Feds: Pirate-like thief buries treasure, flees country
Detroit — Homeland Security agents are hunting a fugitive suspected of digging up buried treasure from his rural property near Milford and fleeing the United States amid a federal investigation.
Federal court records filed Monday describe daring crimes and an alleged thief involved in a criminal ring that acted like a band of pirates, stealing booty — including electronics and designer duds — and hiding the loot.
Viorel Pricop, 57, of Highland Township, allegedly fled to Canada in February after admitting he was involved in transporting cargo stolen from semitrailers. He left behind more than $1 million in merchandise seized at his home and big-ticket items allegedly purchased with money from various crimes, including a $500,000 Ferrari.
He also left behind fear among neighbors, already rattled by at least two federal raids, that there still might be buried treasure near the home that is fronted by two giant golden lion sculptures, in a remote, rural corner of Oakland County.
“Everybody was really freaked out about this,” next-door neighbor Daniel Hoops told The Detroit News. “If somebody is sneaking over there looking for buried treasure, I don’t want to stumble into them.”
The investigation dates to last year, when law enforcement officers started probing a series of cargo thefts along Interstate 40 in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. Someone was stealing electronics and other merchandise from trailers parked at truck stops.
Earlier this year, trucking companies started to strike back.
One company installed GPS tracking devices inside boxes of Bose stereos being hauled from New Mexico. The shipment was stolen.
On Feb. 15, 2015, Michigan State Police troopers tracked some of the equipment to a rental storage unit on Grand River in Lyon Township.
Troopers ran into Pricop at the storage unit. The trucking company owner admitted owning the storage unit and transporting the stolen equipment to Michigan, according to court records.
Pricop said he made similar trips every two to three weeks.
Troopers found two pallets of stolen baby food along with stolen televisions, stereo equipment, video conferencing equipment, clothes and household items. In all, a haul worth $600,000.
Pricop said he was paid as much as $2,000 per pallet of stolen goods. Once the merchandise arrived in Michigan, Pricop said he would transfer them to another person.
It does not appear that Pricop, who is a legal permanent U.S. resident from Romania, was arrested.
Three days later, federal agents raided his property and found a large amount of stolen merchandise inside a pole barn, according to federal court records.
They also found a large brown box containing bundles of marijuana and two pistols.
Also in the pole barn, investigators found empty storage tubes that were 3 feet long and 10 inches in diameter.
“Law enforcement is aware that commercial versions of these types of devices are for sale for the sole purpose of sealing and burying high-value items,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Beck wrote in a court filing Monday.
The tubes are a great way to hide evidence or fruits of a crime, said Keith Corbett, a veteran defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
“It’s smart. I like it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be picked up by a metal detector. If you seal up both ends, you’re not going to get animals or water in there. It’s a pretty smart way to hide stuff if you bury it before the ground freezes and you know where it is.”
With spring months away, and snow and frost covering the ground outside Pricop’s home, agents waited to search the 20-acre-plus property.
Meanwhile, the same day agents raided his home, Pricop, his wife Mihaela and three sons crossed the Ambassador Bridge into Canada. They were traveling in a car borrowed from a family friend.
Though the wife and children returned to the U.S., Pricop remains missing and is considered a fugitive, according to court records.
On Feb. 19, one day after Pricop disappeared, federal prosecutors charged him with transporting stolen property across state lines — a 10-year felony.
On April 1, after the snow melted, agents returned to his sprawling property on Rowe Road, west of Milford High School, with another search warrant, hunting for buried treasure.
Agents were looking for stolen items and buried storage tubes containing cash and other valuables, according to federal court records. They found PVC tubes sprinkled across the property, but they were empty.
“A canine trained to identify currency positively alerted to an empty tube located in the pole barn on the property,” Beck wrote in a federal court filing Monday.
Agents found more than $1 million worth of merchandise during the two searches, including a red 2012 Ferrari FF worth $490,000, a silver 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLS worth $197,000, printers, computer tablets, more than 500 pieces of designer clothes, industrial machinery, handguns and other electronics.
The haul from the April search filled three 27-foot box trucks.
“Our search of the entire site was exhaustive and thorough so the likelihood of additional items being found is remote,” Homeland Security spokesman Khaalid Walls said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office asked a federal judge Monday to have most of the merchandise and property — including Pricop’s house, a second home nearby, patio furniture, electronics and a showroom’s worth of designer clothes — forfeited to the government.
The property is either stolen or purchased with money tied to banking and money laundering crimes, according to court records.
The Pricops spent more than $1 million cash between 2010 and 2014 on the Ferrari, the Mercedes-Benz and other purchases, prosecutors allege. The couple also paid $35,941 cash for tuition at Detroit Country Day School, according to court records.
Mihaela Pricop’s lawyer declined comment on the family’s whereabouts.
“She’s a housewife and a mother to young children,” lawyer John Freeman of Troy said. “The government seems to have an interesting theory. I’m more interested in knowing what the proof is. If a regular person takes something they don’t own, it’s called stealing. If the government does it, it’s called civil forfeiture.”
Hoops, the next-door neighbor, was not concerned about the government trying to keep Pricop’s house, or the pair of gaudy gold lions out front.
“When I bought my house, and looked next door, I thought ‘what is up with those lions?’ ” Hoops said. “I’d like to take one and put it in the woods.”