Editor's note: The following article was published in the AgAlert, the weekly newspaper for California Agriculture that is created by the California Farm Bureau Federation.
As farmers around the state continue to be plagued by metal theft and other property crimes, a newly established task force in one Northern California county reports success in arresting suspects accused of metal theft and other crimes affecting farmers and ranchers.
Investigations during the past few months by the Yolo County Sheriff's Office Ag Theft Task Force have led to the arrests of 37 suspects for a variety of rural crimes, and to the recovery of $170,000 worth of stolen agricultural property.
For example, Ag Theft Task Force deputies Mike Glaser and Tommy Hayes solved seven hay theft cases in which the total value of stolen hay exceeded $20,000. Just last month, they broke up a hay theft ring that had been successfully operating in the county for two years.
Deputies Glaser and Hayes conducted an investigation leading to information that a farmer's employee was involved in allegedly stealing hay from the farm at which he was employed. As a result, three people were arrested and 550 bales of stolen hay, valued at about $8,500, were recovered and returned to Tim Heidrick, farm manager of Joe Heidrick Farms in Woodland.
"We had a harrow bed (bale wagon) operator who had been working for us for over 10 years. We had two fields in our rotation that were close to other buildings where he would sneak a load of hay bales in early morning or late afternoon," explained Heidrick, who also grows rice, wheat, corn, sunflowers, safflower and seed crops. "He was dropping our hay behind a house that was nearby—about 300 yards away from the field—and hiding it there. He was selling it to another foreman, who sold it to a hay retriever."
Heidrick said he is grateful to the Ag Theft Task Force for recovering his hay and solving the crime. Three individuals were arrested and charged with five counts of grand theft and embezzlement.
"The task force did a very good job. They worked the leads they had received and pursued this case until arrests could be made," Heidrick said.
With the use of GPS tracking devices and surveillance, the task force solved the hay thefts that were happening at Heidrick's and elsewhere in the county. In another case, Glaser said he told fellow deputies to "look for a truck and a trailer towing hay between 2 and 4 in the morning."
"Lo and behold, one of the deputies saw the truck and pulled them over and I got the call," Glaser said. "The suspect admitted to hitting places in the county 12 different times. He was selling hay in the Bay Area for $20 a bale."
Deputies stressed that it is important for farmers and ranchers to report crimes as soon as they occur on the farm or ranch.
"Farmers think that we don't have time to follow up on $2,000 in stolen wire. They write it off as being part of doing business. But if you are a victim of a theft, you need to report every single missing hay bale and case of stolen metal so that we can set up on these guys and catch them," Glaser said.
Yolo County Farm Bureau Executive Director Denise Sagara said an online reporting system set up for farmers in the county about 10 years ago had not been very effective. But after speaking to county officials recently, she said funds are available to upgrade the system.
"More people use email now than they did 10 years ago, so we think this time the online reporting can work really well," Sagara said. "We're making a push again, telling people to report everything that happens. Right now, people only report if they are going to make an insurance claim. If property has been reported stolen and deputies run across the stolen property, they will know who it should be returned to."
She said the county task force "has been exceptionally effective and had some really impressive results."
Sagara added that the Farm Bureau and Yolo County promote use of the Owner-Applied Number system that helps law enforcement quickly match up an OAN with the grower to whom it belongs. The OAN enables law enforcement agencies to pinpoint ID numbers within any state and county in the U.S., whether stolen equipment is found within the same county or across the country.
"It is important for farmers and ranchers to identify equipment and property with an OAN, and report crimes as they occur," Sagara said.
Ag Theft Task Force Capt. Larry Cecchettini said the sheriff's office is receiving positive feedback from farmers and ranchers regarding the new task force.
"Now that farmers see that people are going to jail and they are getting their equipment back, they are jazzed and are calling a lot more," Cecchettini said. "Plus, we're trying to make it more Internet-friendly, where they just fill out a few tidbits of information on the Internet and it comes straight to here and somebody gets on it."
For more information about rural crime prevention and the OAN program, see the California Farm Bureau Federation website at www.cfbf.com/ruralcrime/.