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'Farm cop' sees growth of agricultural crime in California's Central Valley

Jordan Whaley, a Tulare County sheriff's detective and himself a farmer, says 'anything that's harvested is being stolen,' as is the equipment needed to grow it.

December 31, 2010|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Jordan Whaley, a detective in the Tulare County Sheriffs Department agricultural crimes unit, dons black gloves to dust a broken toilet for fingerprints after thieves broke into a farm shed to steal scrap metal.
Jordan Whaley, a detective in the Tulare County Sheriffs Department agricultural… (Alana Semuels / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Ivanhoe, Calif. — It's not even 11 a.m., and Jordan Whaley's dashboard radio has been crackling all morning with crimes newly committed: crops pilfered, gas siphoned, copper wire stolen.

This latest call is one of the strangest so far. Thieves have taken 54 brass valves from the irrigation system on Ryan Hopper's orange farm. They've also stolen scrap metal from his tool shed and siphoned hundreds of gallons of fuel from a diesel tank on his field.

The crime infuriates Hopper, costing him time and money just before the orange harvest. But it's just one more of the mysteries Whaley tackles on a daily basis.

"It's never-ending," said Whaley, 26, who is himself a farmer. He's also a detective in the Tulare County Sheriff's Department agricultural crimes unit, tasked with catching the people who steal crops, tractors, chemicals and other farm equipment, and then turning the suspects over to the district attorney's office.

Think of him as the law in "Law & Order," farm edition.

Four years of a soft economy have led to a rise in agricultural crime throughout the country. In Ohio thieves are taking tractor batteries. Texas and Oklahoma authorities say bandits are stealing more cattle. And in Ivanhoe, a small farm town of 4,000 near Visalia, they're taking farm equipment.

American farmers and ranchers have been fending off thieves since the heyday of cattle rustling in the 19th century, but the duty of battling rural crime waves now falls to law enforcement. Tulare County sheriff's deputies investigated 105 agricultural crimes in the three months ended Sept. 30, up from 77 in the same period last year.

These crimes can deal a blow to California's economy: The state's oranges, melons, alfalfa and other crops are big business, generating $34 billion a year. But spread over 25 million acres, they are not easy to protect.

"Farmers aren't like most businesses: Their property, produce and everything is out there in the open. They don't have a way to secure it in four walls," said Jody Cox, a detective sergeant in the Tulare County Sheriff's Department agricultural crimes unit.


Whaley starts his day heading to Hopper's farm, where neat rows of leafy orange trees stretch out toward the flat blue horizon. He drives his white Ford pickup through a small cluster of one-story houses, past orange and nut trees, and pulls off the narrow road. A squad car is parked near a corrugated iron shed, where a deputy is interviewing the victim.

"I went to irrigate today and no water was coming out," an agitated Hopper says. "I was just trying to get some work done."

Hopper says he hasn't had a problem with crime on his 130 acres since 2007, when thieves stole the filter system from his irrigation line. Now he's hearing more about crops and equipment disappearing from neighboring farms.

After walking the irrigation line with Hopper, Whaley takes out a fingerprint kit to use on a broken toilet the thieves hauled out of the shed, then discarded in the yard. He dons black gloves and sprinkles powder over the toilet as a cool breeze rustles the orchard.

He shakes his head. No prints.

It's looking to be slim pickings on the evidence front, but then Whaley hears a shout from Hopper. The farmer has found a footprint in the mud near a diesel tank that the thieves siphoned dry.

Whaley walks quickly through rows of orange trees and kneels next to the footprint. He can make out the name Camel, a brand of work boot. It's not much, but it's something.

"The crooks are getting more sophisticated," says Whaley, who suspects that thieves sometimes change their tires to avoid being linked to the tracks they leave behind.


Whaley's department is getting more sophisticated too. In 2002, eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley linked their agricultural crime units to form ACTION, the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network, to share information about stolen equipment, pilfered crops and suspects. It has since expanded to include 13 counties, stretching from Santa Barbara to San Joaquin.

Detectives have set up stings to buy stolen crops and farm equipment, and have had stakeouts outside the homes of suspected thieves. ACTION is even trying to get the Department of Homeland Security to chip in funds, contending that stolen pesticides and fertilizers could be used to make bombs.

These are farm cops with city gear: surveillance cameras, GPS tracking devices and night-vision goggles. But they look at home on the range too.

On his belt, which is held up by a giant silver buckle, Whaley keeps a gun, radio and a shiny six-pointed sheriff's badge.

In a case this summer, Whaley tied a string of petty thefts and burglaries to one suspect. When he pulled over the suspect's car and searched it, he found a gun that had been stolen that very day in another crime. The suspect, who was on parole, was arrested that night.

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