It was an inside job of sorts. Thieves with access to a warehouse and a careful plan loaded up trucks and, over time, made off with $18 million of a valuable commodity."And now you know", as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story."
On Tuesday, the police in Quebec arrested three men in connection with the theft from the warehouse, which is southwest of Quebec City. The authorities are searching for five others suspected of being involved, and law enforcement agencies in other parts of Canada and the United States are trying to recover some of the stolen syrup.
The spring of 2011 produced so much maple syrup that the federation added a third rented warehouse, in an industrial park alongside a busy highway in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, to accommodate the overflow. The surplus was pasteurized and packed into 16,000 drums, each holding 54 gallons, and left to rest except for inspections twice a year.
Lt. Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec, the police force that led the investigation, said that the thieves rented another portion of the warehouse for an unrelated business. That enabled them to drive large trucks into the building.
“They were basically inside guys,” Lieutenant Lapointe said. “The leader wasn’t with the federation, but he had access to the warehouse that would not attract any suspicion.”
When no one else was around, Lieutenant Lapointe said, the thieves gradually began emptying syrup barrels. Some Quebec news reports indicated that they also filled some barrels with water to disguise the theft.
Over time, the thieves helped themselves to six million pounds of syrup. Mr. Trépanier said their work was discovered in July, when inspectors found a few empty barrels. The full extent of the theft, he said, became clear once the police arrived.
Like many thieves, the maple syrup gang was faced with how to unload a large quantity of a commodity that is not easily moved. But unlike most thieves, Lieutenant Lapointe said, they found a way to get full price on the open market.
Because the investigation is continuing, Lieutenant Lapointe declined to describe the resale process in detail. But he did say that the thieves set themselves up as legitimate maple syrup dealers in neighboring New Brunswick, a province with an open, if much smaller, maple syrup industry. From there, they shipped the stolen syrup to buyers in that province as well as in Ontario, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Whatever the arrangement, it was convincing. Lieutenant Lapointe said investigators believed that the buyers were unaware of the syrup’s illicit origins.
The police have tracked down about two-thirds of the stolen syrup and are trying to seize it, particularly a large quantity in the United States, which is the largest buyer of Quebec’s legitimate production. Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency was investigating what happened to the syrup after it slipped across the border.
It may be difficult to prove that syrup is stolen property, however.
“Maple syrup doesn’t have a bar code,” Lieutenant Lapointe said. “There’s no way to tell it apart.”