State farmers hit by aggressive tree thieves

The Associated Press
Wednesday March 14, 2001

FRESNO — Rural crime fighters in the state’s agricultural heartland are hunting for a gang of thieves who for the last year have absconded with thousands of immature orange, almond and cherry trees. 

Under cover of darkness, the thieves steal into the vast unpatrolled orchards of Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties to dig up hundreds of newly planted saplings and truck them off well before the pre-dawn arrival of farmworker crews. 

“The first time they did it, they took young orange trees from certain parts of the field so you couldn’t tell anything was wrong if your weren’t looking from the road at just the right angle,” said farmer John Yohannes, owner of the 1,000-acre J.A. Ranch just north of Visalia. 

“The second time, they took trees from the middle of the field. Last time, they hit the three last rows from the road,” Yohannes said. 

Altogether, Yohannes has lost about 1,000 trees worth about $10 each, and because he has to wait until next year to replant, he’s also lost at least one year of growing time. 

Since last April, more than 2,000 citrus trees, several dozen cherry trees and a handful of apple trees have been taken from the three counties and over the last six weeks or so about 1,200 almond trees were uprooted from a Kern ranch. 

Rural detectives believe they’re dealing with professional thieves who know their way around a farm. While it’s not clear yet if all the thefts are related, the Kern and Tulare sapling heists do share some common elements. 

All the 1- to 3-foot-tall trees were pulled out of the ground soon after being planted, when the soil around the root systems was soft and easily dug up.  

Also, while the first trees were taken from rows next to roads, the bandits soon learned to removed them from areas and in patterns that tended to conceal their absence from anyone looking into the groves. 

“It was not a crime of opportunity, it was a planned-out theft. They planned out how they wanted to cover their tracks. They probably have (the almond trees) sold already,” said Kern County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Lakey. 

Anyone who would take more than a few trees likely has a market for them, maybe in another Central Valley county or in Mexico, because it’s just not that easy to unload 1,200 trees at a pawn shop, Lakey said. Officers have been scouring swap meets and flea markets in the area with no success. 

The theft of saplings isn’t new to the three counties, which account for roughly $9 billion of the state’s $26 billion a year agricultural sector.  

But in the past, trees were mainly stolen in twos and threes by people who’d replant them in their back yards. 

“People have a really distorted view of the farm. They see it along the side of the road and the larceny in their heart comes out. The impulse to load the car trunk up with tomatoes or whatever is more than they can stand,” Lakey said. 

The mass theft of recently planted saplings, however, is something new in all the counties. 

“We have collected evidence at the scenes and all the thefts are pretty similar. Most likely they’re going to be connected to the same individuals,” said Lt. Greg Wright, head of the agricultural crimes unit at the Tulare County sheriff’s office. 

A possible break in the case came when officers in Fresno County arrested Cutberto Jimenez, 52, in May for a heist last year. He was caught after officers discovered about 900 young trees in a small orchard in Fresno County with paint brands that identified them as belonging to a Tulare county farmer. The new owner bought them without realizing they were stolen, and helped detectives track Jimenez down. 

Jimenez pleaded guilty in June to theft charges and was sentenced to 200 days in jail.  

Detectives say they are still looking into the possibility that his crime is connected in some way to the others. 

To protect growers, the Legislature has freed up $3.54 million in grants for area counties, and a $2 million federal grant is financing a high-tech system of computers and surveillance equipment. But many farmers worry that stopping determined criminals may be something beyond the scope of these programs. 

“I don’t really know if there’s any preventative measures to take,” Yohannes said. “The number of trees in this county alone is phenomenal. You can’t get security for all of them.” 


On the Net: 

Tulare County sheriff agricultural crimes unit: http://userzweb.lightspeed.net/(tilde)agunit/ 

California Farm Bureau Rural Crime Watch: http://www.cfbf.com/crime.htm