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Monday, January 03, 2011

Growth of Agricultural Crime in California's Central Valley

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.

Whaley grew up in the tule fog of the Central Valley, where his father was the Tulare County undersheriff. After studying agricultural business at Cal Poly, Whaley worked patrol in San Luis Obispo until he was transferred back to Tulare two years ago.

His family still raises walnuts, plums and beef cattle on 50 acres in Woodlake. As Whaley loops around Tulare County, he waves at former schoolmates hauling bales of hay, and when he steps out of his car to investigate crimes on a local ranch, he gets slapped on the back by farmers who know his father.

In his four years in law enforcement Whaley has seen a wide array of crime. In the last two months the Tulare County Sheriff's Department has recovered 10 tons of walnuts, bags of avocados, three cows, a golf cart, a forklift, two tractors, batteries, fuel tanks and a Kawasaki mule.

"Anything that's harvested is being stolen," Whaley said. "Anything and everything."

****

The economy is making the job more challenging, as budget cuts leave the Sheriff's Department shorthanded. With an unemployment rate of nearly 17%, Tulare County is suffering. Foreclosure signs dot Visalia, and at a recycling depot on the outskirts of town people line up to exchange cans for a bit of cash.

"There are a ton of people out of work," said Cox, the squad detective sergeant. "There are those that may have been scraping by previously, but now they're doing whatever they have to do to support themselves."

Whaley says some of the thieves would steal in good times or bad. He suspects some are drug addicts trying to get enough cash to support their habit. Others, down on their luck and out of work, filch crops and sell them at the side of the road to make a few extra bucks.

"You can bet on a moonlit night someone's going to be out in the walnuts," said farmer Butch Gist, standing among flourishing pistachio trees on his farm, which has been in operation for 125 years.

Gist, who also grows walnuts, hires a private security firm for the peak of walnut season, because once the crop is stolen it's difficult for detectives to get it back. Crops, unlike equipment or cattle, can't be branded.

Whaley's unit caught a break recently, when a farmworker called in to report two men and a woman stealing avocados off the trees of a local orchard.

The thieves fled when squad cars arrived, but they left their car behind. Whaley towed the car and, after getting a search warrant, found a cellphone inside. He ran some of the phone numbers found on the phone and was able to track down a suspect. Under questioning, the suspect gave up her co-conspirators. The case is winding its way through the legal system.

The Sheriff's Department has also started a program to make farm gear easier to track by putting special identification numbers on tractors and other equipment.

*****

Later in the day, Whaley leans on a rusty RV, looking for an ID number on a welding machine sitting haphazardly on a remote corner of a dairy farm. A drifter has hauled the RV onto a farmer's land and piled it with junk, including copper wire, orchard ladders and welding machines that Whaley suspects may be stolen.

He writes down serial numbers and takes photos of the equipment, poking through canisters of empty bull semen straws, old hubcaps and boxes filled with shoes, magazines and clothing. His day thus far has been a game of cat and mouse, visiting crime scenes after thefts have occurred. It will take a bit of sleuthing to catch the mice.

That fact leads him to the last and most dreaded activity of the day. As rush-hour traffic starts to clog the streets of Tulare, Whaley steers his truck back to his office, situated next to alfalfa fields where horses graze.

He has spent the day talking to farmers and gathering evidence. Now it's time to work on something that plagues all cops, whether they're walking through crops or city blocks: reams and reams of paperwork.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 7:25 PM

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