective got a call from an Ormond Beach police officer regarding a stolen tractor trailer valued at $220,000. The GPS on the truck had last been activated at the 331 Sawgrass Road address. A sheriff’s deputy went to the location that day and spoke with the property owner, Chris Barney, who was renting a portion of the property to Wilfredo Velazquez. Velazquez was there. the deputy reported his behavior as “peculiar,” adding in his investigative report: “Some males began to immediately use their cell phones on my approach and some of the males began to walk in circles.”
The vehicle reported stolen was not at the scene, however, so the deputy left. There appears to have been no follow-up, judging from the report. (An earlier version of this story referred to the deputy as Cpl. Emery. Emery was involved in the subsequent investigation, but not at that point.)
On March 7, a deputy got a call from a detective at the Medley Police Department in Miami-Dade County. The detective asked Emery if he was familiar with a Wilfredo Velazquez of Freeland Lane in Palm Coast. Emery told him he was. The South Florida detective said he was investigating the theft of a 2007 Peterbilt 387 tractor valued at $75,000, and a with it a $50,000 trailer. The South Florida detective said a suspicious black Toyota had been spotted in the area of the alleged theft, and that the truck and the Toyota were then spotted by Florida Turnpike surveillance cameras driving in immediate proximity to each other. The Toyota had been rented from Hertz in Palm Coast–by Velasquez, according to Emery’s report, and was in Velasquez’s possession during the time frame when the truck was stolen, and when the Truck and the Toyota were spotted by Turnpike cameras.
The night of March 8, detectives began surveillance from the northwest corner of the county fairgrounds of the Sawgrass Road property–and located what appeared to be the blue Peterbilt tractor “on the north side of the building that Wilfredo is in control of.”
“At approximately 3 a.m. Cpl. Emery and Deputy Mello observed several males on the property,” the investigative report states. “These males began to open garage doors and move tractors and trailers. Cpl. Emery witnessed a yellow tractor on scene. This yellow tractor was moved from the parking lot and into a garage. The garage was then shut and deputies heard power tools being operated. When the garage door opened they witnessed a forklift inside the garage and moving parts into a trailer that was located outside. It was found that the yellow tractor that entered the garage was being taken apart. Cpl. Lagana presented Cpl. Emery with a photograph that he took the night before while I was with him. The photograph that Cpl. Lagana showed Cpl. Lagana shows a yellow tractor with DeLullo Trucking. Cpl. Emmery positively identified this tractor as being the one that was taken into the garage and taken apart.”
Later that morning the owner of DeLullo Trucking, who had apparently reported vehicles missing, was contacted in Pennsylvania and told that all of his vehicles were accounted for.
During the search, the yellow tractor that was previously seen by a deputy was found to be dismantled inside the garage. Parts of the sleeper/body of a 2016 Peterbilt were scattered throughout the entire structure and also inside a trailer. Part of a sleeper/body was also found strapped to a forklift within two feet from the frame of the tractor. (That was the forklift stolen from Lowes.) Detectives returned the next day to continue the search, finding “numerous stolen tractors and numerous stolen trailers.”
When FlaglerLive first reported the chop-shop bust, on March 10, the Sheriff’s Office said there’d been no arrests. That was n ot, in fact, the case, according to the investigative report.
At 10 a.m. that day Delvis Suarez , a resident of Hialeah, drove onto the property at the wheel of the 2005 Freightliner (the truck the sheriff seized and is attempting to have forfeited). A Florida Highway Patrol trooper at the scene found that the trailer had been stolen. Suarez told the cops he was unaware, that he was just the driver. He was arrested and booked at the Flagler County jail at 1:08 p.m. (The FlaglerLive story ran in late afternoon, the sheriff’s office’s news release, which also said that there’d been no arrests, was issued at 8:41 p.m. When asked why that arrest had not been disclosed, a sheriff’s spokesman said today that Suarez “was on scene, but was not arrested as part of this investigation.”)
Suarez faced a grand theft charge, a third-degree felony, and a charge of possessing forged or altered property, a first-degree misdemeanor. The charges were dropped on April 18. He is not among the parties named in the sheriff’s forfeiture suit. The two individuals who have retained lawyers are Velazquez, 38, of Freeland Lane (he retained Don Appignani), and Alexis Alonso, 46, of Pebble Beach Drive (reetained David Shekhter). The case has no scheduled hearing yet before Circuit Judge Scott Dupont.
The criminal case is ongoing. “We’re not finished yet,” a sheriff’s spokesman said Friday. “Our initial investigation is still ongoing.” He added: “We still have a lot of work yet to do.”