Detectives talk about preventing large crop thefts


Issue Date: May 22, 2013
By Christine Souza
Butte County Sheriff’s Detective Matt Calkins, right, talks with farmer Ryan Schohr of Gridley following a meeting in Chico aimed at reducing large-scale thefts of nuts and other agricultural cargo.
Photo/Christine Souza

Detectives call it a "fictitious pickup," and it's becoming more of a concern for people in the nut business: An entire truckload of processed nuts is picked up by a trucking company that has been secured through a broker—but the nuts never reach the end buyer.

With the nut harvest just a few months away, farmers and employees responsible for cargo shipments gathered in Chico last week at a meeting organized by the Butte County Sheriff's Department and the Butte County Farm Bureau. There, they learned how to improve shipping procedures to avoid being victimized by cargo theft.

"The FBI estimates that cargo theft nationwide is an anywhere from $15 billion to $30 billion a year industry, so we're talking significant losses of every different type and it is not just agricultural," Butte County Sheriff's Detective Matt Calkins said. "For the type of cargo theft that we investigated, there's no doubt about it: It's organized crime."

Butte County sheriff's detectives described their investigation of the theft early this year of a truckload of $200,000 worth of processed walnuts from a Biggs nut company. The company told detectives the walnuts were picked up by a trucking company that had been secured through a broker, but the nuts were never delivered to the buyer.

"What was happening in our case and in several cases throughout the North State is logistics companies—people posing as trucking companies—would fill out fraudulent paperwork," Butte County Sheriff's Detective Pat McNelis said. "The people answering the phones are criminals. They pretend to be a normal business, talk to the broker and everything appears normal. They are then dispatched, and will pick up a load, whether it is almonds, alcohol or electronics. Once they pick up the load, they turn off the phones, and the truck and the load disappear."

After detectives learned more about the Biggs case and other area thefts, they said they realized these were not ordinary thefts. Numerous loads of different types of processed and unprocessed nuts were reported stolen last year from throughout the state's growing and processing regions.

"They doctor up insurance paperwork and company paperwork, and most of the time they steal the identity of a legitimate trucking company and pose as that trucking company when they come to pick up the load. So it is difficult to know that they are supplying fraudulent information when they come pick up a load," Calkins said.

The investigation led detectives to Southern California, where in March, search warrants were served and evidence was seized. Detectives described the Biggs theft as one of several allegedly committed by the same group of people. The investigation continues.

Farther south in Tulare County, detectives investigated a theft in April of a truckload of 40,000 pounds of pistachios worth an estimated $189,000. Information led detectives to a farmers market in Los Angeles, where six pallets of the pistachios were recovered and six people arrested.

Last fall, a Tehama County sheriff's detective reported that at least two Northern California walnut companies were victimized by thefts of truckloads of walnuts—valued at several hundred thousand dollars—from contracted freight carriers presenting proper credentials.

"The best way to prevent this type of crime is take an ink pad and when the driver comes in and gets his paperwork, ask the driver to give you a thumbprint or two thumbprints and place their thumbprint on the paperwork," McNelis said. "If the driver is not willing to do that or give you that information, there's a good chance that something is wrong. The thumbprint is highly recommended, because it will at least give you some way to identify them in the future."

Detectives provided the following warning signs when a truck comes to pick up a load: temporary name placards or ID numbers on the truck; poorly maintained equipment; abrupt changes in the date and time of the pickup; refusal of the driver to give ID or thumbprint; and lack of a GPS tracking system on the truck.

They also encouraged people to report all suspicious activity to law enforcement.

Cargo thefts have commanded the attention of nut growers and processors around the state.

"These issues seem to be growing in terms of the number of occurrences, so I think the idea is we all need to become more aware of what we can do to protect ourselves," said Kiran Black, marketing manager of Sacramento Valley Walnut Growers in Yuba City.

Bill Carriere, president of Carriere Family Farms in Glenn, a producer, processor, buyer and marketer of walnuts, said he is implementing a companywide security plan, from installing fences and gates to knowing his truck drivers.

"We've haven't had too many issues, including things that have been stolen from an orchard. And we don't use truck brokers. We have stuck with one specific company," Carriere said.

Carriere added that his company copies driver's licenses and takes photos of all of the truck drivers.

In Hughson, Raquel Andrade, quality assurance manager for Hughson Nut Co., said the company experienced theft of two truckloads of almonds last year, valued at $189,000. As a result, the company enhanced its security.

"After the incidents, we upgraded our security and surveillance system with a better-quality picture. We were already getting truck and trailer licenses, but after the incident we started to get copies of driver's licenses," Andrade said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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