New Year’s Day of 2024 was rough for Chris Magallanes. The co-owner of Panther City BBQ, in Fort Worth, received a call that morning from his son, Cristian, who’s also an employee of the barbecue joint, asking why their twin Moberg smokers that are mounted on a trailer, together worth about $30,000, weren’t parked outside the restaurant. Magallanes pulled up footage from a security camera and saw someone cutting the trailer lock at 5:12 that morning, then hitching it to a white van and driving away. “It’s hard enough to turn a profit, and when your equipment gets stolen,” Magallanes said, “that could put you under.”

That’s why he and co-owner Ernest Morales had attached a GPS tracker to the trailer right after they purchased it. It took Magallanes thirteen minutes to find his stolen property. It was sitting three miles from their restaurant, with a tarp loosely covering the smokers, in a gravel parking lot next to Daybreak Cafe & Grill. Magallanes called the Fort Worth Police Department to report the stolen equipment and waited a couple of hours for a patrol car to arrive on the scene. Magallanes wanted to allow the officers an opportunity to collect evidence from the trailer. According to Magallanes, they weren’t interested and instead gave him an email address to which he could send any evidence he collected. That’s when he went into investigator mode.

Mario Garcia, the owner of Daybreak Cafe, claimed the security cameras on his building that pointed toward the lot were dummy cameras and that there was no footage to share. Magallanes talked to the owner of an adjacent business, Fort Brewery, who allowed him to install a camera on the back of his building pointed toward the lot. He assumed the white van—with a distinctive pattern of peeled paint, a hand-painted front grille, and a large roof rack—would return.

Daybreak Cafe opens at 5 a.m. According to video footage Magallanes uploaded to the Panther City BBQ Instagram page, the white van arrived at the lot at 4:32 a.m. on January 13. A green SUV arrived at the same time, and the drivers of the two vehicles walked into the restaurant together. In an interview with a WFAA-TV reporter, Garcia denied knowing the suspect. That was before Magallanes uploaded videos that appeared to show individuals behind the cafe transferring items from the white van to Garcia’s truck. When I spoke with Garcia on the phone at his restaurant this week, he said, “We’ve got customers parking there, coming and going, s— like that. I don’t know people’s names. I don’t know s—.” He then referred me to his lawyer’s office and hung up. 

Landry Winters knew all about that distinctive white van. Back in October of last year, he watched security footage of two men stealing a flatbed trailer from the parking lot of his Fort Worth electrical business and hooking it up to the same white van. He then saw that van nearly every day on his drive to work, parked in front of a house a mile from his office. Winters noticed that the license plate number changed every few days. He hand-delivered a thumb drive to Fort Worth police with the video of the theft, photos of the van in front of the house, and photos of the same white Air Jordan 12 high-top sneakers worn by the perpetrator in the video sitting on the stoop outside the house. The he waited for an arrest. “It’s been a punch in the gut for four months now, every time I drive by and see that stupid van,” Winters said.

Paul Checkeye felt a similar punch in the gut when he learned his food trailer was stolen in December. The owner of burger joint Grease Monkey and Cartel Taco Bar, both in Arlington, had security camera footage of the theft, which he provided to Arlington police and posted to social media. Magallanes saw the post, recognized the white van, and suggested Checkeye have a look around the lot beside Daybreak Cafe. He did but found nothing. “It was a fully functional catering trailer” worth about $35,000, Checkeye said, and the loss has hurt his business. He doesn’t expect to see it again, but he hopes someone will be held accountable. He just put a new down payment on another trailer with the insurance money he received for his loss. He said he will tag the new one with a GPS tracker.

Four months after submitting his evidence, Winters was frustrated that the police hadn’t made an arrest. When he saw Magallanes discussing the theft of his trailer on WFAA in late January, Winters recognized the van and sent Magallanes the evidence he’d collected. Magallanes passed the photos and videos on to the FWPD detective working the case. He was growing impatient. He and Morales continued to monitor the lot, and they sometimes followed the white van when they spotted it. They were careful and kept their distance—a recent story about a man shot and killed over a barbecue smoker outside Houston had given Magallanes pause.

The owner of the white van, Arnulfo Rodriguez, was arrested and booked into the Tarrant County Corrections Center on February 14, where he remained as of February 22, according to jail records. The lone charge is for the theft of Winters’ trailer, so it’s not exactly the conclusion Magallanes or Checkeye was hoping for. “Maybe we can get him charged in our theft,” Magallanes said, remaining hopeful. I reached out to the detective assigned to his case and got a call back from Officer Brad Perez, the FWPD media liaison. “There’s no current charge pending” on Rodriguez for the theft of Panther City’s smokers or the Grease Monkey food trailer, he said. “The investigation is still ongoing, but I think there might be a lack of other evidence or direct evidence,” Perez told me. The detective assigned to the case didn’t return my messages.

Winters learned of the arrest from Magallanes. “The most frustrating part of it for me is not that my trailer got stolen,” Winters said. “It’s that [FWPD has] had this evidence since October.” Magallanes urges other barbecue joint owners to invest in GPS trackers on their mobile equipment as well. Good security cameras help, but that’s not enough. “All that allows you to do is to watch your equipment get stolen,” he said. If you can track it down, you can at least get your stuff back. Hopefully you won’t have to do your own detective work to make sure the same thief doesn’t come by again.