Rustlers Give Way to Avocado Thieves : Irvine Guards Swap Six-Guns for Sedans

Times Staff Writer

Seventy-five privately trained security guards use two-way radios, computers and prim sedans to patrol thousands of acres of concrete and asphalt on land that was once part of the vast open country known as the Irvine Ranch, a ranch that covered almost all of central Orange County from the Santa Ana Mountains to the ocean.

No six-guns--in fact, no guns at all--no sweating horses, no rustlers skulking in the draws, no lonely nights among the coyotes and no cut-'em-off-at-the-pass actions for these men and women.

Instead, they keep eyes on 11 neighborhood shopping centers, six high-rise buildings (with four new ones going up), 12 office complexes and 8,000 apartment units.

“We make sure the right people go in and out of the buildings; we watch for parking problems; we do some traffic control,” said Dan Woodward, manager of security services for the Irvine Co.

“All in all, ours is a rather unspectacular operation, with very little excitement, and we’d like to keep it that way,” he said.


There are, in fact, two security offices on Irvine Co. property, the one run by Woodward and a small force--no one will say exactly how small--under jurisdiction of the company’s agricultural division.

This force actually patrols the backcountry, but not on horseback and not even in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

“The roads are so good back there now that we can mostly just use pickup trucks,” said Fred Keller, vice president of the agricultural division.

And while the members of the force are armed, trained and deputized by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, they are more likely to be involved chasing off people who are trying to steal avocados than cattle.

Cattle still roam on parts of the acreage, but they no longer belong to the ranch. The land has been leased to three private operators, and “we just sort of keep one eye on them,” Keller said.

In earlier days back at the ranch, things were different. The best-known example:

James Irvine, first owner of the 83,000-acre spread, had met and learned to hate a man named Colis P. Huntington. The two argued and fought for more than 30 years, and Irvine wasn’t even ready to make up when he lay dying in 1886, according to Orange County historian Jim Sleeper.

Two years later it became obvious, when Huntington got set to build a Southern Pacific railroad line through ranch property, that Irvine had passed along to his family the bitterness he felt for his longtime enemy.

His widow, Margaret, heard about Huntington’s plan and called out the ranch’s security force, made up of cowboys then known as line riders, or fence riders. They were men who had seen their share of rustler-chasing through the hills.

On July 7, 1888, the riders lay in ambush near what is now Red Hill Avenue, waiting for the track gang. Thanks to the six-guns, that particular branch of the railroad stopped right there, and years later was rerouted entirely around Orange County.

The work of Woodward’s crews today tends to fall a little short of such drama.

“We get involved in a lot of community doings,” Woodward said. “Since all our officers have two-way radios when they’re on patrol, we can assist stalled motorists by calling for help. Our 24-hour communications system is tied in with Irvine and Newport Beach police and fire departments, paramedics and the auto club.

“We do take down reports on thefts and burglaries and other criminal activities that occur on company properties, but only for our own records. All investigations of such crimes are handled by Newport or Irvine police.”

Once, security officer Kevin Deeley, on patrol, noticed a boy in his early teens sitting beside a road in a nonresidential area.

“The kid seemed to be in some distress. He was crying,” Woodward said. “So Deeley talked to him and found out he had started to run away from his home in Mission Viejo, then got scared and changed his mind. With the help of Irvine police, we got him home safely.”

What may be the security force’s most important function is in the planning stages now, Woodward said.

“We’re setting up an emergency preparedness program, in cooperation with county officials, to mobilize our resources for major fires, toxic spills, floods, earthquakes and other disasters,” he said.

“We could have used such a program a few years ago when one day the skies just opened up and flooded everything--underpasses, intersections. Everything just came to a stop. We could have helped.”