continued But the longer an avocado hangs on a tree before picking, the greater the odds are that it will end up in a thief's gunny sack before its rightful owner gets around to picking it. "Then," Stehly says, "we go to pick a grove and we walk up to a group of trees and say, 'Damn, they were loaded a month or two ago. Now there's no fruit there.' "
But it's not always after the fact that thieves are discovered. "I was walking through my grove just a couple of months ago," Stehly recalls, "and as I'm walking out one end, I see a guy in a red shirt behind a tree. I walked behind the tree and said, 'Can I help you?' He's got a sheet lying on the ground with a pile of avocados on it. He answers, 'No.' 'Are these your trees?' He says, 'I thought this was an abandoned grove.' I told him, 'This grove is alive. They don't stay alive if they're abandoned.' I reached for my phone and called 911, because, though he was being cooperative, I thought this guy needed to be reported. The sheriff came out and talked to him. He told him, 'I'm going to have to take you in, and Mr. Stehly is going to file a complaint. So why don't you get in the car.' He got him in the car and then turned to me and said, 'Do you really want to file a complaint?' I said, 'Let's find out if he has any prior convictions.' He didn't have any priors, and he hadn't piled up enough fruit to make a good conviction. It would have been a misdemeanor for a guy like that. So I just hoped that he learned his lesson."
"We had one case," Wolk says, "where my irrigator caught him and told him he should get out of the orchard, that he didn't belong there. And he took his license number. The thief tried to talk him out of it, saying he'd share some of the money he made with him. The irrigator said, 'No, you'd better get out of the grove.' Unfortunately, the truck the irrigator was in didn't have a radio in it. But the thief was so stupid, he came back the next day and tried the same thing. The irrigator, instead of saying anything to him, drove back to the office and called the sheriff. The sheriff came out and arrested him, and he was convicted. We had another case where we knew they were stealing on a regular basis. One day, they almost ran over the irrigator. They were going to run him down to get out of the grove. Well, the irrigator, my foreman, and I went out and got on high ground where we could see into the grove but remain not seen. We did that in the evening. Nothing happened. Later on, my foreman figured out that they were stealing fruit in the daytime. So he and the irrigator went out there in the middle of the day and waited. Sure enough, they came into the grove and caught them. The problem was, they didn't understand what the legal requirement was to get a conviction, and they didn't let them get far enough."
Wolk adds, "They have to have the fruit, they have to take it off the ranch, and you have to be able to identify that it came from that particular ranch. Those are the elements you need to get the conviction."
Silva says two of those three elements are necessary. A thief does have to have the fruit in his possession, and a prosecutor needs to link it to a particular ranch. But you don't want him to leave the ranch, she says, because, "Once the crook leaves the grove with the goods, it becomes difficult connecting those goods back to that field."
"Preferably," says Jackie Cruz, a civilian employee who runs the sheriff department's agricultural crime office, "we like to catch them in the grove. When you catch them in the grove, you have multiple crimes to charge them with. They're trespassing, because the grower has not given permission, and then they're caught with the product."
"In order for me to have a felony crime," Silva adds, "I have to have caught him in the act of picking $100 worth of avocados, and that's $100 based on the wholesale price the day of the theft."
Silva says she could count "on two hands" the number of felony avocado-theft convictions she's had in North County over the past five years, "Though there have been many complaints of felony-level theft." Not that she only prosecutes felony fruit theft. "I always remember my first one," she says, "in which a guy had stolen $13 worth of avocados."
In addition to catching thieves, busting the packing houses they sell fruit to is another means used to combat avocado theft. Silva and Cruz and local growers are all still buzzing about the conviction last summer of Fallbrook fruit packer Ariel Varela, who was convicted for buying stolen fruit. Yet Stehly and Wolk both say there are other packing houses that they suspect of dealing in stolen fruit, though neither will name one. "Because I can't prove it," Stehly explains. "But there are guys out there that a lot of the ranchers suspect. And the sheriffs have been informed, and supposedly they're watching them."
Along with educating sheriff's deputies on how to spot and arrest avocado thieves, Cruz spends part of her time giving ranchers tips on how to be hard targets. She recommends secure gates and fences with thorny hedges outside of them, but she recognizes that these measures are often cost prohibitive. She's in the process of taking satellite global positioning system (GPS) readings on frequently hit groves so that the sheriff's department helicopter can speed straight to the scene of a theft.
Though these measures are important, Silva says the most effective way to combat theft would be increased patrols within the vast, hilly labyrinth of orchards in north San Diego County. "But the bottom line," she concedes, "is people crime comes first. And when there is violence in the urbanized areas, there simply cannot be as much patrolling in the rural areas. Everybody understands that. The question is, where's the balance? But the sheriff and the district attorney have been really good about putting resources into combating agricultural crime."