Since neither the sheriff's department nor the avocado commission keeps exact figures on avocado thefts, it's hard to know how many cases are prosecuted and how many are never solved. In 1996, the farm bureau estimated that between $2 million and $10 million worth of avocados are stolen each year. Since 1990, when the commission began offering rewards to witnesses, 72 people have been arrested for theft -- 40 of them for grand theft (a value of more than $100). Only 40,000 pounds of stolen fruit have been recovered in that time, while "most of it," says spokesman Howard Seelye, "disappeared."
Some arrests and convictions are for small amounts -- a mere 22 pounds of stolen avocados sent Mark Fountain to prison last July. The fruit was worth just $13 on that particular day (he stole them in February), but Fountain had already been to prison twice and was on parole when he committed the crime.
Other thefts are more substantial. The largest reward the avocado commission has ever paid went to a Temecula woman who identified 12 members of a theft ring in north San Diego and south Riverside counties. She received $5000, which may have seemed like small compensation given the consequences to her. "There would have been reprisals," Seelye says, "but the woman moved. She had to move because they knew who she was."
Charley Wolk of Bejoca has also experienced professional theft, though of a more cinematic kind. "A couple of years ago," he says, "we had a hijacking of a packing-house boom truck." (A boom truck uses a crane to lift 1000-pound bins of avocados onto its bed.) Wolk describes the hijacking as a "classic Bonnie-and-Clyde" hoax in which a woman stopped at the side of the road and pretended to have car trouble. The driver of the avocado truck pulled over to help, and a man came out of the trees with a weapon. "[The police] never caught them," Wolk says. "They found the truck down in San Ysidro with the fruit gone."
Protection for San Diego County growers is increasing, but agricultural crimes are hard to prosecute. In Ventura County, where investigators have been swamped with thefts of aluminum irrigation pipe, growers are encouraged to mark all equipment with a ten-digit FBI code called an owner-applied number. The number, says Eric Nelson, a detective with Ventura's rural crime division, helps officers both to trace stolen equipment and stop crimes in progress. When the number is posted on a sign outside the farm or grove, for instance, deputies on patrol can track down the owner and ask whether a person or group of people is authorized to be there. And since the numbers are stored in a database with mapping coordinates, "we can dispatch a helicopter directly to that property," he says. The mapping coordinates are useful where addresses and cross streets are few -- a tool that would have been helpful in the Edward Allan case.
Or maybe not. An owner-applied number would assist local officers, says Elisabeth Silva, agricultural crimes prosecutor for north San Diego County, only if the computer system were more efficient. Silva believes the ten-digit ID number is a good idea, but "at the moment," she says, "there just doesn't seem to be enough space in the statewide law enforcement computers to enter in the numbers and be able to call them back." Until the legislature approves a budget for expanding the computer system, Silva says, the process will be too slow.
But North County farmers are happy to have a new district attorney -- Elisabeth Silva -- who concentrates solely on agriculture. Silva volunteered for the post last March and went to rural crime school -- the only one of its kind in the country -- near Monterey. There she studied cattle, horse and tack, equipment, and pesticide theft, plus ritual animal slaughter by Satanists. So far, there's been more avocado theft than ritual slaughter.
"Agriculture," Silva says, "is a $4 billion economy in San Diego County," making it the fourth largest industry. Most North County farmers, she says, have small farms, and they can't afford to absorb much theft.
As for Jeanne Strand, who was at the Vista County Courthouse with her husband on October 29 when Mr. Gonzalez pled guilty, she's happy to have caught someone after all these years of losses. "I found I could do something," she says. "Lyle's always been there in the past." She hopes the arrest will intimidate local thieves, but she won't go on patrol again next year because she and Lyle are selling the ranch. "We're getting a little old to run up and down those hills," she says.
Those who are staying on in their groves, though, plan to defend their fruit in the manner of the old west. "If you're on my property," says the woman who lost 4000 pounds last July, "you may get a shotgun in your face. I'm not," she warns, "a little woman."