Metal thieves converge on Patterson farms


Issue Date: January 9, 2008
Christine Souza

Patterson grower Dave Santos of Lucich/Santos Farms switched over to plastic irrigation ­fittings after thieves stole the brass ones that were likely sold to a scrap yard for cash.

Patterson farmer Mike Lara stands at the scene of the crime—at his pump station along the Delta Mendota Canal where thieves rammed the junction box for his irrigation pump, ripped off the power meter and stripped the copper wiring, leaving live electrical wires exposed and several thousand dollars worth of damages.

It was another case of metal theft on agricultural lands, a crime spree of growing proportions that spares no county in California.

"I have a computerized variable-speed electric submersible pump that cost $25,000 to install. The first time it was hit it cost about $6,000 to repair and the second time I didn't replace it, I put in diesel. I'm done messing with this stuff," Lara said. "We took many precautionary measures to prevent the theft from happening again and they still stripped the wires. They rammed it with a pickup or something."

Like Lara, other growers who farm along the Delta Mendota Canal reported thousands of dollars worth of losses during 2007 due to metal theft.

"Thieves are stealing everything that they can possibly steal, anything that has value to be recycled. We've had our pumps hit twice in the last year where they disconnected the wires and cut them from the poles and everything. They back up with a vehicle and hook the wires up to the vehicle and rip the wires out," said Dave Santos of Lucich/Santos Farms in Patterson. "They've done about $10,000 worth of damage this year (2007) at my farm."

As a result of the continuous metal thefts, to cover the cost of the repairs Santos insured all of his pumps and wires so the next time a pump is damaged and wire stolen, it will cost him a $1,000 deductible plus the premium.

Neighboring apricot grower Gene Bays said thieves have targeted his farm for metal on multiple occasions.

"This hurts our operation because you go to start the water and there are no wires," Bays said. "After one pump was ripped out, we repaired it by 5 o'clock in the afternoon and the next morning at 6 o'clock it was gone again."

George Bonacich farms apricots in Stanislaus and San Benito counties and is president of the San Benito County Farm Bureau. Brass fittings disappeared from his Patterson farm along the Delta Mendota.

"On our place, thieves stole brass fittings by breaking them off. The people that started the water to irrigate didn't see any pressure so they went out and checked and there were the pipes broken with the brass valves missing," Bonacich said. "I haven't got the exact figures on how much we've lost, but it was hard to get parts so we could start irrigating again."

The problem has been so bad in Patterson that some of the farmers banded together to hire a security guard to look out for suspicious activity.

"The security person was going around and watching things and apparently came across a vehicle that had some people in it. He asked them what they were doing and these people pulled a gun on him. He quit after that," Santos said.

One incident that could have had a serious impact on local farmers happened last spring when thieves stole electrical wiring from pump stations at the West Stanislaus Irrigation District.

"We were fortunate that we had a little bit of a rainy spell and were able to get the pump stations back on, but we have six pump stations, of which they hit four," said Ron Roos, West Stanislaus Irrigation District general manager. "We ended up paying something like $65,000 to get the wiring redone and after that I had to revamp the pump stations to make them more secure."

Although Roos located a company that got the district back online within two days, he was able to cover the pumps being down with an allotment of Delta Mendota water. The allotment is usually reserved for later in the year.

"The stories coming out of Patterson are really a snapshot of what's happening in farming communities around the state. Metal theft remains a common topic of conversation and the hardest hit areas just seem to rotate from one area to another," said Danielle Rau, California Farm Bureau Federation director of rural crime prevention. "The end result is the same and that is thousands of dollars in losses to the victims of these crimes and millions of dollars in losses to the industry as a whole."

Sgt. Keith Rakoncza of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Rural Crimes Unit said he is aware of the metal theft problem that farmers are experiencing in Patterson and says the department is working proactively to make arrests there as well as in other parts of the county.

The department has increased patrols and is working as part of the Central Valley Rural Crimes Task Force to find answers. As part of this task force, Rakoncza said detectives are able to exchange information about these agricultural crimes with about a dozen other counties. He asks that farmers report crimes as they occur so that detectives have the information they need to connect criminals to the crimes.

"The biggest issue is not knowing. If we don't know one farmer had five pumps of electrical wire stolen in a month we can't help him out," Rakoncza said.

Solving the metal theft problem in the state, Rakoncza said, lies with local ordinances and ultimately statewide legislation.

"Stanislaus County has implemented a new ordinance allowing us to get documentation from the recyclers themselves. We've made several arrests due to the new ordinance so it has helped us," Rakoncza said. "The recycler should be able to tell us who dropped off the metal including their driver's license number, a description of the vehicle and the license plate number."

A statewide legislative solution by Assemblymember Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, and sponsored by CFBF, failed last year after many hostile amendments were added to the bill, resulting in legislation that would have pre-empted all county ordinances and promoted metal theft by allowing cash payments to frequent sellers. The initial bill would have deterred metal thefts as well as help to catch those who commit the crime.

"We are not giving up. We are going to continue to work toward a legislative solution to the issue," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF director of natural resources and commodities. "We just need a statewide solution. Otherwise the crooks just figure out they should be recycling in counties without ordinances, but it doesn't stop them from stealing around the state."

After seeing the problems metal thieves have caused and the thousands of dollars that farmers have been forced to spend to make repairs, Bonacich said he is exasperated with the situation.

"This problem is widespread and getting worse," Bonacich said. "Before you used to lose sprinkler pipe and now they are going in breaking up things that are in operation. We've got to try and fix this problem."

Although it will be several months before dollar losses in 2007 from metal theft are calculated, the losses to farmers continue to escalate at an alarming rate and are estimated to be millions of dollars. In response, sheriff's departments statewide are adding more detectives, especially in the Central Valley.

(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.