Sheriff’s detective Bob Bishop: “Usually the farmers are more confrontational than the crooks.”
Almost as surely as avocados grow, thieves steal them and turn the fruit into quick and untraceable cash. Over the past decade, San Diego County law enforcement agencies have stepped up patrols, pursuits, and prosecution of avocado thieves, but growers report that most of the bandits get away. With them goes roughly $1 million of low-hanging fruit each year, and the men and women who grow the avocados are frustrated to their wits’ ends. Al Stehly has installed fences around his groves, topped them off with barbed wire, and secured his gates with chains and locks. So has Charley Wolk, who manages avocado groves throughout northern San Diego County. Farmer Steve Taft has mounted video cameras on his gates.
But thieves, who often work by the light of a full moon, simply ignore the cameras, cut the fences, and break the chains. This year, Stehly has already been hit several times. He owns 60 acres of Hass avocados near Valley Center and manages another 300. Much of this land is remote, without neighbors, and accessible by dirt roads leading off nearby highways — facilitating fast arrivals and swift getaways. Tire tracks, cut fences, and stripped trees are often the only signs Stehly ever sees of thieves — and estimating what’s been lost during a night’s raid is sometimes impossible.
“If you don’t know exactly what was on the trees to begin with, there’s no way to know what you lost,” he said.
But farmers with a close eye on their trees can estimate. Wolk has seen as much as 5000 pounds of avocados vanish from his trees overnight, and farmers have reported individual losses of 10 percent of their income per year. Taft guesses he loses nearly $5000 to avocado thieves annually. He owns and manages 1000 acres of orchards in Riverside and San Diego counties and may be buffered from severe economic damage by the size of his operation, but for smaller growers, much or most of the year’s income can potentially vanish overnight. Stehly, for example, lost almost an entire crop one night in the early 1980s, when a well-organized band of thieves stripped the fruit from several hundred trees — the most severe instance of avocado theft of which he knows.
“They took tens of thousands of pounds,” said Stehly, who says that most, if not all, crop-insurance plans do not cover theft. “I try not to remember that one. One week we had a whole crop ready to go, and the next week we went in and it was all gone.”
Though Eric Larson, the executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, told of a case last year in which avocado thieves fired a gun at a grove manager who had confronted the men as they toted filled sacks off the property, Sergeant Bob Bishop says most thieves are not dangerous. The detective sergeant has pursued avocado thieves since joining the Valley Center Substation of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department 24 years ago.
“They’re usually going to do whatever they can to avoid a conflict,” said Bishop. “Usually the farmers are more confrontational than the crooks.”
In fact, if a thief can go unseen, he or she is almost guaranteed to make a clean getaway, according to Bishop. He says that the discovery of stripped fruit trees days or even hours after thieves have left the premises virtually never leads to an arrest. But in the easiest cases, property owners report a theft in progress, and if responding officers arrive at the scene to find the suspected thieves’ vehicle still parked onsite, an arrest is almost a guarantee.
“In that case, we’ll sit and wait,” Bishop said. “Then when they come out of the grove with sacks of fruit, it’s a slam dunk.”
Other cases aren’t so simple. According to Elisabeth Silva, the county’s deputy district attorney who has specialized in prosecuting agricultural criminals for 15 years, some thieves don’t even know they’re stealing, hired instead by professional crooks posing as landowners who drop the workers off at a site, leave them with a phone number, and ask them to call when the trees are stripped and their bags full.
“We’ve actually had armed sheriffs approach a group of illegal pickers who say, ‘Sorry, not now — we’ve got a job to do,’” Silva said.
State laws are stacked disproportionately against fruit thieves. Whereas most stolen nonfood items must be valued at more than $950 to trigger felony grand theft charges, the threshold for stolen farm crops is just $250. Roughly four or five cases per year lead to convictions in San Diego County, which can send fruit thieves to jail for up to three years.
But most thieves are not arrested, according to Bishop, and most stolen avocados are not recovered. Where thieves sell their loot is largely a matter of conjecture. Big supermarkets and wholesale houses are unlikely to buy fruit unaccompanied by receipts and paperwork — required by anyone in California possessing more than 25 pounds of avocados. Most victimized farmers speculate that mom-and-pop restaurants and roadside fruit stands buy the swiped fruit. Some thieves are known to sell directly out of their vehicles.
“If the price is too good to be true at the roadside, then the avocados probably came from someone’s farm in the middle of the night,” Stehly said.
Law enforcement officers keep an eye on roadside fruit stands, though Bishop notes that regular, long-term establishments tend to keep a clean record. It’s those that show up overnight that raise suspicions.
“We’ll pull over and check them out, and the first thing we ask is ‘Do you have a business license?’” Bishop said. “They also need a manifest showing where the fruit came from.”
Stolen avocados can sometimes be easily identified. Legitimate pickers use clippers to remove each fruit from the branch, Bishop explains, leaving each avocado bearing the stub of its stem. Thieves, however, often hurried and hustling, tend to pull the fruit off the trees by hand.
“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.”
Easy to commit, hard to prevent, avocado theft costs local farmers a million a year.
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.”