Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 29
The rural jurisdictionFacing unique challenges, Santa Barbara County seeks to make inroads in fighting crime against farmers and ranchers
BY JEREMY THOMAS
Navigating his dusty pickup truck along the winding highways and washboard byways in some of the county’s most remote backcountry, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Deputy John McCarthy certainly gets around.
It’s all part of the job. As the only full-time deputy manning the department’s Rural Crime Unit, McCarthy is tasked with tackling the county’s breadth of agricultural crimes, from Nipomo to Carpinteria, from Lompoc to Cuyama.
Though he’s not completely alone (he has several deputies who split time from their urban duties to help out), he often goes solo on patrols. The constant stream of calls, investigations, and follow-ups keep him plenty busy, but he says there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
“Farmers and ranchers are hard-working, honest people,” he explains, waving at a field worker busy with the morning’s harvest. “When somebody targets them and they become a victim of a crime, I take it personally. I’ll bend over backwards to make sure I do an investigation as thorough as I can. Plus, I get to drive out to the country.”
And drive he does. On a typical workday—which begins at the Santa Maria substation around 5 a.m.—if he’s not on a call or on an active case, he’s out on patrol. Some days he logs as many as 200 miles in his unmarked pickup, which he purposely leaves dirty to blend in with the surroundings.
“It’s like any other detective unit,” he says. “I can drive around the farms and ranches and nobody really pays much attention to me. Sometimes they’ll look at me and wave, but from a distance, I’m just another farm vehicle.”
A country boy at heart, McCarthy loves what he does; the best part, he says, is working with the local agriculture community. Over the 14 years he’s been with the unit, he’s built up a healthy working relationship with local farmers, ranchers, and wineries.
When he’s out and about, he never knows what he’ll encounter next; some stories border on the bizarre. Once in Lompoc, he tracked down a group of European mushroom poachers who were working their way up and down the coast, trespassing on ranches to harvest prized Chanterelles. On another occasion, he was out on night patrol hunting for equipment thieves, when he came across three camouflaged men. They happened to be in the process of re-supplying a large marijuana grow operation in the mountains.
More recently, McCarthy was instrumental in breaking up an alleged fuel theft ring. Authorities on Sept. 5 arrested four men from Nipomo and Santa Maria who are suspected of committing 17 separate fuel burglaries at farms and ranches in the Santa Maria Valley.
Investigators believe the group either siphoned fuel from the farms’ gas tanks or cut the locks to storage tanks, pumping the gas into large containers and storing them at a local ranch. Authorities estimate the group made off with 350 gallons of fuel before being caught.
Earlier this year, McCarthy noticed a rash of fuel thefts and e-mailed fellow deputies, asking for extra patrols in the area. In June, one deputy interrupted a burglary in progress. The suspect fled, but left his truck behind.
“From there we figured out who he was, and it totally unraveled from there,” McCarthy explains. “It was good police work on that deputy’s part. He hit the areas that had been targeted in the past and happened to be there at the right time.”
‘A lucrative business’
The Rural Crime Unit isn’t always so lucky. McCarthy, unique in law enforcement in that he pulls double-duty as a detective, oftentimes has only the occasional boot print or tire track to go on.
“I have to rely a lot on physical evidence,” he said. “In certain cases, where I have a whole bunch of crimes going on in a certain area, I can start putting the same shoes, the same tires, the same M.O., then once we do catch them, I can lump [multiple cases] onto a certain group.”
Complicating matters in catching rural criminals is the isolation factor, according to Chris Wadkins, past president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, a statewide nonprofit.
“We usually end up with not a lot of leads, because there’s no neighboring businesses with surveillance cameras, no witnesses, that type of thing,” Wadkins said.
In Santa Barbara County, crop and cattle rustling are rarities, though every once in a while, McCarthy will come across a cow or wild pig mysteriously slaughtered, with the prime cuts of meat taken. Trespassing and poaching are year-round issues, especially during hunting season.
Theft is an ongoing problem. Thieves regularly make off with tractors and other farm implements, irrigation equipment, fertilizers, pumps, generators, aluminum tent poles, and even port-o-potties.
“You name it on a farm, it gets stolen,” McCarthy said.
The county’s breakdown of rural crime isn’t unique, said Wadkins, who’s one of only two deputies in San Bernardino County covering 24,000 square miles of rural land. Jurisdictions everywhere are seeing a spike in fuel thefts since the start of the year, corresponding with rising gas prices. There’s also been a surge in heavy equipment thefts; metal theft, too, remains consistently high.
“The majority of what they’re stealing is copper items; lots of wire, stem valves, and backflow valves, that type of stuff,” Wadkins said. “It usually pays the highest, and it’s so accessible. They’re having that problem everywhere.”
Since 2009, the market for copper has more than doubled, from $1.50 to about $3.70 per pound. The upswing has propelled copper theft into a very lucrative business indeed; in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase statewide in scrap metal theft from farmers, utility companies, and construction.
According to McCarthy, thieves will typically, under cover of darkness, yank copper wires from the ground, driving off with rolls of the semi-precious metal. After pilfering it, they generally strip off the rubber insulation and cut it into smaller pieces to make identifying the source nearly impossible.
“A lot of the farms and ranches get hit because they’re out in the boonies,” McCarthy explained. “It’s dark at night, nobody sees them coming on the ranch or the property, and then they have a tendency to do a lot of damage when they’re pulling out the copper wire from the ground.”
Oftentimes, the wires are attached to irrigation pumps, and if the pumps are in use, they can short out, causing thousands of dollars in damage and flooding fields.
“That puts a huge financial impact on the farmer, plus on the commodity market itself,” McCarthy said.
According to Richard Quandt, president of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County, metal theft has become a common issue for local farmers, especially those with more open, isolated fields.
“The copper theft has to do more with the irrigation pipes and the heads on the sprinklers,” Quandt said. “You see the sprinkler sets out laying down on these fields and they’re totally open and exposed.”
State lawmakers have taken notice of the problem. A slew of bills have cropped up in recent years intended to deter scrap metal theft. In 2007, when he was a state senator, congressional candidate, and farmer, Abel Maldonado introduced SB 447, which required junk dealers to report the seller’s ID and fingerprints along their receipts to local law enforcement agencies within 24 hours, similar to regulations on pawnshops. The bill became law and took effect in 2009.
Other recent laws further tightened restrictions. One introduced in 2008 prohibited scrap dealers from receiving payment for nonferrous material—copper, brass, aluminum, and stainless steel—for three days. And earlier this year, legislators brought forth two related bills that would impose $3,000 fines on dealers found possessing fire hydrants, fire department connections, or backflow devices without a written certification from an agency or utility owner.
Hugh Bedford, owner of Santa Maria recycling center Bedford Enterprises, said while the tighter restrictions have been burdensome at times, he feels they’re a positive step for the industry.
“We just try to work with the police and sheriff, and if we can help them, great,” Bedford said. “If what we have to do keeps the bad guys out of here, then that’s fine with me.”
In addition to the standard ID check, Bedford has security cameras installed in his yard, and every sales ticket has a time and a date stamp and a photo matching the material. In the past, he’s had to call authorities in for an arrest, and though he’s never knowingly purchased stolen metal, his suspicions are occasionally aroused.
“Sometimes I’ll even ask them, ‘Is this on the up and up? Is this stolen?’ You try to embarrass them a little bit,” he said. “If they get offended and leave then you don’t want their material anyway.”
The less-than-reputable scrap yards, and the laws stemming from them, have proven “probably pretty negative” for business, Bedford admits. While he said the state’s restrictions don’t have much impact on legit operations like his, he takes issue with the required holding period.
“It’s such a volatile market with copper,” he explained. “Sometimes if you can’t move that material overnight and get it to market, then you’re losing money if the market drops. That’s the only thing that’s unfair.”
Mike Murphy is the owner of Murphy Salvage Yard in Nipomo. Now 61, he started scrapping when he was just a boy. Recently, after his demolition work dried up, he started up again to make some extra money.
Murphy said he buys from contractors, as opposed to private individuals, and most times, the transactions go smoothly. However, “dubious people” do come in with material from time to time.
“You know when to stay away from it,” Murphy said. “If they’re not willing to give up an ID, if they don’t want you taking down their license number … I’m always suspicious of it. I’ll ask people straight outright, ‘Hey if this is stolen, I don’t want it.’”
Murphy acknowledged there are some salvage companies with questionable business ethics, but said he doesn’t believe further legislation will improve matters.
“The laws pertaining are pretty adequate in terms of penalties for doing this type of behavior,” he said. “If you keep adding more and more legislation to it and more paperwork, it just becomes more burdensome.”
During the three-day holding period, law enforcement can check to see if the material has been reported stolen. From all indications, the metal stolen in the area isn’t turning up in local yards. Instead, investigators say, it ends up at unregulated or un-permitted scrap yards proliferating in the Los Angeles area.
“They’ll go down the path of least resistance,” Rural Crime Prevention Task Force’s Wadkins said. “We’ve got a lot of backyard operations or mom-and-pop places that just come up for a month or two and aren’t in compliance. … We’re even seeing connections with scrap yards. They go in after hours and black market it. It’s an ongoing battle.”
Whenever metal is reported stolen, Santa Barbara County’s McCarthy scours the recycling centers. McCarthy says thieves are familiar with which companies are willing to bend the rules, and they take the material out of the area, where it’s harder to track.
“Law enforcement will check the businesses, and they’re all doing what they’re supposed to do, but it’s the underground markets in L.A. and the big cities where it’s hard for us to get access to,” he explained. “By the time they take it somewhere, we’ve moved on to other things.”
Share and share alike
Because of the nature of the work, investigators say communication is key to solving rural crime. Most counties in the state have some type of grant-funded unit focused on the issue, and to keep everyone on the same page, the Rural Crime Prevention Task Force holds quarterly meetings for deputies from around the state to get together to discuss cases and share leads. Ranchers, farmers, and cattlemen are also welcome.
According to Wadkins, many pending cases get solved at the meetings. At each one, the task force also puts on all-day training for deputies in areas like metal theft, livestock, agriculture, and heavy equipment, where Wadkins said deputies learn all the skills necessary to effectively prevent crime in rural areas. The group also holds an annual weeklong rural crimes school, teaching a variety of subjects.
McCarthy, who sits on the task force’s board of directors, attends the quarterly meetings regularly and finds them essential to the collaborative effort.
“It’s a great time to sit down with your counterparts across the state and share ideas about what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes we share the same crooks, so we’re able to put our heads together, figure out what’s going on, and put a stop to it.”
Grower-Shipper Association President Quandt said he sees nothing but positive signs in the Task Force’s current strategies to combat rural crime.
“We appreciate the efforts of law enforcement to recognize that crime in the rural areas is different than in the urban areas, and it requires a different orientation and strategies,” Quandt said. “They do outreach to the farming community and try to develop relationships. People know who they are and who they can call. All those efforts are very welcome and well received by the farmers.”
As the county’s rural unit—and others like it—work shorthanded and cover a lot of ground, gathering enough evidence to prosecute thieves is difficult, unless they’re caught in the act or have the materials on them, authorities say.
Stolen farm equipment is generally taken to another local farm, moved out of the county, or shipped across the Mexican border. There’s no shared database available across counties, so investigators rely on word of mouth or tips through e-mails among various agencies.
The difficulties in tracking down suspects and stolen items make sustaining strong relationships with ranchers and farmers essential, McCarthy said.
As an example, he recalled a recent case where an organized crew from the L.A. area, suspected of ties to a Mexican gang, pilfered farm and construction equipment from local ranches. Through a tip from an area farmer, McCarthy was able to identify the suspects, arrest them, and later attribute 70 theft cases to the group.
With farmers being the busy lot they are, McCarthy said he gleans a lot of information by stopping by farms and chatting with ranchers to find out if any issues have arisen. On his frequent patrols, he looks for anything out of the ordinary: the random parked car, an odd bit of refuse, or people who appear out of place. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be a bit frustrating, especially at night.
“The thing about farming is it’s a 24-hour operation,” McCarthy said. “You can drive by a farm and see a vehicle out in the field at night; it could be the irrigator, it could be the sprayer, it could be the guy scouting the field for the spray operation. Or it could be a thief. You take your pick.”
Most of the farms, he explains, are open and even welcoming of his patrols. The farmers—especially those commonly hit by thieves—don’t mind having the extra pair of eyes.
If so requested by farmers, Task Force deputies can also visit ranches for assessments to make suggestions on improving security. But there are things farmers can do to help themselves, according to the Task Force’s Wadkins.
“There’s not enough of us to go around, so it goes back to the onset and prevention,” he said.
There are a few commonsense ways of protecting farm equipment, Wadkins said. Adding fencing around more expensive equipment, or simply taking the keys out of a tractor at night can be a deterrent. Marking the equipment is also a must.
“We need some type of serial number to put into the computer showing that it’s stolen, instead of just a report lying on someone’s desk,” Wadkins explained. “Unless it’s in the system, it’s probably not going to get recovered.”
The Rural Crime Unit’s McCarthy cautioned that even if farmers catch someone stealing from their land, they don’t have the right to use deadly force. But it doesn’t have to get to that point, he explained. Most thieves are lazy, and if they find the going too difficult, they’ll move onto easier targets.
“Lock your stuff up,” he advised. “Make your equipment a hard target. Secure your tractors as best you can.”
If equipment is kept inside barns, McCarthy suggested installing extra lighting and bolting doors with high-quality locks.
“I’ve found that the more someone is willing to invest in security, the harder it is for a thief to break in, and the better chance that person’s not going to be a victim,” he said.
Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.