December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Truck hijacking in the 1970s

2 min read
The start of the 1970s saw a huge surge in truck hijacking with billions of dollars worth of cargo stolen by organised crime

Plenty of people know about planes being hijacked by terrorist groups in the 1970s but few remember the spate of truck hijacking incidents that surged at the start of the decade.

One trucker, John Couts, was bored out of his mind in a traffic jam near Philadelphia in 1971. As he left the Schuylkill Expressway to find a faster route to his destination, a man threw open the passenger door, leapt in, and pointed a revolver at him. “Don’t get funny”, he snarled. And John decided to go along with his new criminal friend. Minutes later he was bound, blindfolded, and thrown into the back of his own truck.

The hijacker made off with $135,000 of suits and Cout’s wallet containing $122. That’s over a million dollars of fashionable goods today while Cout’s was carrying just under a thousand dollars at today’s value adjusted for inflation.

Truck hijacking became way more lucrative and less dangerous than robbing banks. The 1990 movie Goodfellas showed 1960s gangsters getting in on the act often with the connivance of individuals in the trucking union. By the early 70s, trucks carrying goods to shops for the Easter holidays or Mother’s Day became easy and attractive targets.

In April 1971, thousands of dollars worth of mushrooms were taken in one truck hijacking while other items included magazines, frozen fish, diapers, and hams. All presumably with a ready market. Otherwise the criminals would not have gone to the trouble of hijacking a truck.

Organised crime behind the truck hijacking

APA Transport was one of the largest carriers on America’s eastern seaboard and in 1971 discovered to their dismay that the telephone line into their terminal at Scranton, Pennsylvania was tapped. Security at the terminal conceded that organised crime didn’t really need to resort to phone tapping. They could suck anybody in to their network of informers.

One way was to lend money to truckers, and then the loan sharks would threaten a trucker with consequences if he got behind on repayments. The way to avoid lost kneecaps was to provide valuable information.

Fencing the goods – selling them illegally – never seemed to be an issue. The stolen items were never recovered and got shifted on the black market. In 1970, a US Senate Select Committee estimated that $900m was lost from trucks. In today’s money, an eye watering $6.75billion.

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