The big crowd at the Dan Ramos Community Center in Hilmar was all the proof anyone needed if they were wondering whether crime is a concern in rural areas. Close to 100 farmers were there on a Tuesday night in late February to meet with law enforcement to find out what police are doing about the increase in thefts and home invasions in Stanislaus and Merced counties and how they can help.
The meeting was organized by Farm Watch, a loosely organized group of neighbors in the Hilmar area who have become increasingly concerned about the security of their homes and farms.
“Our common thread is we’re all victims of crime,” said Farm Watch organizer Charlene Borrelli.
Rural crime is on the rise throughout the Central Valley, according to law enforcement, and much of it is related to the proliferation of marijuana grows. The grows are such a big problem that this year Merced County has dedicated a STAR team to work on it fulltime. The sheriff ’s department told the Farm Watch meeting attendees that anyone who thinks Prop 215 has made it OK to grow pot is going to learn different.
“We’re going to educate ‘em really good this year,” said Merced County Sheriff ’s Department Public Information Officer Delray Shelton. “More than ever before, this is a zero-tolerance thing.”
It’s a mission Farm Watch is eager to help with. The group organized in 2007 with about a dozen neighbors after a series of home burglaries just outside of Hilmar.
They began sharing security information via email and eventually held their first meeting in 2011.
“It’s become quite a community service,” said Borrelli.
Smart phones and social media (Farm Watch has a Facebook page) have helped neighbors share suspicious activity they spot. The group has a number of success stories under its belt.
“Our network has worked to recover stolen vehicles including a dump truck stolen from a Hilmar dairy and abandoned in a vacant lot in Turlock,” said Borrelli. “We put out the alert and one of our neighbors who works in Turlock spotted it. The truck was back at home within two hours of the alert going out.”
But there are frustrations, too.
In January police stopped a driver whose car had been on Farm Watch’s suspicious vehicle list. Officers arrested the man after finding items in his car they suspected were stolen. He made bail but failed to appear in court. A week later, the same man was arrested in Ceres in a stolen car, authorities told Farm Watch. It turned out the man had been arrested in October in Newman for marijuana cultivation and had been in prison in 2010.
“The problem is you catch these people, particularly after AB109, there has been no response other than to lock up and release, and they’re back out on the street doing the same thing,” said Farm Watch booster Mike Seward. “We’ve been very frustrated with that.”
Agricultural crime is up in San Joaquin County as well. The sheriff ’s department there has two detectives assigned to it and works closely with the farm bureau to keep the rural community informed about crime there.
“The biggest issue we had in the fall was metal – scrap,” said Detective Luis Victoria from the San Joaquin County Sheriff ’s Department Rural Crime Task Force. “Now we’re getting a spike in copper wire (theft).”
A list of thefts obtained from the San Joaquin County’s Sheriff ’s Department has examples of the kind of brazen metal and wire thefts investigators are chasing down:
• Jan. 2: In the 7900 block of Foppiano Lane thieves stole pieces to a well pump that was undergoing repairs. The victim believes it happened at 2 a.m. because he heard his dogs barking. Loss estimated at $8,000.
• Jan. 10: In the 12000 block of W Highway 12, thieves used the victim’s own tractor to steal approximately 100 feet of copper wire and damaged another 300 feet of wire along with the transformer. Loss estimated at more than $30,000.
• Jan. 20: In the 16000 block of E Comstock Road, thieves stole $10,000 worth of copper wire and damaged the transformer and pump. No suspect information.
In San Joaquin County, farmers cooperate with law enforcement through the farm bureau’s Farm Team Network. The sheriff ’s department sends information to farmers, and farmers email investigators when they see something suspicious.
In 2011, officers on the Rural Crime Task Force made 20 arrests. In 2012, that number jumped to 35.
This year in Hilmar, Farm Watch hopes to use a community patrol car with volunteers who are trained and vetted by the sheriff ’s department to be an extra set of eyes in the area.
“Watch what you get when you arm yourself with 1,000 people who are willing to respond,” said Seward.