“If a crappy old van pulls up to a Vons and a half-dozen guys get out with coffee bean sacks and a bunch of avocados with the stems pulled out, [the store’s fruit buyer] knows it’s stolen,” Bishop said. “They won’t touch it.”
Most fruit-packing houses won’t either, according to all sources. Taft, aside from growing avocados, also runs a receiving house in Temecula called Eco Farms and deals only with known and trusted suppliers — roughly 600 local farmers who sell him between 20 and 50 million pounds of avocados per year. Taft says he can trace each fruit he buys back to its orchard of origin by a paper trail. When strangers with small loads of fruit come to his door — a rare occurrence — Taft turns them away.
“But there are fringe [packing houses] that buy stolen fruit,” he said.
Varela Bros. Packing in Fallbrook was one such business that authorities busted in 2001. Following reports that the warehouse had been knowingly buying stolen avocados on a regular basis, officers conducted a sting operation; they posed as thieves with obviously stolen avocados. When the facility’s owner purchased the fruit with no questions asked, the prosecution had a strong case. In court, the defendant pled guilty to six felony charges and spent 365 days in jail. He was ordered never to deal in California avocados again and was allowed to operate as a packer only under strict conditions of probation.
Though farmers today bemoan the losses inflicted by crooks, avocado theft was never worse than it was two decades ago, according to Bishop. He recalls the late 1980s and early 1990s, when growers were less experienced and thieves better poised to make an easy buck.
“There was a time when we had an incident, even two, every day,” Bishop said. “It was epidemic. It was almost to the point of vigilantism. Growers were sitting in their groves with guns.”
In response, the sheriff’s department launched a crime-prevention education program, encouraging growers to fence off their groves, install motion-triggered lights and security cameras, and even leave cars parked on the roads through the orchards to give the appearance that people were present. Sheriff’s deputies streamlined their efforts, increasing the frequency of patrols and conducting stings. Sometimes, Bishop says, he and his deputies waited along Highway 76 and scoped suspicious vehicles. “Often we’d see some junky old truck drive into town,” Bishop said. “Sure enough, it often would leave a few hours later, riding low with 600 or 800 pounds of avocados.”
According to Charley Wolk, thieves steal about $4.5 million of California’s $403 million avocado crop. Yet theft is down from its heyday highs. In the Valley Center region, farmers reported 13 incidents in 2008, 30 in 2009, and 17 in 2010. This year, just 3 thefts had been called in as of February 1, though the harvest season is only now beginning and will run until late fall, when theft tends to peak. Greater vigilance by property owners has staved off many would-be thieves, according to Silva.
But making a case against a suspected fruit thief can easily be hamstrung by the difficulty of linking undocumented fruit to a crime scene.
“Once that commodity leaves the grove or field where it came from it’s almost impossible to tell where it came from,” Silva said.
She says other evidence sometimes comes in handy: tire tracks left at a scene and matched to suspects’ vehicles and DNA taken from cigarette butts discarded in orchards have proved pivotal in past prosecutions. Most suspects faced by particularly damning evidence plead guilty, according to Silva.
But in spite of increasing pressure by law enforcement, avocado thieves continue to raid orchards, many of which currently bear crop loads smaller than usual due to winds during last year’s bloom. Taft is so discouraged that he says he hasn’t bothered calling the sheriff’s department the last several times that thieves have plundered his trees. “I just haven’t gotten a lot of support from the sheriff,” he said, noting that, while he has been robbed more times than he can count since the early 1970s, never has a thief been arrested for stealing his avocados.
“There’s no way to stop it,” Taft said.
The pressure has placed farmers at the mercy of the crooks. While avocado growers tend to watch the ripeness of the fruit and the wholesale value, waiting until the most profitable time to harvest, experienced crooks may do the same.
“That means we have to pick our most vulnerable groves earlier than we want to,” Stehly said. “So we aren’t picking to maximize our profits or our penetration into the market. We’re picking just to beat the thieves.”