A truck driver from Michigan has been accused of setting ablaze nine semitractor-trailers around New Mexico – among dozens across eight states – in an apparent cross-country revenge scheme aimed at his former employer.
Viorel Pricop, 64, is charged in federal court with arson of property in interstate commerce in connection with 25 fires set to Swift Transportation semis between June 2020 and Sept. 14.
He was arrested Tuesday in Michigan on an arrest warrant issued out of California for one of the fires set in San Bernadino County.
Federal authorities used cellphone data to place Pricop “in the general area” of at least 22 of the 25 fires set from Arkansas to California, according to court records. Agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also found video of at least five of the fires on his cellphones.
ATF agents believe Pricop was motivated by a past criminal case against him in which, according to court records, Swift “cooperated in investigating and prosecuting.”
Court records show Pricop was released from federal prison in 2018 after serving more than two years for stealing hundreds of thousands in stereo systems and other goods while working as a semi driver for Swift.
During the yearslong arson spree, Pricop was reportedly driving a semi for Michigan-based Blue Stars Inc. and other companies. His former employer, Swift, told authorities the fires cost the company nearly $2 million in damages.
Daniel Dena, Pricop’s attorney, declined to comment.
Swift Transportation could not be reached for comment Thursday.
According to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court:
The investigation began in January 2022 when the New Mexico State Fire Marshal contacted the ATF about several trucks being set on fire around the state.
The first was June 22, 2020, when a semi was set on fire at the TA Travel Center in Santa Rosa. Agents said a “very limited investigation” was done by local law enforcement, which suspected a mechanical malfunction.
Between then and February 2022, nine trucks were set on fire in similar fashion at rest stops around the state. In almost every incident, the driver was asleep in the cab at the time and, in two incidents, two trucks were lit at the same time.
Many early incidents were dismissed as possible mechanical issue without much investigation. After numerous semi fires, Swift became suspicious and hired fire investigation consultants.
ATF got involved after the 15th incident on Jan. 14, when a truck was set ablaze in Pearsall, Texas. Investigators found the fire was set using a cloth and flammable liquid near the rear tires, similar to the other cases.
A cell tower search discovered the same phone at the scene of 10 of the incidents and in late March agents tracked it to Pricop, who was driving a maroon semi cross-country. After six months of no incidents, two fires were set on Sept. 14 in California, and agents discovered Pricop’s cellphone was in the area at the time.
On Sept. 16, agents searched Pricop’s semi near Jamestown, New Mexico, and found rags with “suspected odor of an ignitable liquid,” an ignitable liquid, a gas torch and lighters. Pricop told agents he didn’t start any of the fires but has seen one of them burning and had video of at least one on his phone.
Pricop said he heard Swift was a “bad company” and too big to hurt, stating “you cannot hurt Swift.” He was allowed to leave after the interview. Agents found videos of five of the semi fires on Pricop’s phones in which he can be heard commenting on them.