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Hillsborough sheriff: McDonald's run tripped up military laptop thieves

TAMPA — They came with rappel lines, a power saw and wire cutters.

Had they packed food, the thieves who lifted $7.4 million in military laptops from an east Hills­borough warehouse in March might have savored success.

But there sat Rolando Coca, staring into a videocamera at a McDonald's drive-through, midway through the biggest cargo heist in Hillsborough history.

"That's really one of the things that broke the case for us," Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said Wednesday.

For nearly a year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office kept quiet about its investigation into the intriguing theft at iGov Technologies, which contracts with the Special Operations Command. When news accidentally leaked out through a search warrant filed in July, military officials assured the public that the laptops contained no sensitive information.

Then at a news conference Wednesday morning, the sheriff announced the arrest of Coca, the 55-year-old suspected ringleader in a South Florida-based crew of about 10 thieves.

"This was very choreographed and conducted at a very high skill level," Gee said. "They've obviously done this before."

On March 6, a Saturday, two men arrived at the Palm River warehouse, climbed a maintenance ladder and cut a hole in the roof, gaining access to iGov Technologies, Gee said.

They rappelled about 20 feet down into the warehouse and cut the security systems. Then they removed the surveillance cameras outside. But the men missed two cameras — one in the front and one in the back — a misstep that gave deputies a glimpse into the nearly 10-hour operation.

After sunset, about 10 people arrived at the warehouse and started loading the laptops into two semitrailer trucks. About 1 a.m., they took off, and the trucks headed for Miami, a popular hub for stolen cargo.

The iGov facility manager reported the computers stolen the following Monday, and detectives started reviewing surveillance videos. They also pulled surveillance tapes from nearby businesses, looking for the red Lincoln Navigator seen coming and going from the warehouse that day.

"It was good intuition on the part of the investigators," Gee said.

Detectives hit the jackpot with a video from a nearby McDonald's. The vehicle was recorded going through the drive-through just after 10 p.m., Coca's face and the Lincoln's license plate clearly visible.

When Hillsborough detectives showed the photo to FBI officials who specialize in cargo theft investigations, they immediately identified Coca. The FBI had already been investigating him in connection with other cargo thefts and believe he's the head of a Miami crime family.

Coca was indicted in December and arrested in South Florida on Jan. 25. He will be transported to Hillsborough County and tried in federal court.

He has previously been arrested on burglary, sexual assault and drug charges, but state records show the charges were dropped. This is the first time he has been arrested in connection with cargo theft, Sheriff Gee said.

The FBI made another arrest in the case, apprehending Emil Benitez in a sting. Shortly after the theft, undercover FBI officials set up a deal to pay $50,000 for some of the laptops. Benitez was the man who accepted the money, deputies say.

In August he was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

Authorities recovered nearly 2,000 laptops — worth about $4.7 million — in an abandoned Miami warehouse, and they've been finding other computers in smaller quantities, including through finds on eBay and Amazon.com.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or [email protected]

Hillsborough sheriff: McDonald's run tripped up military laptop thieves 02/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 12:02am]
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