It was the dead of night when a white tractor truck pulled off a palm-lined road into the quiet parking lot of a South Florida warehouse. It rolled in with nothing in tow, but about one hour later, the truck drove off hauling a 53-foot trailer, an eagle emblazoned on the cab’s side clearly visible on a security camera.
It was a seemingly innocuous scene. But that trailer — which was longer than a school bus — was loaded with $3 million worth of government-owned ventilators bound for El Salvador, a donation from the U.S. Agency for International Development to aid the Central American country’s pandemic response. And it had just been stolen.
The August heist set off a sprawling, multiagency investigation of one of the most unusual and audacious crimes of the coronavirus crisis, culminating late last week in the arrest of the second of two suspects.
Yoelvis Denis Hernandez, 42, and Luis Urra Montero, 24, face felony charges of federal conspiracy, possession of goods stolen from an interstate shipment and theft of government property, which could amount to 25 years in prison. Hernandez was arrested Thursday in Del Rio, a southwestern Texas city near the Mexico border and a 21-hour drive from the warehouse parking lot north of Miami. It’s unclear whether he has an attorney. Montero was taken into custody in September and has been held without bond while he awaits trial.
Omar A. Lopez, Montero’s attorney, said in an email to The Washington Post that his client “is innocent, and I look forward to defending him before a jury.”
The pandemic turned ventilators into one of the world’s most sought-after medical commodities. Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, can rob a person of the ability to breathe, and ventilators act as an external set of lungs. Some of the sickest covid-19 patients need them to survive.
In spring 2020, U.S. state and city officials requested the federal government’s help in procuring more of the machines. Ford and General Motors shifted the focus of their factories in a scramble to manufacture them. But by the summer, Americans had a surplus of ventilators and officials announced that they would send them to countries struggling with shortages.
In criminal complaints prepared by Neil J. D’Cunha, a special agent with USAID’s inspector general’s office, authorities say the tractor-trailer — with 192 ventilators inside — was parked overnight at the warehouse in Boynton Beach, Fla. It was to travel to Miami International Airport, where it would then be shipped to El Salvador and delivered to an intensive-care facility.
While the semi-truck’s driver spent the night at his nearby home, authorities say, Hernandez detached the trailer and hooked it up to his truck, which they say was stolen from a Kmart parking lot in Miami about two weeks earlier. The trailer was owned by Landstar System, and the logistics company’s name and logo were displayed on its side.
On Aug. 12, three days after court records say Hernandez absconded with the ventilators, police found an empty trailer abandoned on a road in Parkland. The officer who found it noted white paint that partly obscured the name “Landstar” and a missing license plate, according to the complaint. The trailer’s vehicle identification number matched that of the one that carried the ventilators.
Investigators used GPS data from the truck to track it to a rural patch of land in western Miami-Dade County, near the Everglades. Law enforcement officials surveilling the property on Aug. 20 saw Hernandez leaving in a car and pulled him over, the complaint says. They arrested him for driving with a suspended license, but they let him out on a $150 bond that Montero posted, according to court records.
USAID and FBI agents searched the property the same day police pulled Hernandez over and found nearly all the ventilators in another trailer, the complaint says. Montero denied participating in the theft, but court records say that he received phone calls during the time of the crime, that tracking data from an ankle monitor he wore put him in the area and that a car he was associated with was spotted in the parking lot the night before the trailer disappeared.
Hernandez and Montero also have a history together. In 2019, the two were arrested, along with a third man, and charged with grand theft auto. The alleged mark in that case: a semi-truck and trailer.
A December USAID inspector general report concluded that the investigation “led to the recovery of 191” of the 192 stolen ventilators and that the incident prompted the agency to increase its security.
“The recovered ventilators reached El Salvador in working condition, increasing the country’s capacity to treat covid-19 patients with respiratory distress,” the report reads.
At an event in late August marking the delivery of some of the ventilators the United States promised to El Salvador, U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson lauded the United States’ commitment to the effort.
“We have all,” he said, “rallied together to support you in your efforts.”