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Vengeful trucker allegedly set 25 tractor-trailer fires, including 6 in San Bernardino County

A tractor-trailer containing $100,000 worth of property belonging to three military families that was stolen in Stockton on Christmas Day has been recovered, authorities said. [CHP - STOCKTON/TNS)

An angry trucker torched 25 tractor-trailers, including a half-dozen in San Bernardino County, during a cross-country, multiyear arson spree that caused $2 million in damages and exacted revenge on a company that helped put him in prison in 2018, alleges a criminal case unsealed late last week.

Viorel Pricop, 64, was arrested Tuesday, Oct. 11, in Michigan, where he lives. He is charged with arson of property in interstate commerce and faces five to 20 years in prison if convicted.

A detention hearing for Pricop was held Wednesday in federal court in Detroit as a precursor to his transfer to California, where he will face charges.

Pricop is accused of setting fires at rest areas and fueling stations along east-west Interstates 10 and 40 from June 2020 to September 2022. The trucks he allegedly burned are owned by Phoenix-based Swift Transportation, which has 20,000 vehicles and is the nation’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 fire each in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.

Police agencies and fire departments responded to most of the truck fires, but many of the early incidents originally were dismissed as possible mechanical issues, 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 due to the number of fires over a brief period of time.

“Swift employees stated this number of similar fire events had never before occurred in company history,” Smith wrote. “Swift began hiring fire investigation consultants to assist with fire scene examinations. A pattern also began to develop when multiple reports noted substantially similar methods of lighting the trailers on fire.”

Smith began investigating in January after the New Mexico State Fire Marshal’s Office contacted him about Swift trucks that had been torched.

Arson pattern emerges

As the number of incidents grew, 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 revealed a lock had been cut off from the rear cargo doors of a Swift truck and cardboard packing material inside the trailer had been ignited. In several incidents, the tractor-trailer’s driver was asleep in the vehicle when a fire occurred, says the affidavit, which does not mention if anyone was injured.

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

According to the affidavit, five more 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. Those incidents occurred:

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

GPS tracking key

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

The ATF also began remotely monitoring the GPS navigation device believed to be in Pricop’s tractor-trailer and, on March 29, determined the vehicle was traveling westbound along Interstate 10 from Arizona into Southern California. The following day, the 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-colored 1997 Kenworth tractor-trailer with Michigan license plates parked in a small area away from other vehicles across the street from the truck stop. 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 pulled over the tractor-trailer around 8:45 p.m. for a traffic violation several miles from the truck stop and identified the driver as Pricop.

Revenge motive revealed

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

The Detroit News reported Pricop was allegedly involved in a criminal ring that acted like a band 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 those owned by Swift, which assisted in a joint ATF and Michigan State Police investigation.

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

Movements monitored

The ATF was continuing to monitor Pricop’s movements when Smith learned on Sept. 14 of the two fires in Coachella involving Swift vehicles. The location data from Pricop’s cellphone clearly showed he was traveling westbound along Interstate 10 near the fire locations just prior to the times both were reported, the affidavit said.

Later that same day, ATF agents located Pricop’s tractor-trailer parked near a truck stop at 11673 South Etiwanda Ave. in Fontana with a man seated inside who matched Pricop’s description. However, the man did not get out of the vehicle and could not be positively identified, Smith wrote.

ATF agents finally searched Pricop’s tractor-trailer on Sept. 16 near Jamestown, New Mexico, and recovered cellphones, a tablet computer, two GPS devices, cloth rags, paper, a gas torch, cigarette lighters, a suspected ignitable liquid, along with numerous documents, receipts, and travel logs.

Pricop denied burning Swift trucks, but told ATF investigators he frequently traveled along Interstate 40 and Interstate 10, near where a majority of the fires occurred, Smith wrote in the affidavit. Five videos of Swift trailers burning were found on his two cellphones.

Pricop also allegedly indicated during an interview with ATF agents that Swift is a “bad company,” but was too large to harm. “You cannot hurt Swift,” Pricop purportedly said, according to the affidavit.


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