Santa Paula rancher Bob Pinkerton has been ripped off by avocado rustlers more times than he can remember. But he still can be surprised at how brazen crop bandits can be.
Just last week, in the middle of the workday, two men backed a silver sedan into one of his orchards. While one served as the lookout, the other piled hundreds of the pear-shaped fruit into the car.
The thieves probably would have kept at it had it not been for quick-acting neighbors who alerted Pinkerton and triggered a call to Ventura County's agricultural crime busters.
The Sheriff's Department unit is one of a growing number in the state dedicated solely to combating agricultural crime. The two-man team scours the farmland in pursuit of those who prey on ranchers and bleed hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from the county's $1-billion-a-year agricultural industry.
"We want the bad guys to know that they just can't come in and steal from us," said Pinkerton, who toured the crime scene with Deputy Jason Hendren.
The bandits had fled as soon as they were spotted, and only a pair of muddy tire tracks and a sea of broken stems remained as evidence of the noontime heist. At current prices, the haul probably cost Pinkerton at least $100--the threshold at which the thieves could go to prison under especially stringent state laws protecting farmers.
Agencies Launch Assault on Thieves
"We're not going to catch them every time, but they are going to know this is a hard place to get into," Pinkerton said. "The attitude in Ventura County has become, if you are going to come here and commit agricultural crime, you better be prepared to do the time."
That tough-nosed approach is taking root in agricultural counties across California, as law enforcement agencies lead an all-out assault on a rural scourge battering farmers and ranchers at a time when many are struggling to stay afloat.
From San Joaquin to San Diego, crime rings routinely wipe out whole sections of orchards, often employing vehicles outfitted with heavy-duty shocks to support the weight of their illegal booty. Thieves also steal farm chemicals, aluminum irrigation pipe and even wind machines for resale on the black market.
In Imperial County, bandits swipe tractors and other farm equipment, driving them across the border and out of the reach of U.S. authorities. In the Central Valley, methamphetamine rings have targeted remote farming areas as a favorite place to set up clandestine labs.
Farmers fence their property, but bandits cut their way through. Farm groups offer rewards, but not enough people are calling to collect.
While it's hard to calculate statewide losses, farm officials say they extend into the tens of millions of dollars each year. Some of the theft is by drug users or transients looking to turn a quick buck, officials say, while some smacks of organized crime.
"We have [thieves] come up from other places who, with two or three vanloads of people, can clean out an entire orchard in one night," said Fresno County Sheriff's Sgt. Frances Devins, president of California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force.
"That's a farmer's entire profit for one year," she said. "Gone in one night."
More Money, Personnel Assigned to Farm Crime
In Fresno and other agricultural counties, however, farmers and law enforcement leaders are fighting back.
About a third of California's 58 counties now have law enforcement personnel dedicated to solving and preventing agricultural crimes, authorities say.
Law enforcement agencies in the San Joaquin Valley formed an eight-county task force in 1999 to battle rural crime. As part of that effort, Fresno County is receiving about $800,000 in state money this year to assign five detectives, a sergeant and two prosecutors full time to combating crop theft and other farm-related wrongdoing.
The statewide crime prevention task force twice a year offers a school to train law enforcement officers on rural crime prevention, while the California Farm Bureau runs a Farm Watch program, which employs a Neighborhood Watch approach to preventing fruit and cattle theft. The Farm Bureau, the California Avocado Commission and other groups also offer rewards of up to $1,000 to tipsters who turn in agricultural rustlers.
In Ventura County, the state's 10th-largest agricultural producer, rural crime fighters have been on the job since 1992.
Back then, the agricultural community lobbied hard for beefed-up enforcement, concerned that thieves were stealing with abandon. In some years, bandits were able to pull nearly $1 million in fruit and farm products from the county's fields and orchards as fighting agricultural theft took a back seat to more high-profile crimes.