CHICAGO — In what could be one of the Chicago area’s stinkiest crimes, an Illinois man was charged this week in connection with the theft of a semi trailer 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, according to police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones.
The Muenster cheese, packed into six-pound loaves and into 1,135 cases, had originated at 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 where Balika picked up the cheese.
Police in Romeoville reported the theft of a truck containing cheese on March 18, but that was listed as having been worth about $1,300.
An informant initially tipped off New Jersey police that Balika was looking to offload the hot cheese, Jones said.
Plainclothes detectives trailed him and arrested him at the Vince Lombardi Service Area, not far from New York City, Jones said.
Balika was charged with receiving stolen property and fencing, Jones said.
The suspect was trying to offload the Muenster 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,” he said. “No legitimate business person is going to buy a load knowing it’s stolen.”
Still, Jones said, in the world of illicit commodities, Balika may have been able to find a shady middleman to move the cheese.
“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.”
Jones would not comment on Balika’s criminal history. Plainfield police did not respond to requests for comment.
The cheese 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 the state’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 such heists. “We’ve also seen just people who see a target of opportunity.”
Cheese theft is a perennial scourge of the retail world, according to a 2011 report by the U.K.-based Centre for Retail Research.
Cheese is the most stolen food item internationally, according to the center, and is the third highest-risk item behind shaving products and clothing accessories.
Cheese 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).”