FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It took a call from Israeli police for South Florida police to realize the enormity and scope of numerous seemingly unrelated crimes.
Six Bobcat front-end loaders stolen from a West Palm Beach, Fla., construction company in 1997 were linked to an international theft ring that extended from South Florida up the Eastern Seaboard and into Canada, the caller said.
West Palm Beach police detectives also learned that their two suspects in that case were in custody in Israel, along with four other Israeli nationals accused of stealing at least 80 bulldozers and other heavy equipment in the United States and Canada.
Last week, with two Israeli police officers by their side, detectives announced the arrests and exchanged certificates of appreciation with their foreign counterparts at the city's police station.
The thefts began as early as 1994 at construction sites across the country. The conspirators shipped the loot to Israel where they were sold, police said.
In November, three more bulldozers were stolen, this time from Margate, Fla., and Coconut Creek, Fla. Israeli police learned about the thefts and began working to break up the ring.
Yehouda Levy, a sergeant major and forensic technician, and Maj. Yoav Kleinboim, an auto theft specialist, spent hours analyzing titles, tracing serial numbers and contacting construction companies across the United States. They got names from customs declaration forms and tracked down the suspects.
The men, both officers with the Israel National Police, had help from the FBI and police in Palm Beach and Broward counties. They suspect the thieves did not act alone, but no other arrests have been made.
"They had to have had help in the States," Levy said.
In some cases, the thieves used master keys common to Bobcats to drive them inconspicuously off construction sites and onto trucks day and night, police said.
The bulldozers, worth $25,000 each here and three times that in Israel, were smuggled in container ships with forged documentation and stolen serial numbers. After arriving at the port of Ashdod, the vehicles were sold to unsuspecting customers.
The thieves began by taking serial numbers off heavy equipment. The numbers were attached to stolen bulldozers when they reached Israel before they were sold.
"We had a rash of VIN plates stolen off lots," said Detective Chip Woods, with the West Palm Beach Police Department.
All six Bobcats stolen in West Palm Beach three years ago were recovered by Israeli police after the April arrests, Woods said.
In that case, two men broke into Smith Brothers Contracting Equipment in March 1997 and loaded the six new Bobcats into a rental truck, he said.
Woods had only a blurry surveillance tape to work with, but he was able to make out the name of the rental truck. When he went to the company where the trucks were rented, he got the names of the renters.
But when Woods tried to find Shlomo Rahamim, 38, and Razi Rahamim, 52, he learned they were back in Israel.
The case stagnated until Woods got the call in April from Levy saying they had his suspects in custody.
Also arrested were Morris Cohen, 54, Zafrir Cohen, 38, Yoram Cohen, 36, and Uri Rahamim, 40 . The six men belong to two separate families, police said.
The suspects have U.S. and Israeli citizenship and are considered the ringleaders. They were arrested April 2 and are awaiting trial.
They face multiple charges, including auto theft, alteration of vehicle identification numbers, conspiracy, forgery and possession of stolen equipment.