With three tanker trucks delivering diesel across the region, South River Fuel seemed like a legitimate operation.
But investigators say the Medley company, while registered with the state, had no licenses to sell or deliver fuel — and the logos were just a front for an illegal operation to buy and sell diesel as part of South Florida’s thriving black market for fuel.
Prosecutors on Tuesday announced criminal charges against the company’s owners, who are accused of purchasing the fuel from truck drivers who used stolen credit-card numbers to buy diesel from gas stations across South Florida.
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It’s believed to be the most expansive case brought against illegal fuel sellers — and buyers — who have helped make underground diesel sales a lucrative underground trade in South Florida. In all, state prosecutors on Tuesday charged 11 people, most of them drivers.
South River is believed to have sold fuel, at cheaper rates, to rental-car companies, tow-truck yards, truckers and even gas stations. Some knew the gas was hot, while others did not know South River was unlicensed.
“We wanted to get the kings of these operations to be held accountable,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
The company’s owners, Jorge Guerra and Yadian Sosa, were charged along with nine others, most of them drivers of so-called “fuel bladder” vehicles covertly outfitted with dangerous gas containers that pose a huge risk of fire or explosion.
Guerra remains a fugitive. The man suspected of organizing the drivers, Adryan Hernandez-Morera, was also charged. He is being held after being arrested in North Carolina on unrelated charges of unrelated credit-card fraud.
Among the charges the ring faces: racketeering, conspiracy, credit-card forgery, money laundering and dealing in stolen property. The group is believed to have conducted nearly $100,000 in fraudulent transactions every month. Detectives with the Miami-Dade Police Department’s organized-crime bureau arrested most of the suspects early Tuesday.
The Miami Herald chronicled the growing problem of illegal fuel trucks in January.
“Thieves have placed potential rolling fire bombs out onto our streets,” Fernandez Rundle said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Over the past two years, records show, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has prosecuted dozens of men in separate small-time cases with possessing a vehicle with an illegal fuel tank. But Tuesday’s case is the first time prosecutors have arrested an entire ring — down to the people buying the fuel in secret, undercutting legitimate gas stations and fuel supply companies.
The scheme generally starts with small scanners, devices a small business owner might connect to their smartphone or tablet to ring you up. Crooks modify the devices to be hidden inside the credit-card readers at fuel pumps.
At gas stations across South Florida, customers pay for gas using their credit cards, unknowingly supplying their account numbers to the thieves, who return later to collect the devices — along with hundreds of card numbers.
The numbers are placed on blank cards and used to fill trucks or vans outfitted with the secret “fuel bladders.” The vehicles visit gas station after gas station, using the illicit cards to surreptitiously fuel up the bladders, never surpassing $100 — the cutoff for most transactions at gas-station pumps.
In the case charged Tuesday, the investigation began when two confidential informants supplied Miami-Dade police with the name of Asbel Gutierrez-Perez, who was suspected of involvement in getting stolen credit-card information.
Detectives began following Gutierrez-Perez as he drove around town, filling up a Ford F350 equipped with a bladder tank. They tracked it to South River Fuel, which has a corporate office in Hialeah and a truck yard in Medley. Over the course of months, Miami-Dade detectives conducted hours of covert surveillance, while using cell and financial records to tie the group to the fraudulent transactions.
The companies also failed to pay taxes normally paid to the state by companies dealing in the fuel industry, according to the warrant prepared by Miami-Dade prosecutor Michael Filteau.