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RCMP are investigating the connection between the two thefts in Alberta, but the heists also may be part of a much broader operation that spans the country.RCMP/Handout

The big white semi arrived in the town of Thorsby, just southwest of Edmonton, at 9 a.m. on the first Wednesday in September, and headed to Blue Falls Manufacturing, a hot tub maker and one of the area’s largest employers.

The transport papers all appeared to be in order – the truck was registered to Transport Pascal Charland out of Châteauguay, Que. – and soon the semi was rolling out of town loaded with seven hot tubs, in what can only be described as a brazen, premeditated, large-scale hot tub heist.

“I have never seen a theft of seven hot tubs before,” said RCMP Corporal Rob Gillies of the Thorsby detachment, reflecting on the unusual nature of the theft.

But it was not the only bizarre heist to hit small-town Alberta recently. Days earlier, a burgundy-coloured semi truck operating with the same fake transport papers picked up $230,000 worth of beef from the JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks, southeast of Calgary, and made off with the meat.

The meat, like the hot tubs, remains missing.

Corp. Gillies said RCMP are investigating the connection between the two thefts in Alberta, but the heists also may be part of a much broader operation that spans the country, and has been responsible for millions of dollars in thefts and losses.

“It appears to be a Canadawide scheme that’s taking place,” said Corp. Gillies, adding that he’s been told cases elsewhere have involved the same trucking documents.

In June, RCMP in New Brunswick reported that more than $1-million in crab meat had been stolen in a series of four similar incidents, each involving truck drivers with forged documents driving off with trailers loaded with the shellfish.

Other similar incidents that have been publicly reported include the theft of a semi-trailer full of deli meat in Guelph, Ont., in 2019, and a $187,000 load of cheese that was stolen in August, 2019. Corp. Gillies said a similar theft is also under investigation in Hamilton, but he didn’t know what product was stolen in that case. (Police in Hamilton were unable to provide that information on Tuesday.)

While meat (like cheese) is a commonly shoplifted product in smaller amounts, Brooks RCMP Corporal Robert Harms said he’s never seen beef stolen by the truckload, and that the theft of that much meat is “very unusual.”

“It is not typical, especially considering that it’s a food product. I haven’t seen that before in my policing career,” said Corp. Harms. “... Where did it go? That’s a lot of beef to sell or eat.”

Insurance and transport companies have identified cargo theft as a growing problem in recent years, most often with semi loads being either hijacked or stolen en route to their destinations. In 2019, the Insurance Bureau of Canada attributed about $229-million in losses to cargo theft. An investigator told The Globe and Mail at the time that the thefts are often the work of organized gangs with sophisticated networks to quickly off-load the stolen property.

In each of the Alberta cases, the suspect was described as a Caucasian man, with short, brown hair and a heavy build. An image captured of the suspect in the beef theft shows a balding man wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a safety vest, his face covered by a surgical mask.

While heists of hot tubs and meat have prompted many jokes on social media, Corp. Gillies noted that for small businesses and small communities, the thefts are a serious loss. “That’s a lot of people’s hard work going down the drain,” he said.

One of Canada’s most publicized food thefts involved 2,700 tonnes of maple syrup, which was stolen from storage barrels in a Quebec warehouse and replaced with water in 2011 and 2012. That theft was valued at $18-million. In 2017, three men received prison terms ranging from two to eight years and hefty fines after being found guilty in the syrup siphoning.

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