The vengeful trucker allegedly started 25 tractor trailer fires, including 6 on the San Bernardino County – Orange County Register

An enraged trucker set fire to 25 semi-trucks, including half a dozen in San Bernardino County, during a multi-year arson spree across the country that caused $2 million in damage and sought revenge on a company that helped cause it to send him to jail in 2018, claims a criminal case that was unsealed late last week.

Viorel Pricop, 64, was arrested on Tuesday October 11 in Michigan, where he lives. He is charged with setting fire to property in interstate commerce and faces between five and 20 years in prison if convicted.

A detention hearing was held in federal court in Detroit on Wednesday as a harbinger of his extradition to California to face indictment.

Pricop is accused of starting fires at rest areas and gas stations along East-West Interstates 10 and 40 from June 2020 to September 2022. The trucks he allegedly burned belong to Phoenix-based Swift Transportation, which at 20,000 vehicles is the country’s largest long-haul carrier.

Swift officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Pricop is suspected of starting nine fires in New Mexico, six in California, three in Texas, three in Arizona and one each in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.

Police departments and fire departments responded to most truck fires, but many of the early incidents were initially dismissed as possible mechanical problems, Jonathan Smith, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, wrote in a 42-page probable cause affidavit .

However, Swift became suspicious in a short time due to the number of fires.

“Swift employees have stated that this number of similar fire incidents has never occurred before in the company’s history,” Smith wrote. “Swift began hiring fire investigation consultants to assist with investigations at the scene of the fire. A pattern also began to emerge, as multiple accounts posited essentially similar methods of lighting the pendants.”

Smith began the investigation in January after the New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s office contacted him about Swift trucks that were on fire.

Arson pattern emerges

As the number of incidents mounted, Smith received information from witnesses and fire inspectors that rags and paper had been stuffed between the rear tires of tractor-trailers and a puddle of an unknown flammable liquid had been discovered.

An investigation in Oklahoma also allegedly found that a lock had been cut off the rear cargo doors of a Swift truck and cardboard packaging material in the trailer had been ignited. In several incidents, the tractor-trailer driver was asleep in the vehicle when a fire broke out, the affidavit said, which doesn’t mention if anyone was injured.

The first fire that Pricop allegedly started in California using a Swift vehicle occurred around 3 a.m. on December 6, 2021 near a Mobil gas station at 48157 Memorial Drive in Newberry Springs. However, fire investigators have provided limited details about the fire, Smith wrote.

According to the affidavit, five other Swift trucks were burned in San Bernardino County after a cloth doused with a flammable liquid was placed behind the rear wheels and set on fire. These incidents happened:

  • February 9, 2022, around 9 p.m. near a Chevron gas station at 25635 S. Crucero Road in Ludlow while the driver was asleep in the tractor.
  • February 28, 2022, just after 1am at the TA Travel Center at 2930 Lenwood Road in Barstow. The fire was observed by a passing motorist. The truck driver was woken up and was able to separate the truck from the burning trailer. Investigators were given a break in the case when surveillance video from the rest area revealed images of a suspicious vehicle.
  • February 28, 2022 at around 2:40 am at 12269 Scarbrough Court in Hesperia near the Pilot Travel Center, less than two hours after the Barstow fire.
  • September 14, 2022 at 12:27 am at the TA Travel Center at 46155 Dillon Road, Coachella. Two Swift vehicles were set on fire while parked behind the truck stop.

GPS tracking button

Smith, who believed the arsonist could be identified and found by analyzing data from cellphones around the time and location of each fire, was subpoenaed AT&T, T-Mobile Wireless, and Verizon Wireless for cellular records. ATF agents determined through analysis of historical cellphone data and ping commands that Pricop’s cellphone had been near the site of 24 of the 25 fires, Smith wrote in the affidavit.

The ATF also began remotely monitoring the GPS navigator believed to be on Pricop’s semi-trailer truck and noted on March 29 that the vehicle was traveling westbound along Interstate 10 from Arizona to Southern California. The following day, ATF further pinpointed the truck’s location and set up surveillance near Love’s Travel Stop in Coachella.

Around 6 p.m. on March 30, ATF agents observed and photographed a dark maroon 1997 Kenworth semi-truck with Michigan license plates parked in a small area away from other vehicles across the street from the rest area. The truck was the same shape and size and had features consistent with the suspect vehicle captured in surveillance video from two previous fire scenes, the affidavit said.

A California Highway Patrol officer stopped the tractor-trailer several miles from the rest area around 8:45 p.m. for a traffic violation and identified the driver as Pricop.

Revenge motive revealed

Smith wrote that Pricop has an extensive criminal history in numerous states, including state felony convictions in 2018 in Michigan for transporting stolen property interstate and assisting or assisting in the filing of a false tax return.

The Detroit News reported that Pricop was allegedly involved in a criminal ring that acted like a gang of pirates, stealing items – including electronics and designer clothes – and burying the loot.

Pricop, who served about two years in prison, stole cargo from commercial vehicles, including Swift’s, that were assisting in a joint investigation by the ATF and Michigan State Police.

“This information suggests a connection that explains why Pricop may be motivated to target Swift vehicles,” the affidavit reads. “Continued investigation into the details of this earlier case revealed that Pricop was also contacted at the time by a Swift security investigator, who told Pricop face-to-face that Swift had caught him through her investigation.”

movements monitored

The ATF continued to monitor Pricop’s movements when Smith learned of the two Coachella fires involving Swift vehicles on September 14. Location data from Pricop’s cellphone clearly showed he was traveling westbound along Interstate 10 near the fire sites shortly before the time both were reported, the affidavit said.

Later that same day, ATF agents found Pricop’s trailer truck parked near a rest stop on South Etiwanda Ave. 11673 was parked in Fontana and in which was a man who matched Pricops’ description. However, the man did not exit the vehicle and could not be positively identified, Smith wrote.

Finally, on September 16, ATF agents searched Pricop’s trailer truck near Jamestown, New Mexico, and located cell phones, a tablet computer, two GPS units, scraps of cloth, paper, a gas lamp, lighters, a suspected flammable liquid and more secure documents, receipts and travel logs.

Pricop denied burning Swift trucks, but told ATF investigators he frequently drove along Interstate 40 and Interstate 10, near where most of the fires occurred, Smith wrote in the affidavit. Five videos of Swift supporters burning were found on both of his phones.

Pricop also allegedly stated during an interview with ATF agents that Swift was a “bad company” but too big to cause harm. “You can’t hurt Swift,” Pricop reportedly said, according to the affidavit. The vengeful trucker allegedly started 25 tractor trailer fires, including 6 on the San Bernardino County – Orange County Register

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