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Crop Cops

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sheriff’s detectives Mike Horne and Eric Nelson spent more than a few nights last December crouched deep in the orchards of Santa Paula under the cloak of nightfall.

They were watching, waiting for a thief who never came.

They had reason to suspect one might because, for weeks, several hundred pounds of the ranchers’ most profitable product--avocados--had been snapped from treetops and carted off.

Many weeks later, a rancher reported seeing a man and woman pushing a shopping cart brimming with bags of avocados. The Agricultural Crime Unit, Horne and Nelson, jumped on the call. A vivid description of the couple led to the arrest of two transients known to frequent the Santa Paula River bottom.

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“As it turns out, they were both homeless and trying to support their heroin addiction,” Horne said. “They sold the avocados to pay for drugs.”

A conviction on two counts of grand theft and one count of petty theft landed the woman in jail for 240 days. Her boyfriend, already carrying a record, got 16 months in prison.

Though around the office Horne and Nelson are playfully referred to as the “avocado cops,” they take pride in the title.

They are the Sherlock Holmeses of the county’s orchards, using traditional detective work to track down the criminals lurking amid the ranchers’ crops.

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“We take it seriously,” said Horne as he and partner Nelson sauntered through a Santa Paula orchard lined deep with citrus trees. “We are dedicated to it. When a guy comes up to us and says, ‘I just lost half of my income,’ that’s serious.”

In 1997 alone growers lost an estimated $609,000 to trespassers who, hidden amid thick rows of citrus trees, steal into the groves and make away with hundreds of pounds of avocado and other fruit.

The losses also come from stolen farm equipment and heists of the pricey chemicals used to keep insect pests off the fruit.

Such losses prompted the creation of the Agricultural Crimes Unit, formerly known as the Rural Crime Prevention Unit. It began in 1983 with one deputy dedicated to teaching farmers to better protect against theft. But over the past 16 months, an escalation in ranch and farm thefts has necessitated a more aggressive approach.

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Originally, the unit taught farmers tips such as carving personal identification numbers onto all farm equipment or marking irrigation pipes with bright paint.

“A big problem has been the theft of irrigation pipes,” Nelson said. “But if we recover a bunch of pipes, how can a rancher identify it? One piece of pipe looks like the next, unless the farmers color code them or put their ID number on it.”

The education was helpful, but crime on the ranches has continued. And tracking down the perpetrators is almost always impossible.

“There are never any witnesses,” Horne said, “because it all happens in such remote areas. And I’ve yet been able to get a fingerprint off an avocado.”

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So the department paired Nelson, who has a degree in agricultural business, with Horne, whose background is in detective work and narcotics, to form an agriculture detective team.

The focus isn’t crime prevention but tracking down the bad guys and putting them in jail.

The detective work is familiar. They follow footprints and tire tracks, keep an extensive database in search of trends, and talk to any eyewitness they can find. They are even experimenting with ways to use high-tech equipment to catch the crooks in the crops.

“I’ve even called the FBI to find out how I can put a tracking device in an avocado,” remarked Horne in a tone between jovial and serious.

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Drug Users Involved in Many Farm Thefts

This time of year, the beginning of the avocado season, the detectives can be found lying still among the trees waiting for the snap of twigs when someone tugs down profitable bounty from unprotected limbs.

It can be dangerous work.

More than one rancher has been threatened when confronting a thief in the orchard.

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“They’re not people you want to bump into,” said Richard Pidduck, who runs the 78-acre Santa Paula Creek Ranch. “A couple of years ago I confronted three people and told them to leave. They came very close to assaulting me. Since then, I don’t mess around with them. I call the Sheriff’s Department.”

It’s not a docile bunch, Horne stresses. After nine years as a narcotics detective, Horne became very familiar with the county’s drug users. Many of the same people have stumbled into the orchards. Their goal: Pick enough fruit to support a drug habit.

“I can tell you, it’s not mom coming by who wants some avocados to make guacamole dip for dinner,” Horne said. “The biggest part of it is people doing this to supply their addiction.

“Ranchers are generally honest, straight up-and-up folks,” Horne continued. “And now they’ve got these addicts on their farms, and it’s not safe for themselves and it’s not safe for their families.”

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As many as 75% of the thefts are motivated by drug use, Horne believes. It’s common to lift a bag of avocados from a thief and find heroin tracks running down the thief’s arm.

Usually the drug users sell the stolen goods to local markets and restaurants before giving the money to their dealer. But in some cases, the user may simply swap the fruit or stolen farming equipment directly in exchange for drugs, Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

“This is a completely different kind of crime than people think,” Brooks said. “We are finding more and more ties to either organized criminal rings or narcotics crimes. You still have the conventional criminal that may drive by and empty some fruit into their car, but a lot of this is driven by the drug trade.”

Proving Where Fruit Is From Can Be Tricky

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The homeless, many of whom live along the Santa Paula River bottom, are doing some of the picking, detectives said. Some use the fruit to pay for drugs or alcohol. Others simply want something to eat. “When someone lives a criminal life, they don’t restrict themselves to one area,” Horne said. “If they’re stealing fruit, they’re probably dealing dope, too. We see a lot of crossover.”

The detectives are bracing themselves for a busy year. December’s cold snap, which brought several nights of freezing temperatures, has contributed to a low avocado crop. And with the cold wiping out oranges in the Conejo Valley, prices for the golden citrus are already soaring.

The high dollar values will be a great motivator for the fruit thieves, the detectives said.

“That’s huge money,” Horne said. “If you’re a restaurant owner that uses a lot of guacamole, you can save lots of money buying stolen fruit--no questions asked.”

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So far Nelson and Horne have been a formidable defense. Losses for farmers dropped from $609,000 in 1997 to $195,000 in 1998--the first full year the team was on the job.

This despite the hurdles that come with tracking down an agriculture thief.

It’s not enough for Nelson and Horne to discover someone loading up a car with fruit. The detectives have to trace the fruit back to the tree it came from in order to prove it was illegally obtained. It’s tricky business but “we have our secrets,” Horne said.

Broken tree limbs, tire tracks and footprints are just some of the evidence a hurried thief will leave behind.

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One of the biggest obstacles for the detectives has been getting the ranchers to report the crimes, Horne and Nelson said. It’s taken the ranchers time, they said, to get used to the idea that law enforcement takes crop rustling seriously.

“We keep telling people, ‘Report crime, report crime, report crime,’ ” Nelson said.

For years, the ranchers say, agricultural theft was given a far lower priority than urban crime. Authorities and members of the surrounding community were slow to recognize that plucking fruit from a tree is theft.

The sentiment of indifference is illustrated through a story, which may be apocryphal, passed around by local ranchers. A man, the story goes, saw a woman stop her car by one of his orange trees. She got out, picked a sack full of oranges, then drove away. The rancher followed in his truck.

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As they stopped in front of her house, the rancher began digging up one of the rosebushes in the woman’s frontyard. She demanded to know what he was doing. The rancher said, “Well, I’m just trading you this rosebush for my sack of oranges.’ ”

Ranchers now know that at least Horne and Nelson won’t take such a theft lightly.

“I think the agriculture community is learning,” Horne said. “They’re starting to turn to us. They want to help us because they know we are trying to help them.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wilson contributed to this story.

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