THE INTERMOUNTAIN PI | EP. 6 | JULY 16, 2019 | PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR SCOTT FULMER AND THE GREAT TORTILLA CAPER
I had worked for these guys before when they had a similar employee theft issue. Unfortunately, they didn’t do anything about it after the first time. And so, like the round shape of a
tortilla, things had come full circle. Anyway, I found myself landing at Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas where I rented a car and then headed to Caliente Sabroso Foods.* They’re one of the largest distributors of Mexican Food products in the southwestern United States. As it happened, they were dealing with an apparent inventory shortage; somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars. They suspected it was an employee or two on their warehouse closing crew but they needed proof of the employee theft. I was there to meet with Rocky Sepulveda,* the senior manager of their facility in southeast Houston. By the way you can read the full story of Private Investigator Scott Fulmer and the Great Tortilla Caper in my book, Confessions of a Private Eye.
To begin with, the Caliente Sabroso warehouse was at the lonely end of large commercial business park. In fact, it faced a similar warehouse with a large parking area between the two. A few employee vehicles and some empty tractor trailers were scattered throughout the parking lot. Unfortunately, there was no suitable vantage point to conduct surveillance. I would need some help on this caper. I phoned Stu Hall, a former business partner of mine and a Texas private investigator. Stu agreed to help me with the surveillance and we got down to business. But proving employee theft isn’t always easy.
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR SCOTT FULMER AND THE GREAT TORTILLA CAPER
In the first place, the closing crew was keenly aware of any and all vehicles that belonged in the parking lot in front of the warehouse. For this reason, sitting in a surveillance vehicle to document employee theft was out of the question. I had Rocky rent a van and park it near the warehouse. He then let the employees know a Caliente Sabroso sales manager was flying in from the Dallas office to use it in the next few days. Later that night, I snuck into the van under the shroud of darkness. I stayed on surveillance until midnight hoping I would observe members of the warehouse crew engage in employee theft. However, no one on the closing crew ever made a move that would explain the inventory shortage. Speaking of surveillance, check out one of my earlier podcasts. After a week of this Rocky grew impatient. We needed another plan if we were going to prove employee theft. In this case, it was Stu that finally hit upon a solution.
To clarify, Stu would scale the roof of the adjoining warehouse and shoot video of the employee theft from above. The warehouse crew always kept their eyes on the parking lot. But they never bothered to look up on the roof of the adjacent warehouse. As we use to say in the Army: if it’s stupid but it works…it isn’t stupid. A week later we hit pay dirt.
PROVING EMPLOYEE THEFT FROM A NEARBY ROOF
I think it was about 10:00 PM on an unusually cold clear Fall night when Stu and I arrived to begin surveillance. A biting wind was blowing in from the north. We parked our cars at a small commercial bakery around the corner from the warehouse and then quietly made our way on foot to the back of the bordering warehouse. A permanent iron ladder descended from the roof of the warehouse but for safety reasons ended about seven feet from the ground. Stu had brought a yellow tow rope with a hook on the end and, after several attempts, was able to hook on to the lowest rung of the ladder. I watched below in the darkness as he pulled himself up, climbed the ladder and flung his body on to the roof disappearing from sight. I quickly ran back to my vehicle, cranked the heat on and waited for Stu’s call. Little did I realize that tonight we would find clear and compelling evidence of employee theft.
“The warehouse crew always kept their eyes on the parking lot. But they never bothered to look up on the roof of the adjacent warehouse.”
From his solitary perch on the roof, Stu had a commanding view down into the warehouse below. He could see the warehouse crew walking back and forth. He sat there shivering in the cold for two hours before anything happened. About the time he said he could no longer feel his face due to the cold wind, everything changed. One minute the parking lot was quiet and still; the next minute it was like a scene from the Italian Job where the Mini Coopers all arrive and line up to have the gold bars loaded.
As if on a pre-determined schedule, several pick-ups and mini-vans arrived and parked side by side in front of the Caliente Sabroso warehouse. Without delay, several women and children emerged from the vehicles and walked into the warehouse. Meanwhile, up on the roof, Stu raised his video camera and began recording. All of a sudden the same women and children, now accompanied by members of the warehouse crew, walked out carrying multiple boxes and bags of Mexican Food products. Stu shot videotape as they began loading the boxes into their personal vehicles and then returned inside for more. Tortillas, picante sauce, taco shells and tortilla chips. You name it, they loaded it in their vehicles. We later estimated it was about $5,000.00 of product that was stolen that night. In any event, they had been doing this twice a week for the last several months. That explained the source of the inventory shortage.
SELLING STOLEN INVENTORY FOR PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR
Back in my surveillance vehicle my cell phone rang and I almost jumped out of my skin. It was Stu giving me a heads up about the employee theft. The employees and their families were leaving. Accordingly, I followed one of the employees and his family back to an apartment complex where I obtained surveillance video of them unloading their stolen plunder. Furthermore, I followed a different employee on a subsequent night. He backed his truck up to his garage and my jaw dropped when he opened the garage door. Talk about employee theft. His garage was completely full of stolen Mexican Food products from Caliente Sabroso. To put it another way, it was packed from floor to ceiling and from left to right. You couldn’t get a butter knife between the boxes. Later on I learned he was selling it to local Mexican restaurants for pennies on the dollar.
In the end, Caliente Sabroso called the police. The next time the employees and their families made their move, Houston’s finest moved in. In the final analysis, the entire closing crew was involved. Another key point, the manager of the warehouse crew had been fired from his previous job for, yes…you guessed it: employee theft. But Caliente Sabroso didn’t want to spend money on background checks. Or security cameras. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last time I conducted an employee theft investigation for Caliente Sabroso.
Until next time, this is Utah Private Investigator Scott Fulmer reminding you the game…is afoot!
*THE NAMES, LOCATIONS AND OTHER IDENTIFYING DETAILS OF THIS CASE HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE PRIVACY OF THE CLIENT
CELEBRATED UTAH PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR SCOTT FULMER IS THE HOST OF THE INTERMOUNTAIN PI PODCAST AND THE PRINCIPAL AT INTERMOUNTAIN PI, A RESPECTED PRIVATE INVESTIGATION FIRM BASED IN SALT LAKE CITY.
IN A CAREER SPANNING ALMOST THREE DECADES, SCOTT HAS WORKED AS A PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR FOR STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR. HE GREW UP IN SAN ANTONIO, THE OLDEST OF NINE CHILDREN. HIS LOVE OF MYSTERIES BEGAN AT AN EARLY AGE WHEN HE DISCOVERED THE STORIES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES IN HIS ELEMENTARY SCHOOL LIBRARY. AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, SCOTT JOINED THE U.S. ARMY WHERE HE SERVED WITH DISTINCTION IN THE FAMOUS 2ND ARMORED DIVISION (HELL ON WHEELS). HE IS A DECORATED COMBAT VETERAN OF THE 1990-91 PERSIAN GULF WAR. AFTER LEAVING THE SERVICE, SCOTT ATTENDED THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT SAN ANTONIO EARNING A DEGREE IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND SECURITY MANAGEMENT.
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