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By Craig W. Anderson

Rural crime is an important issue faced by San Joaquin Farm Bureau, the county sheriff’s department, local law enforcement, farmers, ranchers and the general public. What’s happening in the county was outlined by Ezequiel “Zeke” Pena, the sheriff department’s public information officer. 

He pointed out that, “Gangs are huge currently,” and he provided a list of crimes the department is working on.

County crimes

No. 1 on the county’s crime list is burglaries with items stolen from ag shops, barns, work trucks and utility boxes.

“They [burglaries] happen everywhere,” Pena said. “Dopers and gang members steal what they can and buy dope and guns with the money. Bad guys are lazy and they tend to commit crimes of opportunity.”

Ken Vogel, SJFB second vice president, former county supervisor and Linden area walnut and cherry farmer, agreed. “Many crimes are crimes of opportunity which can be reduced and information is available from Farm Bureau and the sheriff’s department describing how to do that.”

No. 2: Equipment thefts – ATV’s RTV’s and tractors – “132 pieces of equipment were taken in the 2017-2018 period, the majority from the Ripon, Manteca, Thornton and Linden areas,” Pena said.

“Anything with wheels is moved out of the area right away and sold in other counties,” Vogel said.

No. 3: Copper wire thefts – “From ag pumps and PG&E, and other, yards. The going price for copper wire is currently $1.40 a pound. As it increases more thefts will occur.”

“Thefts seem to go in waves, driven by what they can get for what they’ve stolen, weather and availability of things to take,” said David Strecker, SJFB first vice president. “Which creates a year-round crime environment.”

No. 4: Batteries – all kinds including car, tractor, heavy equipment and specialty batteries. Pena urged owners to “keep vehicles locked up. Thousands of dollars’ worth of batteries have been stolen over the last year and those stolen from pump wells often damage the mother board, making it a very expensive crime.”

No. 5: Fuel thefts-from trap wagons and red dye diesel from tractors and equipment on farms and job sites. “Thousands of dollars in losses here. They hit trap wagons when the weather’s better and farmers are in the fields,” noted Pena.

“Stolen trap wagons are usually damaged and are made unusable,” Strecker said. “And the fuel, if recovered, is probably unusable too. So it becomes a total loss.”

No. 6: Commodities – walnut theft. “$280,000 worth of walnuts was taken from one site this past season. It was one big theft, the only big case we saw last season. And now that walnut prices are in a slump, walnut theft has declined,” Pena explained 

Metal theft

“Metal theft is down because it’s difficult for thieves to get into wet, muddy areas to steal it,” Pena said, “and illegal dumping is covered by everybody. As for solar panel theft: it’s not an issue at this time.”

Crime prevention

“Prevention is triggered by communication, the key ability being to make people aware through various means including social media. New technology’s important too with cameras that send information to our cell phones and drones that can be used to survey property,” Strecker said, adding, “We need to be in touch with our neighbors so everyone can communicate quickly and effectively with each other when something’s happening.”

New County Sheriff Withrow

More officers on patrol is also a major crime deterrent, according to San Joaquin County’s new Sheriff Patrick Withrow, a 28-year veteran of the department who brings street, S.W.A.T. and K-9 experience to the job.

“My first priority was to change our patrol schedule so we’re able to be more proactive in preventing crime by getting more people [into] rural areas,” he said, explaining that this will result in a more effective means of intercepting criminals before their crimes can be committed.  “More car and bike stops on suspicious persons can be done. We’re more proactive about going after dumpers, meth labs and chemicals.”

A major anti-crime weapon the department uses is AGNET – Agriculture Gang Narcotics Enforcement Team – which is instrumental in creating a more proactive force, compared to being reactive about rural crime.

“The concept behind it is 20 officers, two sergeants and a lieutenant at the street level,” Withrow said. “The gang members are the ones going out to victimize farmers and the rural areas, taking copper wire [and] stealing equipment. AGNET will work very closely with our crime analysis people and our patrol beat cars, our community cars, [and] we’ll work to suppress crime before it happens.”

Withrow’s entire law enforcement career has taken place in San Joaquin County where he was born and raised and he said about being elected sheriff, “It’s an absolute honor to be able to be leading this department.”

Community involvement

In addition to Sheriff Department personnel being more available and visible in rural areas, Vogel said a pleasant development has been “task force members regularly attending Farm Bureau board meetings. We’re very happy about that interest.”

Withrow said, “We’re dedicated to protecting farmers who are the life’s-blood of San Joaquin County and we will continue to work closely with Farm Bureau and farmers.

Powerful crime fighting forces

In addition to AGNET, other anti-crime weapons the department plans to use includes the San Joaquin Agricultural Crimes Task Force, the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, Farm Watch, Ag Zone Security and the Owner Applied Number program; drones are also being utilized for foot and car pursuits, surveillance and locked-on, automatic tracking of cars involved in crimes.

Detailed information about the above along with metal and solar panel theft, meth labs, fraud and chemicals is available on the sheriff’s office website. 

To learn more, attend SJFB’s Rural Crime Seminar on March 7. Call SJFB at (209) 931-4931 for details.