MULBERRY — Normally, car parts selling online through Facebook Marketplace don’t attract the attention of law enforcement. But this did recently for a key reason: the items were believed to be stolen.
Polk County detectives investigated, and discovered a Chop Shop was being run out of Mulberry. That led to the arrest of Gary Williams, 36, who had previously been arrested by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for running a chop shop, including several stolen Ford trucks, U-Haul trucks, and other equipment that had been dismantled and stored on the property he ran at Hillgrade Road in Mulberry. Williams had been convicted in that case and spent four years in state prison , being released in April 2018. Now he’s back in jail.
“An astute car theft victim combined with excellent police work led to the dismantling of yet another chop shop run by a well-known convicted felon,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
How Did Polk County Detectives Discover the Chop Shop?
Carrie Horstman, public information officer for the Public County Sheriff’s Office, noted this case came to their attention on Feb. 25 when detectives were contacted by a Pasco County resident who said his Ford F350 had been stolen, and he later discovered that parts from that truck has been put up for sale Facebook Marketplace. The victim of the theft told detectives he had arranged to meet the person selling those stolen parts on Willis Road in Mulberry.
An investigation, and detectives identified the seller, who told them he had “purchased the truck parts from someone he met through Facebook Marketplace named Gary Williams,” Horstman noted in her report.
Detectives responded to the same property on Hillgrade Road where they had broken up the chop shop in the 2013 case, and interviewed Williams’ grandmother, who owns the property.
“She told detectives that Gary ‘brings his stuff’ to store there but she doesn’t know if any of it is stolen,” Horstman noted. “During an initial search, detectives located several vehicles with obscured/missing VIN numbers or license plates, vehicle parts, engines, transmissions, stripped vehicle frames, trailers, and heavy equipment such as skid steers.”
On Feb. 25, detectives got a search warrant for the property and recovered parts from the Pasco County victim’s stolen Ford F350 truck, along with the original sales receipt from Luxury Auto Mall from when he purchased the truck. They also found paperwork “which appeared to be downloaded from the internet showing how to create unique pin stamping similar to what is used by vehicle manufacturers in the creation of stamped VIN, engine and transmission identification numbers,” Horstman noted. Another discovery was two AR15 rifles. Convicted felons are prohibited from owning firearms.
But it turns out that where so many of those stolen cars were hidden was a key part of this investigation — and a potential environmental disaster.
Detectives also joined with the National Insurance Crime Bureau), Lake Wales Police Department and Tampa Police Department and, using heavy equipment, found a blue Ford F250 truck reported stolen to Tampa PD, a tan Ford F350 truck reported stolen to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, and three Ford F250 trucks reported stolen to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
“Car bodies, frames, truck beds, doors, and components were strewn about and/or partially buried on the property and wooded area adjacent to it,” Horstman noted in her report. “Three Caterpiller skid steers were also located,and believed to be used to cut trails through the wooded areas and to bury parts. The investigation is ongoing to recover and identify stolen vehicles and vehicle parts.”
“During our 2013 chop shop investigation, we had to use heavy equipment and dig down 30 feet on this property to find evidence and stolen parts,” Sheriff Judd noted. “Williams has proven he will go to extreme depths – literally – to conduct his criminal enterprise.”
What Charges is the Chop Shop Operator Now Facing?
Williams was arrested and is being charged with:
* Dealing in stolen property
* Possession of a firearm by a convicted felon
* 10 counts of grand theft of a motor vehicle
* Conspiracy to commit grand theft of a motor vehicle
* Owning, operating and conducting a chop shop, a third-degree felony
* Dumping/littering exceeding 500 pounds
* Operating an unpermitted landfill
* Burning tires
* Waste tire violation
* Possessing and selling motor vehicle with altered VINs
* and 21 counts of violation of probation.
Williams’ criminal history includes arrests and convictions for burglary with assault or battery, grand theft, possession of weapons or ammo by a convicted felon, and many others.
Williams is being held in the Polk County Jail on no bond, and detectives “will continue to recover and identify the numerous vehicle parts found on the property, which includes several acres. Further charges are pending the outcome of the investigation,” Horstman noted.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.