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Deputies assess trends as rural-crime reports slow

Issue Date: February 24, 2021
By Christine Souza
Tulare County farmer and rancher Ron Paregien says vandals dump trash on his land almost every week.
Photo/Courtesy Ron Paregien

Despite a recorded slowdown in reported agricultural crimes in some counties last year, farmers say thefts and illegal dumping continue to plague rural areas.

Ron Paregien, a cattle rancher and walnut grower in Tulare County, owns rangeland bisected by a county road.

"People cut fences and trespass, dump trash, graffiti our property, set it on fire and shoot our cattle," Paregien said. "We have no complaints with our sheriff office; it's the people that are doing this that we have a problem with."

There are no statewide statistics on agricultural crimes, but in some counties, sheriff's detectives with rural-crime units said fewer agricultural crimes were recorded in 2020. In some cases, that was because deputies were shifted to other duties; in other cases, they said, it could be because more people worked from home and criminals received federal stimulus checks.

Detective Don Stuhmer of the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office Agricultural Crimes Unit said its detectives were temporarily reassigned to patrol duties last year.

"Agricultural communities were still reaching out, but this past year, my phone has not rung nearly what it has in years past," said Stuhmer, president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force. "I don't know if that's because of the pandemic or due to me turning people away due to being on a patrol function."

Sgt. Rob Dutrow of the Fresno County Sheriff's Department Ag Task Force said reported agricultural crimes in that county dropped by half last year.

"In 2019, almost 467 cases came through my office and last year, we had 237," Dutrow said, adding that the value of agricultural vehicle losses declined from $1.3 million in 2019 to $671,000 in 2020.

In San Joaquin County, Stuhmer said, losses for some crimes, such as tractor and forklift thefts, spiked. The county experienced more tractor and forklift thefts in 2020 than it had in the three prior years combined, he said, with thieves selling stolen equipment through online platforms.

Detectives also warn that cargo theft remains a concern. This crime involves organized rings of thieves who use false information and paperwork to steal truckloads of nuts and other commodities.

Richard Matoian, president of American Pistachio Growers, said a Kern County pistachio processor fell victim a few months ago to a cargo theft of a semi-truck and trailer containing $200,000 worth of nuts. The required documentation appeared legitimate, Matoian said, but when the load did not arrive at its intended destination, law enforcement was alerted. An investigation by the Kern County Sheriff's Office led to the truck being stopped on Interstate 5 and the arrests of two men.

"I don't think these types of schemes are going to stop," Matoian said. "The people that perpetrate these crimes are getting better and better at all the documentation that is being looked at and following through to a higher level."

With the price of copper on the rise, Stuhmer said he expects to see an increase in metal thefts, even with a statewide law intended to make it more difficult for thieves to cash in stolen metals. He said detectives "need to focus some attention" on metal recyclers to make sure they're properly documenting transactions.

Illegal dumping has been an increasing problem for Paregien and his fellow farmers.

"We have piles of trash dumped on our property," he said. "If you want it gone, you have to haul it to the dump yourself and pay to dump it."

Due to COVID-19, Paregien said, the county's inmate work crews that clean dump sites have been reduced from seven crews to two.

California Farm Bureau policy advocate Katie Little said a bill introduced last week by California Assemblymember Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, would increase fines for illegal dumping.

"This has obviously been a problem for farmers and ranchers for many years, and we're working with the Legislature to find solutions," Little said.

When it comes to prevention of agricultural crimes, Paregien said he and other farmers feel helpless.

"There's nothing you can do," he said. "You can't be there 24 hours a day and the sheriff can't be there 24 hours a day."

Regardless, Stuhmer said, farmers and ranchers who are victims of agricultural crimes must report the incidents to law enforcement.

"If we don't know about it, we can't do anything about it," Stuhmer said. "Most of us are pretty flexible. We'll rotate our hours or work specific areas. It can be a text message, email, social media—one way or another, get ahold of us and let us know what is going on."

To prevent crimes and catch suspects, agricultural crime units deploy tools such as GPS trackers, bait equipment and cameras. Detectives emphasize that farmers can harden their properties by adding a V-ditch around the property, locking gates and installing lighting and cameras.

Detectives also recommend marking equipment with an owner-applied number, or OAN. Through the OAN program, farmers can have tools and equipment marked with an identification number that, when checked against a national database, will connect recovered property with the rightful owner. Most sheriff's departments will issue a farmer with a California OAN and stamp equipment for free.

"We want those numbers out there so we can identify recovered equipment," Stuhmer said. "We are always pulling our hair out when we know it is stolen and we can't prove it, because we don't have any identifying marks."

He said San Joaquin County hopes to add use of SmartWater, a chemically coded, colorless liquid that can be applied as an identifier to equipment and property. The liquid fluoresces under ultraviolet light and transfers onto skin and clothing. Deputies say this technology, already deployed in a number of areas, serves as a secondary identifier if thieves grind off identification and OAN numbers.

(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.




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