A Michigan man appeared in court Wednesday, Oct. 12, after being arrested on a federal criminal complaint alleging he deliberately set 25 fires on trailers belonging to a major commercial trucking company in eight different states over a span of more than two years.
According to a statement from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, Viorel Pricop, 64, of Allen Park, Michigan, was arrested Tuesday morning, Oct. 11.
Pricop is charged with one count of arson of property in interstate commerce, a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison and a statutory maximum of 20 years in federal prison.
According to an affidavit filed with the complaint, 25 semi-truck trailers owned by Phoenix-based Swift Transportation were set ablaze between June 2020 and September 2022. In each of the incidents, the Swift-owned truck was parked or stopped at a fuel station or rest area when a fire occurred in or on the trailer portion of the vehicle, mainly on or near the trailer tires.
These incidents occurred at locations from Barstow, California to McCalla, Alabama, with most incidents occurring along Interstate 10 and Interstate 40, according to the U.S. Attorney. Law enforcement has learned of six fires in California, three fires in Arizona, nine fires in New Mexico, three fires in Texas, and one fire each in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama.
Swift hired 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, including where on the vehicles the fires began, and the fact the fires occurred late at night.
An investigation of cell phone towers near the fires revealed that a specific GPS navigation device installed in a commercial truck was present at the fires. Law enforcement determined that this device was installed on a vehicle owned and operated by Pricop, the affidavit states. Law enforcement then identified the cellphone Pricop owned and, through historical cellular data analysis and ping warrants, learned that the phone was present in the general area of 24 of the 25 fires, the affidavit alleges.
On Sept. 16, search warrants were executed on Pricop’s vehicle and residence, yielding additional evidence on his alleged involvement in this series of arsons, according to the U.S. Attorney's statement. Numerous logbooks, bills of lading, shipping receipts, and other record-keeping documents were obtained in both paper and digital form from Pricop’s vehicles and residence. Many of these documents were found to contain location information, such as cargo pickup and delivery dates, which coincided with locations where fires in this series occurred, according to the affidavit.
Further record checks for Pricop revealed that he was convicted in 2018 in the Eastern District of Michigan for the transportation of stolen goods. Swift cooperated in the investigation and prosecution of that case. Pricop was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and was given credit for time served. His term of supervised release ended in June 2019, about one year before the arsons in this case began, the affidavit states.
The U.S. Attorney's statement said, "A complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."