Ag crime prevention unit successful; idea spreads

Ag crime prevention unit successful; idea spreads

Harry Cline

WHEN IVANHOE, Calif., citrus grower Bill Spruitenburg spots Tulare County sheriff deputy Ed Holt’s pickup coming down the road, it’s a sure bet the lawman will get much more than the perfunctory rural wave.

It will be a very appreciative $20,000 greeting because that is the amount of money Holt recovered for Spruitenburg from a man who tried to swindle the farmer.

“I cannot say enough good things about Ed and the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department ag crime unit. They recovered money I never expected to see again,” said Spruitenburg.

Not only did Holt’s efforts result in restitution for the farmer, but also for three other victims as a result of Holt’s investigation into the crook’s dealings. The swindler eventually pled guilty to felony grand theft.

Holt is one of six deputies on the Tulare County agricultural crime unit that was created in 1996. It has proven such a success that there are now ag crime units in eight San Joaquin Valley counties stretching from San Joaquin County on the north to Kern County on the south. These units total as many as 50 deputies in the eight counties devoting full time to agricultural and rural law enforcement. Each county is part of a valleywide task force and units are connected via radios and computer databases to aid in capturing criminals and recovering stolen property.

It may not stop there, according to Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman.

“The program has been so successful that there is talk of taking the concept nationwide and changing some of the laws to stiffen the punishment for crimes committed against farmers and ranchers,” he said.

Wittman and Tulare County district attorney Phil Cline put the initial task force together and garnered the state funds to set it up.

“This has been a team effort. Credit goes to a lot of people,” said Wittman. “Phil Cline really carried the ball on the idea in the beginning, and we have had a lot of help from state Sen. Chuck Poochigian initially, and Assembly-woman Sarah Reyes was very instrumental in getting funding for eight counties last year.” Both Reyes and Poochigian represent valley districts.

The expansion into the other counties came as a result of the success in Tulare County where the ag crime unit has recovered $3.5 million in stolen property since it was formed. This does not include of money defrauded from farmers and recovered and the arrest of people dealing in stolen property.

Its recovery rate for livestock thefts is 80 percent. It is even higher for stolen tractors.

“It is over 200 percent,” said Sgt. Bob Matthews. “We have recovered tractors stolen from other counties…including tractors that were not even reported stolen or the farmer did not know were stolen.”

Tulare County is predominantly a rural county and ag crimes are nothing new to Wittman and Matthews, a 21-year sheriff’s department patrol veteran. However, they have been surprised at the magnitude of rural crime they uncovered through the new ag crime unit.

Thefts often unreported

“Once we got into this area, I was absolutely shocked at what was being stolen from farmers and oftentimes it went unreported,” said Wittman.

“Ranchers and farmers have been paying the bill (taxes) for law enforcement services for years and not getting the services they deserved,” said Wittman.

“Law enforcement has focused violent crimes in the cities in recent years — dealing with gang bangers and other violent crimes and have not had the resources to deal with ag crimes. Now we have those resources and people in agriculture are getting the services they are entitled to,” said Wittman.

Matthews said he was shocked to hear about unreported thefts after the unit was formed. “I had one farmer tell me he was hit four times. I checked our records to verify that and could not find anything. I asked him about it, and he said he did not report any of them because he figured it would not do any good,” said the veteran lawman.

Wittman and Matthews said that is changing.

“The ag crime unit is very visible and active and I think the confidence in law enforcement in the rural areas is returning,” said Wittman.

“There is no question farmers and ranchers are reporting crimes more than ever before because we are out there,” said Matthews. “And, that is great because we can help get things back if we know about it. Farmers are the most honest people I know, and I really feel good when we can recover tractors, chemicals or other property that has been stolen.”

Know farm equipment

One of the keys to the success of the ag crime unit has been the knowledge of farming deputies have gained.

“A street cop doesn’t know one piece of farm equipment from another — one chemical name from another. If they stop someone pulling a tractor, they are not going to get their uniforms all greasy and dirty checking serial numbers. I don’t blame them,” said Matthews.

“Our deputies make it their business to understand what farmers use and can lose and know what to look for,” said Wittman.

“All of the deputies in the unit know what people are talking about when they say 870 tractor, Randall Sprayer, cultipacker or offset disk and that helps a lot in communicating with other law enforcement agencies across county lines and in recovering stolen property,” said Matthews. “We also make it our business to know chemical names.”

The ag unit members wear jeans and work shirts and drive unmarked pickup trucks.

“We can drive right up to a suspect with these trucks. We do get some surprised looks sometimes,” said Holt.

“Farmers have enough to worry about with bankers, interest rates, having enough water to farm, low prices and the like. The last thing they need is for some doper to steel their aluminum irrigation pipe,” said Wittman. “I grew up in Tulare County and have worked on farms. I know how tough it can be.

“We now have the resources and manpower to do the job for the farmers and ranchers. If crooks commit a crimes against the farmers and ranchers in Tulare County, we will arrest them and they will go to jail,” said Wittman.

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