Heavy lifting: Legislators join rural crime detectives to fight metal theft

Issue Date: April 18, 2007
Christine Souza

Metal theft has become the hottest and fastest-growing segment of crime impacting agriculture in California. Practically everything containing recyclable metals has been stolen from farms and ranches, including copper wire used to operate irrigation pumps, stainless steel tanks at dairies, aluminum irrigation pipes and brass valves.

The situation is so serious that Assemblymember Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, at the request of the California Farm Bureau Federation, has introduced Assembly Bill 844 to address the problem. AB 844 will require recyclers to pay by check with the payment being held for 10 days from the date of purchase. It will also require recyclers to either take a photo or video of the seller and the metal they've brought in and keep it for two years like the rest of their records, or they can tag and hold the metal they buy for 15 days from the date of purchase.

The bill has been referred to the Assembly Business and Professions Committee and is scheduled to be heard on April 24.

"Our members are seeing huge losses due to metal theft. We felt that the best way to address the issue was to reduce the market for stolen property by working with scrap metal recyclers to change payment methods and improve identification methods," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF director of natural resources and commodities.

Farmers are feeling the brunt of these losses, which frequently result in damaged crops and delayed field work.

"Metal theft has become an epidemic," said San Joaquin County grower Paul Gomes. "I replaced the wire in one pump on a Monday and when my electrician came back to that same area to replace the wire on another pump on Wednesday, the first one had already been stripped again. I lost crops last year because I couldn't get water to them and I'm alreadybehind schedule this year. I've taken the extra precautions of hiring security to patrol the farm, our sheriff's department has dedicated extra deputies to work these cases and we're still being hit. Something has to be done to put a stop to this."

Frustrated by the rapidly increasing incidents of metal theft, Central Valley sheriff's department detectives last summer launched various sting operations designed to send a message to both buyers and sellers of stolen metal.

Called "Operation Heavy Metal," a three-month investigation by Ag Task Force detectives at the Fresno County Sheriff's Office, focused primarily on thefts of copper wire. By sitting outside local scrap yards and questioning recyclers and sellers, detectives delivered a clear message to criminals.

"We made over 60 arrests, whether the subjects had warrants, were in possession of stolen property or were unlicensed. If we could prove that the metal was stolen, then we went for that. We took their vehicles if we could and we did probation searches and parole searches," said Laura Eaton, a task force detective.

Fresno leads the Central Valley as the county with the highest number of metal thefts, with copper wire being the most sought-after metal in all counties, law enforcement officials say.

"Nearly all of our cases involved copper wire. Normally we start seeing diesel fuel and chemical thefts, but we were just getting inundated with wire theft cases," Eaton said. "The crooks figured out that this is a very quick, easy way to make money. They have a legitimate outlet to go to, to offload their property and a number of metal yards to choose from."

In 2005, Fresno County reported 64 copper wire theft cases. By the end of 2006, that figure skyrocketed to 281 cases. Metals stolen in the county during 2006 is valued at more than $1.1 million, according to information from the Agricultural Crime Technology Information and Operations Network Project. ACTION is a multi-agency law enforcement program specializing in rural crime prevention operated by the Tulare County District Attorney's Office. The program began in 2000 with four Central Valley counties. Over the years, nine additional counties have joined the program.

ACTION's Ag Crime database shows an alarming trend that in 2006, theft of metal from farms and ranches in the 13 counties that report rural crime statistics to ACTION increased by 400 percent from the previous year. The total loss due to metal thefts for ACTION counties during 2006 reached almost $6.2 million.

Due to the increased number of metal thefts, many of the state's sheriff's departments have conducted their own versions of Operation Heavy Metal to not only "sting" recyclers who purchase stolen metals, but also to catch those attempting to sell stolen metal.

By the end of Operation Heavy Metal, rural crime investigators served scrap yard owners with letters reminding them of the business and profession codes and any county ordinances applicable to junk dealer licensing.

Tulare County, which has had some of the highest incidences of metal theft, also took part in the three-month investigation. The county's ag crimes unit cited 57 people for a variety of charges, and two recycle center owners went to jail for buying copper wire without proper licensing.

"All of our metal thefts occurred in rural areas and it mainly comes from irrigation pumps. But this problem is not just happening in Tulare County. Cities are getting hit, and this is a nationwide problem because of the high price of copper," said Sgt. Tom Sigley of Tulare County Sheriff's Department Ag Crimes Unit.

The price of copper, according to the latest figure provided by a local recycler in Fresno County, is up to $2.90 per pound. In 2006, the figure was up as high as $3.05 per pound.

The rural crime investigations unit for the Kern County Sheriff's Department noticed that 70 percent of its cases in 2006 involved metal thefts. Last year, metal thefts in Kern County resulted in losses of more than $1 million, according to information released by the ACTION Project.

"We are trying to attack this on the consumer end with the recyclers. That is where the stolen metal is going, so we've got to take the incentive away from them or at least keep them honest," said detective Gary Williams of the Kern County Sheriff's Department rural crime investigations unit. "As far as the criminals are concerned, I think if we start having a problem in a certain area, we can do some surveillance."

The Kern County investigation resulted in some criminal citations, but the problem still remains.

"It is a big cat and mouse game. These metal thieves are pretty ingenious, and what I'm finding is a lot of them are using someone else's information to sell the material," Williams said.

Last summer's action by county sheriff's investigators served as a temporary "band-aid" and not a fix. Both farmers and law enforcement officers are hoping that the Berryhill legislation will do much more to help alleviate the problem. Once the three-month Operation Heavy Metal concluded, rural crime detectives said they saw a resurgence of these thefts. ACTION Project Director and Supervising Attorney Bill Yoshimoto said county rural crime detectives are continuing to work together to fight the problem.

"We are trying to be uniform because we know that if we put the heat on in one county, these guys will just go to the next county, so we don't want them thinking they can gain some advantage by doing that," Yoshimoto said. To help detectives in the fight to eliminate metal thefts, growers are urged to report these crimes.

"When farmers discover that a crime has been committed, they need to call it in right then. I know they are busy, but if they wait two or three days, it is that much less that we might find at the scene," Sigley said.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for 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.