Ag Crime Prevention program may sunset in July

By Reggie Ellis

Crime doesn't pay. In actuality it costs the economy far more than what criminals make for their efforts.

California's $28 billion agriculture industry is one of the easiest targets for criminals because of the isolated locations of many farms in unincorporated areas of the state and the inability of the Sheriff's offices to effectively patrol these large geographic areas often stretching along thousands of country roads.

And, according to state Sen. Charles Poochigian, it may be even easier in the near future as legislation to protect small farmers from property crimes will sunset in July and funding for the program may be cut by $1.9 million in next year's budget if it is reauthorized by the state legislature.

Poochigian held a Senate Select Hearing last Friday at the Fresno County Farm Bureau to take testimony from farmers and law enforcement officers about the positive effects of the Central Valley Rural Crime Prevention Program.

Established in 1996 as a three-year pilot program in Tulare County, the Rural Crime Prevention Project established a rural crime task force to develop techniques, make contacts and investigate cases in response to climbing ag property crime. In 1999, the program was expanded to include the Central Valley counties of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus with Tulare County designated as the lead county responsible for data collection and overall coordination of the program.

The program formed a San Joaquin Valley Rural Crimes Task Force made up of specialized agriculture crime units from the eight counties' district attorney's offices and sheriff's offices with assistance from the agriculture commissioners and California Highway Patrol.

In 2002 the program was extended to July 1, 2005, and if it is not reauthorized, the original legislation would be repealed as of Jan. 1, 2006. Tulare County District Attorney Phil Cline wrote the proposal in 1995 to develop the project.

"Little national attention has been paid to the problem of agricultural crime, that, if left unchecked, endangers an entire industry that is vital to America's role in international trade," Cline said in a prepared statement. "A farmer or rancher may suffer loss to weather or other events of nature, but we intend to see he does not suffer loss due to criminals. Now is not the time to reduce resources committed to this fight."

Ag Crimes

In 2003, there were 503 ag thefts reported in Tulare County for an estimated loss totaling more than $1.4 million. However, 16% of those stolen items were recovered for a savings of half a million dollars. Overall, the eight-county Central Valley Rural Crimes Task Force investigated 2,685 cases totaling an estimated $9.8 million. Seventeen percent of those items were recovered for an estimated savings of $2.9 million.

Last year, there were 331 ag thefts reported in Tulare County for an estimated loss of $1.6 million. Again, 16% of those stolen items were recovered for a savings of more than $417,000. Overall, the Rural Crimes Task Force investigated 2,513 cases totaling an estimated $10 million. About 18% of those items were recovered for an estimated savings of $3 million. "Since 2002 we have seen a 35% return rate on ag crimes. The rate for crimes in general is 10-14%," Cline said. "We are only two-thirds across the ravine. To stop now would kill the program and waste all that we have been building for."

Most of the crimes are vehicle, crop and equipment thefts. These crimes represented 25% of cases investigated by the Rural Crimes Task Force. In 2004, the Rural Crimes Task Force made 375 arrests, 312 of which have either been prosecuted or are pending court adjudication. In addition, the program saw 256 convictions last year. The hardest crimes to catch are diesel and chemical thefts. With the volatile price of fuel, diesel fuel is always a hot commodity for ag crooks and is one of the hardest to trace.

"I would expect it to get worse with fuel prices going up," District 1 Supervisor and Lindsay citrus farmer Allen Ishida said. "For most farmers it isn't worth reporting because it is so difficult to trace."

One man said he had several gallons of pesticides and other chemicals stolen from his farm, some worth $500 to $600 per gallon. Chemical thefts represented the largest monetary loss to farmers next to stolen tractors. In 2003, chemical theft cases cost the farmer an average of $6,000. In 2004, the average cost dropped to less than $3,000. Sgt. Ric Yorke with the Kern County Sheriff's Office said many ag crimes are committed at one end of the valley and the items sold at the other. "They are very organized and have no respect for county boundaries," he said. "We have chemical theft problem that is statewide."

Ed Needham, citrus manager of Paramount Farming, said criminals often steal chemicals in one county during the offseason and then sell them in another county with different seasons. "It is almost like they are filling orders," he said. "The value of the land they cover is far greater than the cost of the program."

Sgt. Greg Galarte with the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, said prior to the Ag Crimes program he would have to go through dispatch to check with officers in other counties. Now he calls other ag crimes unit deputies direct. He also said his unit has a workable caseload because it is not buried under piles of 300-400 general cases.

"Without this program the criminals win," Sgt. Greg Galarte with the Fresno County Sheriff's Office said. "With it, we are almost on an even playing field."

OANs

All counties, including the Tulare County Ag Crimes Unit, are pushing their Owner Applied Number (OAN). OANs can be used for the protection of equipment, vehicles, and other valuables. This system can be entered into its own specific field in both California Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) records. The set of additional identification numbers are placed on vehicles, equipment or other valuables as a supplemental means of identification to the manufacturer's factory I.D. numbers.

OANs are usually hand stamped on heavy equipment and will not generally be as large or precise as those applied by the manufacturer. The OANs are most often stamped using one-eighth of an inch or one-quarter of an inch high letters and numbers. In California, the OAN I.D. system uses a 10 digit coded number which is issued by the Sheriff's Department and is recommended for business, industry and agriculture. Currently only 3.9% of farms in Tulare County and about 2.2% in the eight-county area are stamped with OANs.

The OAN System is composed of 10 characters, which identify the state, county and business. The coded identification number allows local law enforcement to identify stolen property and contact the owner. OANs are stamped in several locations on heavy equipment and may be affixed by metal die stamps, indelible ink, branding iron or electric pencils. Be alert for any number that appears to have been secondarily applied to the equipment being examined. OANs are used and approved by the sheriff's offices, CHP and farm bureaus in the Task Force's eight-county coverage area.

For more information on the OAN program call the Tulare County Sheriff's Department at 733-6218 or visit the Ag Crimes Unit website at www.agcrime.net.

Technology

On Jan. 8, 2004, Jerry George Baker, 57, was the first cattle rustler to be sentenced in a case using bovine DNA as evidence. Baker was convicted of 11 counts of grand theft of cattle, one count of forgery, and one count of altering a brand by Tulare County Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalashian following a five-day jury trial. The conviction broke an organized ag crime ring

The case began on July 25, 2001, when a state brand inspector discovered a cow with an odd looking brand. The "dH" brand appeared to have been altered from a "dh" brand of a well known local rancher. The cow had been consigned for sale by Baker, but because the brand appeared to be unusual, the inspector requested back-up papers from Baker to demonstrate proof of ownership. On Aug. 1, 2002, Baker faxed an invoice to the sales yard, claiming that it was the invoice for that particular cow. However, when the fax was matched by the sales yard to the original invoice from 1996, it was discovered that Baker had forged a portion of the faxed invoice to reflect a "dH" brand, when it was originally and "L" brand.

On Aug. 8, 2001, the Beresford Corporation discovered one of their cows on Baker's property. Members of the Task Force, together with State Brand Inspectors, went to Baker's ranch on Aug. 15, 2001 to inventory his herd and found another 14 head of cattle were seized from the Shiloh Ranch. But the cattle had been missing various lengths of time from early 1998 to the summer of 1999.

In order to determine the length of time these cattle had been on the Baker ranch, State Brand Inspectors took DNA samples from Baker's bull and one of the cows seized from his ranch.

A laboratory at California State University in Davis analyzed the DNA samples. The samples matched, proving conclusively that Baker's bull had impregnated John Rodger's cow with that calf, demonstrating that the cow had been on Baker's ranch for at least 15 months prior to its discovery in August 2001.

"These are sophisticated criminals," Cline said. "Something like using DNA would not have even been considered before this program."

Funding

Tulare County received $692,625 of the program's $3.34 million in 2004, second only to Fresno's $792,625. Eighty-two percent of the total amount was spent on salaries and benefits for 28 sworn officers and 11 prosecutors. Recoveries for the eight-county area totaled $3.8 million and losses about $9.6 million.

"An ordinary, trained deputy will not have a clue of how to find a stolen calf. This is not the same as general police work and never will be the same," Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce said. "In the absence of this funding, we will not be able to divert officers from meth and other threats."

Cline suggested the state use some of the $900 million California has received in Homeland Security funds. According to the Legislative Analyst's Office, the state has only spent about 35% of that money.

Poochigian said his urban counterparts have a hard time appreciating the seriousness of ag crimes. He argues that agriculture contributes more than $100 billion to the nation's economy and that California is the nation's No. 1 producer of agriculture products.

"When they start paying $4 for an orange that is where the effects will be felt," Tulare County District 3 Supervisor Phil Cox said during the public comment period. "I think the only thing missing is a 2% annual [increase in funding]."

Task Force President Mary Beth Hash said the major difference between urban and rural crime is that urban crime is generally personal property, whereas rural crime is often stealing from someone's business, their livelihood. She gave the example of stealing a DVD player versus stealing from a farm. "If I lose my DVD player that is an inconvenience. If they steal something from my business, my livelihood, that is much more serious."

Another example was given that stealing something as seemingly insignificant as ladders can cause a ripple effect of lost productivity. If the ladders are stolen in the middle of the night, then the crew that shows up in the morning to harvest has to wait until the farmer can go buy more ladders and bring them back. This pushes back the timeline for the truck drivers to take the crop to the packing house, the packers to box the crop and then the shippers idling to deliver the crop. Now all aspects of the industry are on standby because someone decided to steal a few ladders.

Poochigian, along with local senators Roy Ashburn and Dean Florez and Assembly members Bill Maze, Nicole Parra and Michael Villines, has introduced SB 435 at the state level to try and restore full funding ($3.5 million annually) and eliminate the statutory sunset of the program. Without the additional funding and manpower, law enforcement officials such as Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman argue that they will be unable to protect the more than 3,500 miles of county roads where the most valuable ag land in the world lies and supports 30% of all jobs in the Central Valley.

"I've lived in Tulare County all my life," Wittman said. "I grew up and lived on a farm and saw first hand the struggle to keep the family farm. When you consider how quickly a few professional pickers can wipe out the interior of a 40-acre field, it can put a stop to small farms real quick. Without this, we don't have the resources to continue this program on our own and that will have a major impact on the whole San Joaquin Valley."

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