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Countywide : Avocado Panel Gives $9,000 for Theft Tips

The California Avocado Commission has distributed more than $9,000 in reward money in Ventura County over the past 18 months for tips that have led to arrests of avocado thieves, officials said.

Fifteen arrests have been made since January, said Sgt. Ken Cozzens of the East Valley Sheriff’s Department. Six led to felony charges, said Cozzens, who heads an area task force that monitors the groves.

“We’re really known for strong support from the district attorney’s office,” which results in tougher sentencing, Cozzens said. Grand theft charges are filed against anyone suspected of stealing more than 100 pounds of avocados, he said.

Those convicted of stealing 20 pounds or less could face two or three days in jail and $300 fines, Cozzens said.

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The county rewards account for 37% of the money awarded by the commission to tip callers, said California Avocado Commission spokesman Howard Seelye.

The commission has given $24,600 to individuals reporting suspected avocado thefts since its reward program began last July, Seelye said.

He estimated that $10 million to $20 million worth of avocados--5% to 10% of the annual crop--is stolen annually throughout the state.

Seelye said county avocado groves are especially vulnerable because of their size.

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With about 16,000 acres of avocado trees, the county is the second-largest growing area in California, behind San Diego, he said.

The toughest sentence handed down during the 18-month period was four years in state prison to a Ventura County man arrested with 1,600 pounds of avocados, worth about $1,000, Cozzens said.

He said 1,900 pounds of avocados were seized from a car that had been rigged with special springs to carry the excess weight, he said.

Despite such sophisticated tactics, Seelye said, thefts have decreased this year.

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That may be due, in part, to the drop in avocado prices, he said.

Last year, growers could get an average of $1.14 a pound, Seelye said, but this year they are getting an average of 65 cents a pound.

At these prices, thieves who sell the produce at open air markets or restaurants make 25 to 30 cents a pound, he said.


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