Trucker sentenced to 10 years in prison for series of Swift trailer fires

Updated Jun 18, 2024
Trailer on fire
U.S. Department of Justice

A Michigan man was sentenced recently to over 10 years in federal prison for setting fires to six semi-trailers belonging to a major commercial trucking company in California's Inland Empire and High Desert during a 10-month span.

Viorel Pricop, 66, of Allen Park, Michigan, was sentenced by United States District Judge Sunshine S. Sykes, who also ordered him to pay $648,384 in restitution.

At the conclusion of a 16-day trial, a jury on March 12 found Pricop guilty of six counts of arson of vehicle or property in interstate commerce. He has been in federal custody since October of 2022.

According to the U.S. Attorney's office, from December 2021 to September 2022, Pricop set fire to six semi-trailers belonging to Swift Transportation. Four of the arsons occurred in San Bernardino County (Newberry Springs, Ludlow, Barstow, and Hesperia) and two occurred in Riverside County (Coachella).

In each of the incidents, the Swift-owned trailer was parked at or near a truck stop when a fire occurred on the trailer portion of the vehicle, mainly on or near the trailer tires.

Pricop set on fire at least 18 additional Swift Transportation semi-trailers in other states from June 2020 to March 2022, according to an affidavit previously filed in this case. These incidents occurred at locations from Barstow, California to McCalla, Alabama, with most incidents occurring along Interstate 10 and Interstate 40, the affidavit said. Federal criminal charges associated with some of these fires were filed against Pricop in the District of New Mexico and the District of Arizona.

“This defendant was given a second chance but chose to throw it away and go on a national campaign of revenge,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada. “By setting fire to trailer after trailer with the drivers inside the trucks, he recklessly put people’s lives at risk. Violent recidivist criminals such as this defendant will only be deterred with consequences and the sentence imposed today does just that.”

Swift Transportation hired a fire investigation consultant to assist with fire scene examinations. A pattern began to develop when multiple reports noted substantially similar methods of lighting the trailers on fire, including where on the vehicles the fires began, and the fact the fires occurred during the middle of the night.

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A review of cell tower data near some of the fires showed that a specific device – later found to be a navigation device installed in a commercial tractor-style truck – connected to cell towers near many of the fires at or around the times of the fires. Law enforcement officers determined that this device was installed on a vehicle operated by Pricop.

Law enforcement officers also identified the cellphone subscribed to Pricop and, after obtaining court authorization, obtained historical cellular data and real-time location information for Pricop’s cellphone. Analysis of this data showed that Pricop’s cellphone was present in the general area of all California fires, as well as the 18 additional fires across the country.

In September 2022, search warrants were executed on Pricop’s tractor-trailer, personal vehicle and residence, yielding additional evidence corroborating his involvement in this series of arsons. This evidence included a gas torch, torch-style lighters, and record keeping documents containing location information, such as cargo pickup and delivery dates which coincided with the time and location of several fires in the series of 24 fires across the country.         

Swift Transportation and other trucking companies were victims of thefts between 2010 and 2014. Swift initiated its own investigation into those thefts and utilized bait trailers to catch thieves. In 2015, someone broke into one of the bait trailers and took boxes of electronic goods containing tracking devices. Swift investigators tracked those boxes to a storage facility in Michigan, and local law enforcement in Michigan arrested Pricop in possession of the boxes of electronic goods from the bait trailer.          

Pricop was convicted in 2018 in the Eastern District of Michigan for a tax offense and for transportation of stolen goods, charges stemming from the investigation conducted by Swift. Pricop was sentenced to time served in that case, amounting to about 26 months’ imprisonment. His term of supervised release ended in June 2019, about one year before the arsons in this case began.