The Stolen Army Trucks Story
This is a true story about how we almost became involved
Written 3/2011 and rewritten 05/02/2016
This true story is about how our company CME Arma Inc, unwittingly almost got ourselves involved in one of the biggest military vehicle theft cases of 1996. We had no idea of how deeply involved we were until all the participants were put on trial, and a copy of the prosecutions evidence was made available to one of the defendants.
In 1996, we were trying to establish our company in the business of rebuilding of military electrical parts. I had started CME Arma in 1991, and my wife Katherine joined the company shortly after that. So we were slowly learning the intricacies of the military parts business.
We soon learned that there were several major companies that were entrenched in the military spare parts business in the United States, and they had been doing it for many years. The main thrust of their business was the buying of surplus vehicles and parts from the Government and then selling them back to our government or to foreign militaries that used U.S. vehicles. All of this being a very proper and legal business that was encouraged by the government.
It was the practice of the U.S. government to give lots of used military vehicles to friendly foreign countries and these countries then bought all their repair parts from U.S. companies. This created quite a bit of business which was good for our U.S. economy. But the selling of used military vehicles also created several other types of businesses besides just supplying parts to foreign governments. One of the businesses it created was the restoration and collector business which had now become big business. Collectors and restorers were people that bought old army vehicles from Jeeps to tanks and rebuilt them to look like new. Some of the restored vehicles went to museums and others went to private collectors, and some are simply used in parades.
Our company was going to specialize in the re building of military electrical parts, so to establish ourselves in this industry, we needed to find suppliers and customers that dealt in military parts, so to find them, I purchased magazines that were dedicated to the collector market. One day, I saw an ad in the magazine, placed by a military parts dealer in Saint Paul Minnesota called “Tony's Surplus”. I was curious as to who and what they were, so I called them up. The fellow that answered the phone said his name was Tony Piatz, and he was the owner of Tony's Surplus, Tony Piatz said, “Everyone just called him Tanker Tony, and we should do the same”.
I asked Tanker Tony, “What he specialized in, and he told me his civilian business was moving house trailers, but he also did several other things.” Tony said, “He restored old military tanks, as well as other vehicles.” Tanker Tony said, that he was also in the scrap metal business. I was intrigued, as I knew that there was a big collector market for restored military vehicles, but I had never met anyone before who was actually in the business.
Tony went on to say that one of the things he did was to clean off the old firing ranges on a nearby military base “Fort McCoy.” He said that the army put old tanks on the ranges and helicopters shot rockets at them, eventually pounding the old tanks right into the ground. Then once the target range was littered with trash, from the rockets and blown up vehicles, Tony came in and bid on a contract to clean up all the scrap metal. In his contract, he said that he could keep the metals and vehicles he cleaned off the ranges. That was what Tanker Tony said to me.
Tony said, “He was recently able to dig 3 or 4 old tanks up when he cleaned off a target range, and he said that out of 3 or 4 blown up tanks he was able to put one complete tank together.” Tony said, “He would fill up all the bullet holes with “Bondo” automotive body putty.” I was fascinated with listening to Tony. He said, “Fixing up the old tanks was lots of fun.” Tony told me that one time he was fixing up an old tank that he had removed from a firing range and he found a live missiles in the engine compartment. He said, He buried the live rockets at a sand pit that he owned.
One day, I was having a conversation with Tony, and he said, “He had bought an old “Nike Missile Site” from the government. He said it was located in Minnesota and he intended to make it into an underground military vehicle museum. It sounded exciting, Tony said the Nike site had an electric elevator that still was in working order, as well as a vast tunnel system under ground. He said that he thought it would be a perfect place to display restored military vehicles and he could even charge admission for people to see them.
As time went on, Tanker Tony and I became very good friends, and he was helping us to find parts for several projects we were doing. Then one day Tony called and said a large Company in Minnesota was disposing of their inventory. He wanted to know if we wanted to buy any of it He said that they had a trailer full of DUKW parts. DUKW as the old WW2 amphibious military vehicle called the Duck. We discussed it at length and finally decided that CME Arma should, through Tony, offer $7000.00 for the trailer of DUKW parts and Tony could store them under ground at his Nike site. Everything went perfectly as planned and Tony picked up the trailer full of DUKW parts and stored it at his Nike site for us. Our arrangement with Tony was that we would be partners on the parts. CME would advertise the parts and Tony’s Surplus would ship them, and we would split any profit.
Several weeks later, Tony called me up to ask if we were interested in buying any military vehicles. I asked Tony what he had, and he said that he was buying a whole variety of vehicles from the Fort McCoy army base, in Wisconsin. He said that all the vehicles were destined to be put on the target ranges to be shot at, but the ranges had been closed down and Tony was allowed to purchase all the vehicles rather than have the government send them to the scrap yard.
Tony said he was hauling off all the vehicles from Fort McCoy as we spoke. Tony said he had a legal bill of sale for all the vehicles from the government.
I asked Tony if he had a list made up of what vehicles were available and he said he did and would fax it to me. When we looked the list over we were very surprised as it contained a big variety of vehicles which included Jeeps, shop vans, and three M113A2 personnel carriers.
When I saw the M113A2 personnel carriers, I immediately brought it to the attention of Henry Moed who was a semi-retired military vehicle specialist that worked with us. Henry knew a lot about heavy military vehicles, and he said he thought we could sell the M113A2 personnel carriers to either the country of Pakistan or Chile. That was because at the time, the M113A2 was probably the most popular troop carrier in the world. So I quickly called Tony back and asked him the price for the three M113A2 vehicles. Tony said, “I want $33,000.00 each for them.” So I asked him what condition the vehicles were in, and “He said they were just like new.”
Tony then said, “The three vehicles all had Tow Missile launchers attached to the top of them,” but then Tony said, “I’m thinking of removing the Tow missile launchers from the vehicles.” I asked him, why he would do that as it reduced the value of the vehicle. Tony said,
It was because he thought that they looked too menacing. I told Tony, not to remove the missile launchers, but he became adamant that he was going to do it anyway, so I told him we would purchase the Tow launchers separately if he took them off.”
Tony then said, “He had also brought in 28 M151A1 Jeeps that were all just like new all with low mileage.” He said, “If we wanted them they were $1,500.00 each.” I told Tony that we were pretty sure we wanted the M113A2 carriers and I would like to buy all the M151A1 Jeeps, but I had to find an economical was of shipping them to Florida first. So I told Tony to give us a day or so to try and make shipping arrangements.
I then spoke again to Henry Moed regarding the M113A2 personnel carriers and he said he would call his friend Knut Barth, who did business with the Chilean Army. Henry said Knute was sure Chile would buy them all. I then spoke with my wife Katherine, and I asked her to find a way to ship the 28 pieces of M151A1 Jeep to Miami. So Katherine started working on the project, and she first called the railroad, to see if we could ship on a flat car, but after working on the problem all day, we decided that the best way to bring the Jeeps to Florida was on a car carrier and the cost was $900.00 for each vehicle. Then we realized that we had another problem of where to store the Jeeps. We knew that the local population in Miami would steal the parts off them if we left the Jeeps outdoors. So the bottom line was, that after paying for the Jeeps plus the freight and storage costs, there was not enough profit left for us, considering all the troubles. We knew the current collector market in for the Jeeps in 1996 was only about $2400.00 ea. This would mean we would be in the used Jeep business for a long time to get our money back.
In the meantime, while we were working on the Jeep project, Henry’s friend Knute told him that the M113A2 personnel carriers were a bargain and we should buy them. He was certain he could sell them to the country of Chile.
I called Tony Piatz back and told him that we wanted the M113A2 personnel carriers at $33,000.00 ea. Tony asked, “What are you going to do with them,” I said that we intended to export them to Chile. Tony then asked, “If you sell them to Chile, would you need to report the serial numbers to export the vehicles.” Yes, I told him, we would have to apply for an export license and we would definitely need the serial numbers. Tony then got hesitant, and both Henry Moed and as we were both listening to Tony on the phone, we looked at each other, we now both smelled a rat. Tony was obviously lying about how he got the vehicles.
Then Tony said he had a collector customer for one of the M113A2 vehicles that very day and he was going to sell it for $35,000.00. So at this point we pretty much knew that something was very wrong with Tony, and all the vehicles we suspected were illegally purchased, or possibly even stolen. I was happy to hang up the phone with Tony, and I was very lucky that I did.
Next, I received a call from a friend and customer named George Pretty who had a company called “Surplus Enterprises” in Sturgis Michigan. George said he was buying a couple of the M151 Jeeps from Tony. Then George confirmed to me that Tony had sold one of the M113A2 vehicles for $35,000.00 to a collector. So we knew that Tony had not lied about that.
After about a month, a very disturbed George Pretty again called me up. He said that the FBI and the Governments Criminal Investigative Division, had swooped down on his business and confiscated all the Jeeps he had bought from Tony, and they also confiscated a M114 Personnel carrier George had, as well as an HMWV (Hummer) that George was fixing up. George said the Government agents told him that they intended to prosecute him for buying and possessing stolen military vehicles. He told me, “I’m now nearly bankrupt, financially and I don’t know what to do, I need to hire an attorney.”
I debated if I should call Tony up, perhaps I could get him to ship our container of DUKW parts we owned, so I called Tony up. Tony answered the phone, and I asked him, what he was doing, I asked him like I didn’t know about all the trouble he was in. He said, “I’m sitting in the middle of my shop, with my head in my hands, waiting for the FBI to come get me.”
“I didn’t ask him why.” I already knew, but I did ask him if he could ship our DUKW parts to Florida. Tony said, “I sold your parts to a collector for cash. I needed the money for a lawyer.”
I said, “You shouldn’t have done that Tony as it was our money, but there was no point in pushing the issue, as I knew Tony had enough problems ahead of him.”
The next week, it became big news world wide, and it was in all the newspapers, as well as on television. They referred to Tony as “Tanker Tony”, and they said he stole over 13 million dollars in vehicles from the government. He was arrested along with 5 other military and civilian employees at Fort McCoy. They also arrested a military museum owner that also bought vehicles from Tony, probably the M113. “Tanker Tony”, they said, was the ringleader, and he had bribed the Fort McCoy employees. They said that there was 2 military guys and 3 civilian government employees that Tony had paid off. The news also reported that Tony had 11 charges against him and could get up to 125 years in jail, as well as 2.75 million dollars in fines. We heard that all the vehicles were confiscated and anyone who bought them lost their money.
Eventually Tony and the other 6 people were all convicted. I heard Tony got 5 years in jail. But the most interesting part of it all was my later conversation with my good friend George Pretty from Sturgis Michigan. George had hired an attorney, and his attorney got a copy of all the government’s evidence. When George read all the evidence, it included a transcript of the governments tapping of Tony’s telephone. Every conversation that I ever had with Tony had been recorded and printed out in the evidence package.
Our friend George Pretty was eventually acquitted, of any wrong doing, but he never got his vehicles or his money back, and this pretty much bankrupted him.
Interestingly enough, no one from the government ever contacted us, and our name was never mentioned at the trial, I think that was a close call.