Carlos Luis Hernandez Diaz had no clue that undercover cops were watching as he filled up his gold 2004 Ford Excursion with just under $100 worth of fuel at an Exxon gas station on LeJeune Road. He was also unaware that a tracking device placed on the truck showed him visiting multiple gas stations a day and dumping the petrol at what police called an “illegal fuel yard” in Northwest Miami-Dade.
That dollar amount of that fill-up was key, police would say in a search warrant obtained for Hernandez Diaz’s truck. Commercial gas pumps are configured to shut off automatically if a purchase is made for more than $100.
On Wednesday, Hernandez Diaz and 12 others were charged in a growing illegal gas-stealing scheme that puts what law enforcement consider “rolling bombs” on the road of South Florida. Those vehicles, packed with illegal fuel tanks, fill up at gas stations all over South Florida, often using stolen credit cards. It’s a racket law enforcement has been grappling with for years.
The Miami Herald documented the problem in January. A month later, 11 people were busted and charged in an operation. So far this year, according to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, 31 people in separate fuel truck cases have been prosecuted.
The latest bust, which police dubbed “Operation Fill er Up,” involved at least 156 stolen credit cards, almost a dozen trucks where interiors were filled with giant and dangerous fuel bladders, and a private property in Northwest Miami-Dade. There, detectives said, the fuel was unloaded and sold at half its purchase value — all pure profit for the truckers who had been using the stolen credit cards. Then, according to police, Juan Miguel Nunez Abella, who ran and owned the fuel yard at 12321 NW 154th St., resold the fuel for 50 cents a gallon more than he paid for it.
“It’s criminally wrong on so many levels,” said Miami-Dade police spokesman Lee Cowart. “It is not safe. It’s a public safety issue.”
The trucks are so dangerous, law enforcement officers say, that they are commonly referred to as “rolling bombs.”
In addition to Hernandez Diaz, 31, and Nunez Abella, 49, those arrested Wednesday night in various locations were: Alain Gonzalez, 35; Carlos Gonzalez, 41; Hector Carlos Gordillo Perez, 28; Jose Luis Hernandez, 45; Lazaro Gomez, 26; Maikel Sanchez, 31; Michel Ibargoyen, 51; Ovel Hernandez Baquet, 33; Yaidel Corrales, 31; Yanciel Planas Loza, 34; and Yorgelis Almira Quiala, 37.
Charges against the 13 range from possessing illegal tank containers to fraudulently obtaining fuel to using counterfeit credit cards.
The arrests were made after police pieced together a complicated sting operation that involved undercover surveillance, at least one confidential informant and search warrants. The agencies involved in the sting were Miami-Dade’s Economic Crime unit, Medley police and the Secret Service.
Hernandez Diaz’s search warrant outlines a scam that police began looking into in early June. That’s when, according to police, they spotted him at the Exxon on LeJeune attempting to use several credit cards to fill up his truck. Police said he was accompanied by a lookout. Police eventually got hold of the receipt: 31.32 gallons that cost $99.59.
Police said they then got permission to place a tracking device on Hernandez Diaz’s Excursion. They followed him on several trips to gas stations, all which were followed by visits to the fuel yard. A week later, on June 8, police said they were told by the informant about the fuel yard, which matched the address they had been observing. That’s where they spotted Nunez Abella. They determined it was an all-cash business and that Nunez Abella was reselling the fuel at a marked-up price.
Follow-ups at the property led police to 12 more people they believed were taking part in the same scheme. Police said that the trucks unloaded the fuel into large tankers and that a ramp was added to slant the vehicles and get every last drop of fuel. Then tractor-trailers would come by, fill up and pay Nunez Abella. Follow-up surveillance in July spotted several more trucks filling up at the same yard, police said.
Police said the source who led them to the fuel yard was “facing his or her own criminal charges relating to counterfeit credit cards and the use of illegal aftermarket fuel tanks.”
Cowart, the Miami-Dade detective, could not stress enough the dangers involved in the operation, not just to the participants, but to the general public.
“It’s basically a bomb driving down the road,” he said. “It would take one spark to set it off.”