Thieves Grab Green Gold

— Over 90 percent of the avocados grown in the United States are grown in California, and half of those are grown in San Diego County. The cultivation of avocados, particularly the durable and tasty Haas variety, is a $150-million-per-year business in the county. By some estimates, that figure would be 15 to 20 percent higher were it not for avocado theft.

"I manage 200 acres," says avocado farmer Noel Stehly, as he steers a dilapidated pickup through his Valley Center grove, "and in the last couple of years we've gotten theft down to about $5000 a year. In that time the price we get for the fruit has averaged between $.90 and $1.10 a pound. So it could be 10,000 pounds a year we have been losing. That's just me. Industry-wide, it's a pretty big thing."

Stehly pulls over to let a newer pickup truck full of gardening equipment speed by. "That guy," he explains, "takes care of the landscape of that house up on top of this hill. He drives through my groves all the way up there. I've already talked to him; he seems pretty nice. But the last landscapers, I told the owner, 'I don't want them on the property anymore. Every time they drive down the hill they pick a few fruit.' He said, 'Well, what's a few fruit?' I said, 'That fruit is my livelihood.' "

But it's not passersby snagging a few avocados to make guacamole who are causing the 15 to 20 percent crop losses for avocado ranchers. "I generalize the categories of thieves," says Charlie Wolk, who owns and manages avocado groves all over the North County. "You've got the casual thief, probably stealing for drug or booze money. Then you got a thief who is a regular thief, but he's a small-time operator, maybe steals small amounts from different groves and sells them at either the swap meet or to mom-and-pop restaurants. Then you've got the big-time operators coming in in teams. Actually, what they'll often do is they'll hire laborers off the street corner and put them in the grove so they're only at risk when they put them in and when they pick up the fruit. The people who are actually doing the harvesting, if you stop and ask them what they're doing, they honestly tell you that they're harvesting fruit. Because from their perspective, they don't even know they're stealing. That element is moving a lot of fruit."

Deputy district attorney Elisabeth Silva, who runs the agricultural crime project for the district attorney's office, says there is no profile that fits all avocado thieves. "But the most prominent thread is drugs," she explains. "An awfully large percentage of my defendants have been stealing in order to get drug money. But not everyone has. Another common thread has been industry insiders. But neither one holds true every single time."

The methods used by thieves are as varied as their motivations. "Any scenario you create, I've probably had it happen to me," Wolk says. "They do it with sacks, they do it with picking poles. I've had them stealing from the roadside. I've had them cut through fences like a zipper and drive right into the grove. I take care of two ranches up in Rainbow that are pretty close together. I had a problem one time where I had two picking crews, one in each ranch, but one of the bin-lift jeeps was broken. So I told the crew leader, 'After you move your [full bin of] fruit out of the grove, just run up to the other ranch and move the empties into the grove and pull their full bins out.' Well, he did that; he pulled a full bin of fruit out. And in the time it took him to drive from that ranch over to the other one and back, somebody came along and stole half the bin of fruit. [A bin is 800 pounds.] They probably drove up with a pickup truck, reached in there with their hands, threw it into their pickup truck, and drove off."

"When they can drive in with a truck," Stehly says, "that's when they can really take a lot. And it's easy to hide a pickup truck in an avocado grove. There could be one behind that first row of trees right now and I wouldn't be able to see it. But even without a truck, two or three guys can steal a lot of fruit. They've been known to walk a half a mile with a gunny sack or a trash bag slung over their shoulders. Avocados are expensive enough that a guy can pick 60 to 80 pounds and sling it over his shoulder and walk out, and he's got himself a little extra cash. If you've got a guy working for minimum wage, 80 bucks here and 80 bucks there adds up really fast."

Avocado theft, says Silva, is the biggest agricultural crime in San Diego County in terms of loss incurred by the growers. Several factors contribute to that standing, the largest of which is the high price of the green-skinned fruit. "Why would a thief go steal oranges?" asks Wolk. "You can buy them at roadside, ten pounds for a dollar. That's one of the reasons that they steal avocados." Currently, the price farmers get for their fruit is around $1 a pound. The higher the price, the greater the theft problem.

Another large factor in the avocado-theft equation is the long picking season. "Usually we're from November through August," Stehly says, "though sometimes we start picking in October. Past August, I've got fruit that, to me, is a little rancid. Not everybody would know it, but if you cut it open and smell it, it smells different to me. We'll pick large-sized fruit off a tree in October or November, then let the other stuff grow some more, and then go back. So we would go several times through the grove. One tree could be picked many times."

But the longer an avocado hangs on a tree before picking, the greater the odds are that it will end up in a thief's gunny sack before its rightful owner gets around to picking it. "Then," Stehly says, "we go to pick a grove and we walk up to a group of trees and say, 'Damn, they were loaded a month or two ago. Now there's no fruit there.' "

But it's not always after the fact that thieves are discovered. "I was walking through my grove just a couple of months ago," Stehly recalls, "and as I'm walking out one end, I see a guy in a red shirt behind a tree. I walked behind the tree and said, 'Can I help you?' He's got a sheet lying on the ground with a pile of avocados on it. He answers, 'No.' 'Are these your trees?' He says, 'I thought this was an abandoned grove.' I told him, 'This grove is alive. They don't stay alive if they're abandoned.' I reached for my phone and called 911, because, though he was being cooperative, I thought this guy needed to be reported. The sheriff came out and talked to him. He told him, 'I'm going to have to take you in, and Mr. Stehly is going to file a complaint. So why don't you get in the car.' He got him in the car and then turned to me and said, 'Do you really want to file a complaint?' I said, 'Let's find out if he has any prior convictions.' He didn't have any priors, and he hadn't piled up enough fruit to make a good conviction. It would have been a misdemeanor for a guy like that. So I just hoped that he learned his lesson."

"We had one case," Wolk says, "where my irrigator caught him and told him he should get out of the orchard, that he didn't belong there. And he took his license number. The thief tried to talk him out of it, saying he'd share some of the money he made with him. The irrigator said, 'No, you'd better get out of the grove.' Unfortunately, the truck the irrigator was in didn't have a radio in it. But the thief was so stupid, he came back the next day and tried the same thing. The irrigator, instead of saying anything to him, drove back to the office and called the sheriff. The sheriff came out and arrested him, and he was convicted. We had another case where we knew they were stealing on a regular basis. One day, they almost ran over the irrigator. They were going to run him down to get out of the grove. Well, the irrigator, my foreman, and I went out and got on high ground where we could see into the grove but remain not seen. We did that in the evening. Nothing happened. Later on, my foreman figured out that they were stealing fruit in the daytime. So he and the irrigator went out there in the middle of the day and waited. Sure enough, they came into the grove and caught them. The problem was, they didn't understand what the legal requirement was to get a conviction, and they didn't let them get far enough."

Wolk adds, "They have to have the fruit, they have to take it off the ranch, and you have to be able to identify that it came from that particular ranch. Those are the elements you need to get the conviction."

Silva says two of those three elements are necessary. A thief does have to have the fruit in his possession, and a prosecutor needs to link it to a particular ranch. But you don't want him to leave the ranch, she says, because, "Once the crook leaves the grove with the goods, it becomes difficult connecting those goods back to that field."

"Preferably," says Jackie Cruz, a civilian employee who runs the sheriff department's agricultural crime office, "we like to catch them in the grove. When you catch them in the grove, you have multiple crimes to charge them with. They're trespassing, because the grower has not given permission, and then they're caught with the product."

"In order for me to have a felony crime," Silva adds, "I have to have caught him in the act of picking $100 worth of avocados, and that's $100 based on the wholesale price the day of the theft."

Silva says she could count "on two hands" the number of felony avocado-theft convictions she's had in North County over the past five years, "Though there have been many complaints of felony-level theft." Not that she only prosecutes felony fruit theft. "I always remember my first one," she says, "in which a guy had stolen $13 worth of avocados."

In addition to catching thieves, busting the packing houses they sell fruit to is another means used to combat avocado theft. Silva and Cruz and local growers are all still buzzing about the conviction last summer of Fallbrook fruit packer Ariel Varela, who was convicted for buying stolen fruit. Yet Stehly and Wolk both say there are other packing houses that they suspect of dealing in stolen fruit, though neither will name one. "Because I can't prove it," Stehly explains. "But there are guys out there that a lot of the ranchers suspect. And the sheriffs have been informed, and supposedly they're watching them."

Along with educating sheriff's deputies on how to spot and arrest avocado thieves, Cruz spends part of her time giving ranchers tips on how to be hard targets. She recommends secure gates and fences with thorny hedges outside of them, but she recognizes that these measures are often cost prohibitive. She's in the process of taking satellite global positioning system (GPS) readings on frequently hit groves so that the sheriff's department helicopter can speed straight to the scene of a theft.

Though these measures are important, Silva says the most effective way to combat theft would be increased patrols within the vast, hilly labyrinth of orchards in north San Diego County. "But the bottom line," she concedes, "is people crime comes first. And when there is violence in the urbanized areas, there simply cannot be as much patrolling in the rural areas. Everybody understands that. The question is, where's the balance? But the sheriff and the district attorney have been really good about putting resources into combating agricultural crime."

Charley Wolk seconds that thought. "Before Pfingst and Kolender, we had the worst case. The sheriff, because of lack of knowledge and probably a little bit of attitude, was nonresponsive. The growers' reaction to that over time was, 'Why report it? Nobody is going to do anything about it!' Then what happened was, you didn't have the reports made, and it was a vicious circle because, from the sheriff's perspective, it was not a problem because there were no reports made. From the DA's perspective it was, 'Why the hell are you talking to me about doing something about avocado theft? Nobody is reporting it, and the sheriff is not making any arrests. There's nothing I can do.' Paul Pfingst and Bill Kolender both promised during their campaigns that they would do something about agricultural theft. Both of them have honored their promises. Bill Kolender formed the group that Jackie Cruz heads up, and she's been extremely successful educating not only our own county sheriff patrolmen but the city policemen, the highway patrol, the border patrol, and everything else, making them aware of what to look for, how to make the arrest so that the evidence is not lost. I know a lot of our deputies, and they're very excited about the challenge of making agricultural crime arrests. And the DA is willing to go after them and convict them. Paul Pfingst has assigned deputy DAs to prosecute agricultural crime."

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