Joint investigation clears March thefts

Investigators believe trio main players in large-scale theft ring reaching from Okla. to Seguin

By FAITH HUFFMAN, News-Telegram News Editor

June 6, 2008 - A joint investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies this week culminated in the arrests of three Metroplex-area men in connection with the March theft of more than $100,000 worth of equipment from Farm Country in Sulphur Springs.

Rutilio Antonio "Tony" Bernal, 27, and William Mathew Morgan, 30, both of Fort Worth, and Christopher Thomas Trevino, 25, of Arlington were served with Sulphur Springs warrants for engaging in criminal activity, a felony offense, on Tuesday. Bernal and Morgan were arrested in Fort Worth and Trevino in Grand Prairie.

But authorities say there's still more work to do, and that the three men may be part of a theft ring extending from Southern Oklahoma to the Texas Hill Country.

"We believe these guys are main players in a big ring," We're still working the case. There's still more work to do," said Sulphur Springs Police Department Lt.-Investigator Rusty Stillwagoner.

The investigation began in March after police received a call of four RTVs, or recreational utility vehicles, found stuck in the mud and eight other vehicles stolen from Farm County.

The police department, Hopkins County Sheriff's Office, Texas Department of Public Safety Auto Motor Vehicle Theft Task Force and Northeast Texas Auto Theft Task Force launched a joint investigation into the thefts. But numerous other law enforcement agencies from Oklahoma to Seguin have become involved after officials received information they believe connects the men to a theft ring spanning the entire area.

According to Stillwagoner, what really started the ball rolling in the investigation was a person who called in a tip to authorities.

"If not for a concerned citizen, this would not have come to fruition," Stillwagoner said. "The person saw a suspicious person park in the lot of an apartment complex. The vehicle didn't look right, so the citizen went out and wrote the license plate number down. That was the catalyst."

Local authorities had surveillance video of the suspects, but initially investigators were not able to identify the men. The information from the concerned citizen helped investigators solve that riddle.

After the three were identified, officials found evidence they believed links the trio to an auto theft ring from Southern Oklahoma to Northeast and East Texas, all the way to LaGrange and Seguin.

About two weeks ago, DPS task force officers caught two of the three in Corsicana stealing zero-turn lawn mowers. Rex Wilemon with the DPS auto task force one of the Hopkins County Sheriff's Office trailers this week to set up in the Dallas area to conduct surveillance "just to keep up with these guys."

After Bernal and Morgan were served with warrants in Fort Worth, they were arraigned by a Fort Worth justice of the peace, who set bond at $500,000 per charge. They were then released to Hopkins County authorities.

Trevino was served with a warrant in Grand Prairie and then arraigned in Dallas County. He was later released to the custody of DPS and Northeast Texas auto task force officers.

All three men have since been transferred to the Hopkins County jail, where they remained Friday morning.

While authorities believe they have sufficient evidence to tie the three suspects to the Farm Country thefts, they have yet to locate the more than $100,000 worth of stolen property.

"We have not recovered the property, other than the four that were found stuck in the mud," Stillwagoner said. "We're not sure where the property has gone."

Stillwagoner and SSPD Chief Jim Bayuk commended the many officers involved in the investigation which is believed to involve a Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex-area trucking company whose vehicles were used to move some of the stolen equipment.

"A lot of hours went into this investigation, mainly by DPS, man-hours that allowed them to catch these suspects," Stillwagoner said. "Numerous court orders, subpoenas, surveillance -- a lot of police work went into this."

There was also a lot of paperwork involved.

"Investigator Bo Fox worked on obtaining and filing a lot of court records and documents, enough to kill a small forest of trees," Stillwagoner added. "Bo got orders, subpoenas. Bo got pertinent information and did an excellent job on this end."

The DPS auto task force put in countless hours, as well.

"Rex Wilemon devoted a lot of personal time from his life to this case," Stillwagoner said. "A lot of time and effort from a lot of law enforcement went into it, about four months' worth. There were numerous DPS guys who I don't know their names. When we executed the warrant, several DPS motor vehicle theft task force guys helped."

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