In what could be one of the Chicago area's most dairy-ing crimes, an Illinois man was charged this week in connection with the theft of a semitrailer containing 42,000 pounds of Muenster cheese with a street value of $200,000.
Veniamin Balika, 34, of Plainfield, was arrested Tuesday afternoon by New Jersey State Police as he loitered at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop, police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones said.
The Muenster -- packed into 6-pound loaves and separated into 1,135 cases -- had originated from K&K Cheese in Cashton, Wis., Jones said.
Its final destination was Texas, he said, but somewhere along the line, Balika "cheesed" some paperwork and took off with the precious cargo.
"He was believed to have used false information to go to the distributor's warehouse and pick up the load," Jones said.
It was unclear Thursday morning where Balika picked up his cargo.
An informant initially tipped of New Jersey police that Balika was looking to offload the hot cheese post-haste after an earlier deal fell through, Jones said.
"He did have a couple potential buyers, one in Pennsylvania, but that didn't work out for him," Jones said. "No legitimate business person is going to buy a load knowing it's stolen."
Plainclothes detectives then trailed him and arrested him not far from New York City, Jones said. He was nabbed at a service area named after Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach for the Green Bay Packers, whose fans are known as "cheeseheads," a nod to Wisconsin's roots as "America's Dairyland."
Balika was charged with receiving stolen property and fencing, Jones said.
The stolen Muenster was turned over to a towing company and impounded, Jones said. A food inspector gave it the thumbs up and now K&K's insurance companies will deal with it.
"It seems like the cheese was kept at an appropriate temperature, and is now being re-brokered," Jones said.
Jones said New Jersey's cargo theft unit usually deals with stolen goods like designer jeans, perfume and computer parts.
"We've seen organized activity with rings of people who know some of the inside of the transportation business," he said of who pulls such heists. "We've also seen just people who see a target of opportunity."
In the world of illicit commodities, Jones said, Balika may have been able to find a middleman to move the cheese if he hadn't been arrested.
"Brokers of stolen merchandise like that will try to reach interested parties," Jones said. "He was trying to make a deal, hopefully for cash at a discounted rate."
Cheese is the most stolen food item internationally and is the third highest-risk item behind shaving products and clothing accessories, according to a 2011 report by the U.K.-based Centre for Retail Research.
Cheese theft is "a lucrative business opportunity for small time criminals," center director Joshua Bamfield told the Huffington Post in 2011.
"It's not just grannies saying, 'I need some cheese, I'll just go and steal it,'" he said. "A lot of the theft is for resale and a lot of this cheese will be resold into other markets or restaurants."
K&K Cheese general manager Kevin Everhart sounded nonplussed about the incident when contacted Thursday.
The company contracts out transportation, he said, and "somehow they contracted one that was crooked."
Everhart said Muenster is by far the 30-year-old company's biggest seller.
"I think it's just a random thing," he said. "We'll move on. It's probably gonna be a pain in the (expletive)."
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