Dan Rattiner's Stories

The Heist: 20 Million Gallons of Maple Syrup Stolen

Years ago, a bunch of Quebec maple syrup farmers realized there was a problem with the pricing of the stuff. Like all sorts of other commodities, the price went up or down depending on supply and demand. Some years, when the trees produced little syrup, it went up. Other years when the harvest was abundant, it went down. On the other hand, there were years when there was little at the harvest and the prices unexpectedly went down, and that was a painful lesson for them indeed. There was no telling what the price of this precious commodity would do. But at the same time, the farmers had to live and feed their families every day.

In the 1980s, therefore, some of the farmers, noticing what OPEC was doing with oil demand, supply and prices, decided to put together a maple syrup cartel. They actually could do this all by themselves, without involvement of any other countries. Quebec produces nearly 75% of all maple syrup in the world (that’s the syrup that goes on three of four pieces of French Toast worldwide).

The organization they put together was the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (FQMSP), which began tightly regulating price and supply in 1989. Those joining it, and almost all farmers in that province did, would be given a maple syrup quota every spring. The quota would be decided upon by the FQMSP based on weather, supply, demand and price. Although other countries, including the United States, objected, there was nothing they could do. Quebec had a stranglehold on maple syrup in the world.

All went well for a number of years. The FQMSP would hold maple syrup off the market to make prices go up. FQMSP would release barrels of maple syrup stockpiled in its warehouses to make prices go down.

In 2011, however, a group of Canadian maple farmers got together one night to plan and execute a vast maple syrup heist. It would be done on the sly. It would make millions for each of them. And the theft of what they expected would be 10 million pounds of maple syrup might not even come to the notice of the maple syrup cartel for years, by which time they would be long gone. They’d be rich.

The first thing the gang did was arrange to get close to what the cartel called its “strategic reserve.” The gang already knew where the reserve was, because the cartel, proud of itself for having cornered a world market, often bragged about where their hoard of more than 45 million pounds of maple syrup was kept. It was kept, they said in early 2011, under 24-hour armed guard in 100-pound metal barrels in two giant warehouses six miles southwest of Quebec City in the town of Saint-Louis-de-Blandford. In fact they had recently increased the reserve—this was now an even bigger cushion—and they had rented most of a third warehouse in a shopping center near that town to accommodate it.

How could they get close to all that stuff? The gang formed a fake business, bought lots of trucks with the name of the business on the side, and proceeded to rent the rest of that third warehouse. Trucks from FQMSP coming and going would be waved on through by the guards; so would trucks with the logo on the side from that other company. They were okay, those people, though they often worked into the night. Busy people, this other company.

Late at night, beginning in August of 2011, members of the gang were secretly siphoning out all the maple syrup in that third warehouse. Some barrels they refilled with water, according to some reports. Other barrels they just left empty. All the maple syrup they siphoned went into the big empty tanks of the trucks. And the trucks, full or partially full, would leave the warehouse before dawn and, waving to the guards, head out.

Where did they go? The gang had all that figured out, too. They drove the maple syrup to a warehouse they had set up in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, at another dummy firm, which presented itself as a wholesaler for the maple syrup of non-Federation maple syrup farmers. There is a small maple syrup industry in New Brunswick. Many of those farmers never joined the cartel.

The gang thus disposed of nearly $16 million of maple syrup during the period of August 2011 to July 2012, selling it at just under retail, until at that time an employee of the cartel whose job it was to check the barrels in the warehouses to see they were okay every six months sounded the alarm. He found barrels that were entirely empty. The cartel called the police.

An investigation was begun by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in that month with the lead investigators coming from the unit Sûreté du Québec under the leadership of Lieutenant Guy Lapointe. No expense was spared in trying to solve this case and bring these criminals to justice. According to the Montreal Gazette, more than 100 agents were assigned to the case, and more than 300 people were questioned and 40 search warrants executed. So far, the police have determined that what we described above is what took place, and in addition, they have learned that some of the contraband maple syrup was sold to retailers with stores in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. This is now becoming a crime of international importance.

Although Lt. Lapointe told The New York Times “maple syrup doesn’t have a bar code. There’s no way to tell it apart,” and that makes this case very difficult.

As of this writing, the authorities say about two-thirds of all the stolen maple syrup has been rounded up. Eighteen people have been arrested, and seven are at large, reportedly on vacation in Florida and should be arrested when they get home. As they say in France,  c’est la vie.

In another story that might or might not be related to this one, CBC News reported on Saturday that police are investigating the strange case of CN Rail freight trains, some of them longer than 50 cars, which it is believed have been transporting the same shipment of biodiesel back and forth between a refinery in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada and an oil storage facility in Port Huron, Michigan for nearly a month. The oil was loaded up on June 15 and was repeatedly delivered and returned by the train, trip 504 going to Port Huron and trip 505 going back to Sarnia until June 28, 2010, when, as near as anybody can tell, it all stopped. The two trips, 504 and 505, were cleared by  Canadian customs and American customs each time.

According investigators, there were two firms listed as customers and they were HeroBX and Northern Biodiesel, but the CBC claims that although they have this information, neither company returned their calls.

What was going on, according to CBC News coverage of the story, was that Northern Biodiesel was taking advantage of a loophole in U.S. law. There’s a green energy environmental law requiring that certain monies be paid every time a fuel train crosses the border between the U.S. and Canada, but you can get “credits” against these payments if you are transporting green energy materials. Go back and forth enough and you can get 12 million in credits—which is what this train apparently did—and each credit is worth 50 cents against the taxes you pay. It’s a way of saving $6 million and, according to Biodiesel, its perfectly legal, though it is hell on the environment.


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