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Farmers Hope a Date With Justice Looms for Busy Palm Tree Pinchers

Growers fret about increasing incidences of theft. Authorities suspect it's an inside job.

September 08, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

THERMAL, Calif. — Armed with machetes and spades, date palm thieves have lifted hundreds of the exotic, delicate trees in recent weeks from groves throughout the Coachella Valley, where farmers have resorted to "branding" their crop with brightly colored paint.

Over the last two months, an estimated 600 trees -- most of them valued at about $250 each -- have been stolen from at least 15 farms, despite ongoing stakeouts by law enforcement investigators and efforts to infiltrate date industry field workers with informants.

"We've always had reports of agricultural theft, but this is the worst year ever," said Riverside County Sheriff's Sgt. Sal Pina. "So far, we've arrested four people in three separate incidents, but they're not talking. In other words, we're trying to put a lid on the problem, but we're not getting very far."

In some of those cases, sheriff's investigators were able to match imprints found in muddy fields with the soles of suspects' boots.

A month ago, Deputy Marlayna Wynn responded to a report that 20 to 30 "offshoots" had been taken from a grove. After taking photographs of numerous boot prints and compiling a list of possible suspects, she said, "I went to their shoes. One was an exact match."

"That guy confessed," she said. "His story was that he was going to use them to landscape his home."

The arrest of two alleged date palm thieves late last month, however, was a matter of luck.

"We were patrolling a grove at 2 a.m. when we noticed a vehicle with its headlights on, but not moving," recalled Deputy Tim Leary. "As we approached, the vehicle took off without using its directional lights, which gave us probable cause to stop it. We found four uprooted date palms in the trunk, and one in the back seat, along with shovels, clippers and a machete."

In interviews later, the suspects told authorities they were planning to decorate their homes with the trees.

"Don't think so," Leary said. "We followed up on that and discovered they lived in a trailer park without yards."

The fact that uprooted offshoots cannot survive more than three to five days has led authorities to speculate that the thefts are inside jobs, perhaps orchestrated by a ringleader associated with a local grower.

Figuring the stolen trees were possibly being gathered at a few locations, authorities have used airplanes and helicopters to search the sprawling desert valley south of Indio for suspicious new groves.

But finding transplanted trees will not be easy. Date palms young and old are as common as tumbleweeds in the heavily farmed southern end of the Coachella Valley.

Over the years, they have been planted in neat orchards, and haphazardly in yards, beside roadways or along railroad tracks.

"They're everywhere," said Pina, who tends a little date palm grove at his home.

Roughly 95% of the nation's dates are grown in the Coachella Valley. Yet, the fruit requires intensive labor to grow and turn out well in the hot desert climate.

It takes trees five to six years to bear fruit and 10 years to produce maximum yields of 200 to 300 hundred pounds. Although they can grow up to 60 feet, thieves have been targeting trees up to 5 feet tall.

If a crew knows what it's doing, authorities said, it's possible to uproot and carry off a small tree in 10 minutes.

Lorrie Cooper, executive director of the California Date Commission, said the sale of Coachella Valley dates fetches about $36 million a year.

"This year all the growers have been hit by thieves," Cooper said. "They're about as angry as you'd expect."

The full extent of the theft problem is not known. Some farmers prefer not to talk about it for fear the publicity could encourage more thefts. A few feel it's not worth their while to report thefts of one or two trees, authorities said.

But this year's rash of incidents has "tuned a lot more people in to what's going on," Cooper said.

Across the region, growers are posting security guards and painting the trunks of their offshoots with various colors of water-based paint as a means of detecting thefts. Some also are spiking their trees with metal pins embossed with a telltale series of numbers.

"The reality is this," said Albert Keck of Hadley Date Gardens, "more people than ever want to plant palm orchards, and offshoots are not cheap. So the black market is responding to the demand by creating an incentive for people to steal palm trees."

"That's very upsetting," he said. "Anyone can measure the cost of a tree. But how do you measure the value of an orchard that was removed after it was established, starting to take hold and bring in fruit?"

Over at a grove owned by Jewel Date Co., which has been hit hard by thieves, seven field workers recently planted row upon row of offshoots amid scorching sun and suffocating humidity. Then they stepped aside as Carlos Breseno, 18, stepped up to coat the trunks with brilliant orange paint.

Field boss Isaias Castro surveyed their progress.

"It makes me very angry to think that people are coming out here with shovels and digging up our trees," he said. "It takes a lot of work to make a date tree grow.

"We've already fenced some groves, but even that's no guarantee," he said. "The best we can do is keep an eye out for people who do not belong here."

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