Farmers, deputies see increase in metal theft

Issue Date: July 7, 2010
Christine Souza

A San Joaquin County probation officer and a sheriff's deputy arrest two Manteca men on outstanding warrants. The men were among 13 known metal thieves taken into custody during probation searches conducted last month by a task force of law enforcement officers from throughout the county.

After a significant lull in metal theft following passage of statewide legislation to deter it, rural crime detectives report that theft of metal and copper wire is on the rise again.


Farmer Dick Emigh of Rio Vista knows about that firsthand. Emigh, who has been targeted by metal thieves in the past, was hit again recently when thieves took 20 yards’ worth of copper wire from the control box to his well.

“We have this domestic livestock well 150 yards from the county road. We were doing some work in the field and that weekend thieves drove in and ripped all of the wire they could get out of it, which was substantial,” Emigh said. “I’m assuming the bill for repairs will be in excess of $1,000, even though they probably only got $20 worth of wire out of it.”

Resident Deputy Sheriff Jim Currie of the Solano County Sheriff’s Office reported that incidents of metal theft seem to be picking up in Rio Vista.

“We’ve got some things in place to help step up our surveillance, but like other agencies, we’ve cut back on people and patrol time. Our sheriff is addressing that right now, but it has been rough with the budget situation the way it is,” Currie said.

Over the years, California farmers and ranchers have experienced metal thefts ranging from copper wire and stainless steel dairy tanks, to steel irrigation pipes and brass sprinkler heads. Metal theft also made its way into urban communities, resulting in the loss of highway guardrails, copper from street lights and even public statues. This led to the passage of the statewide metal theft bill in 2008, with a goal of making it more difficult for thieves to cash in stolen metal.

John "Bubba" Nelson, a warehouse manager at Ferguson Enterprises Inc. in Stockton, has his thumbprint recorded before recycling scrap metal at Sims Metal Management in Stockton.

Under the law, recyclers must observe a three-day waiting period before paying for scrap metal; they are required to take a picture of material being recycled, obtain current identification and a thumbprint from sellers, obtain a disclosure of the origin of the scrap metal and provide monthly reports to local law enforcement. The law increases penalties against recyclers found in violation of its provisions and requires convicted metal thieves to pay restitution to victims of metal theft.

San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Task Force Sgt. John Hamilton and Deputy Louis Victoria check with Armando Salgado, operations manager for Sims Metal Management in Stockton, to discuss how the statewide metal theft law affects his business.

Sgt. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crimes Investigation Unit said he believes the statewide law is effective, but that some recycling centers have not been playing by the rules.

“The problem we have seen is scrap yard locations are not following the law,” Reed said. “As we find those locations, we’re taking action. We recently arrested several subjects operating a yard not following any laws.”

Sgt. John Hamilton of the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crime Task Force said it’s too early to gauge the long-term impact of the new law, but he thinks it has deterred metal thieves “because they know they don’t get their money right away.”

“Since October 2009 when I arrived in the unit, I noticed that metal theft has stayed at a steady level. However, recent reports indicate that metal theft in general has gone up,” Hamilton said. “Thieves are taking items like farm implements, grape stakes and bundles of wire used for barbed wire fences.”

He noted that the value of metal has increased. According to the New York Mercantile Exchange, the price of copper now stands at about $3.70 a pound, up 30 cents since March. And as the farming season gets busier, Hamilton said, so do the metal thieves.

“Despite the pressures of the poor economy and increased prices for scrap metal, the new law has helped keep metal theft in check,” said Noelle Cremers, California Farm Bureau Federation director of natural resources and commodities. “I think it’s realistic to assume the new law has significantly helped to prevent thefts from increasing further.”

In late June, Hamilton led a multi-agency law enforcement task force on a probation sweep of about 60 known metal thieves in San Joaquin County. The task force made 13 arrests and issued two citations for a variety of charges, including violation of probation, possession of illegal weapons, possession of narcotics, a warrant for burglary and resisting arrest.

To stay on top of action by thieves, the county sheriff’s Rural Crime Task Force works closely with local recyclers, including Sims Metal Management in Stockton.

“We’ve made friendships with a lot of the recyclers in the county. We’re also building an Internet partnership with recyclers, so that we can let them know when we have a big theft and they let us know when they get something suspicious,” Hamilton said.

“We do the three-day wait and that impacts the persons from receiving monies right away, and we issue a check for payment,” said Armando Salgado, operations manager for Sims Metal Management. “At first this was not well-taken, but if they are going to do business here they have to abide by our policies. That is what the law states and that’s what we go by.”

Sims customer John “Bubba” Nelson, warehouse manager at Ferguson Enterprises Inc. in Stockton, said the California requirements for recycling metal are no problem for the plumbing-supply company.

“I fully support the strict requirements that have been put in place to separate the legitimate customers from the thieves. I never really thought of the statewide guidelines as hoops or inconveniences,” Nelson said.

Cremers said Farm Bureau encourages active enforcement of the law.

“When Farm Bureau sponsored the statewide legislation to crack down on metal theft with Assembly Member Tom Berryhill, we knew it was only part of the solution. Enforcement of the requirements is now the most important priority to solve the problem,” she said. “I commend the sheriff’s departments that have made metal theft enforcement a priority and built relationships with recyclers in their communities, because it’s these efforts that will help reduce metal theft.”

Preventing metal theft

The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crime Task Force offers the following tips for farmers and ranchers to prevent metal theft:

  • Make a note of suspicious vehicles or people and send the information to the local sheriff’s office. Detectives may be able to identify a pattern of similar crimes happening in the area and they will know where to dedicate their resources.
  • Periodically check equipment you may not be using, such as irrigation pumps. As a deterrent, some growers insert liquid foam between the conduit and the wire of panel boxes to make it more difficult for thieves to remove. Avoid making equipment easily accessible.
  • To prevent thefts, whether irrigation supplies or farm equipment, lock up property and keep it out of sight. Do not leave property in plain view such as on the side of a shop. Put it inside the shop. Install flood lighting wherever possible.
  • Paint irrigation equipment such as aluminum pipes and brass valves bright colors—hot pink, yellow or orange. The paint serves as an indicator when the thief tries to sell the metal to a recycler. Be sure to paint along the length of each pipe so the color remains after the thief cuts the pipe into pieces.
  • For larger pieces of metal, use the Owner Applied Number crime prevention program. Many rural crime deputies will stamp equipment for those who have signed up for the OAN program.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.