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Few Leads Surface In Walnut Heist

POSTED November 13, 2013 3:54 a.m.

Three sets of gondola-type dual trailers filled with 140,000 pounds of dried and hulled walnuts were surreptitiously taken from GoldRiver Orchards off Enterprise Road and Highway 120 in Escalon. Authorities believe the theft of the nuts, valued at $400,000, occurred sometime between 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30 and 7 a.m. Thursday. Oct. 31.

A week later, on Nov 8, detectives from the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crime Task Force announced the recovery of the walnuts and trailers.

“Right now investigators are following up all leads,” said San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Deputy Les Garcia. “There’s not a lot of detail.”

The heist was carried out by the suspects cutting wooden fence posts on the south fence of the facility’s southeast yard where the filled trailers or “hoppers” were sitting. The investigation at this point appears that the suspects then used their own trucks to hook up to the trailers and drive them off the yard.

Tire tracks discovered at the scene indicate the semitrailers were driven along the fence line and onto Highway 120.

Officials from the GoldRiver Orchards declined to comment about the incident and the sheriff’s department is not giving any further details about the recovery, including the location of the find.

According to the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, few areas can claim a wider variety of farm felonies than California, where ambushes on everything from walnuts to almonds have been on the rise in the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s agricultural powerhouse.

According to figures, walnuts are selling for about $2 a pound to growers, up from about $1.85 for 2012. The crop is California’s fourth leading agricultural export, with strong demand from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

“This is brazen,” said Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Government Affairs Director Tom Orvis, who’s been tracking a series of large scale agriculture nut thefts in the area. “A lot of money just checked out.”

In Yuba City last month a similar crime occurred where a trailer containing 12,000 pounds of walnuts valued at $50,000 was stolen from an orchard alongside Highway 99.

The trailers from the GoldRiver and the Yuba City incident were both leased by Tuff Boy Leasing of Lathrop.

Thefts of this scale are more frequent than one would think. With the type of planning, investment in trucks to haul, and the need for a black market buyer of the stolen commodity, some thefts have been linked by police to an organized crime element.

A February theft of $200,000 in walnuts from the Gold State Nut Company in Butte County was linked by investigators to an organized crime ring in Southern California. Investigators said the walnut theft was just one of several cargo thefts done by the same group that had Russian and Armenian ties.

In June, the Carriere Family Farms in Glenn County lost $91,000 worth of processed walnuts when thieves picked up a shipment under the guise of a trucking company. A week later company officials discovered that the nuts never arrived at their destination.

In Tehama County a $300,000 walnut heist from October was believed to be perpetrated by individuals with the same crime ring when a driver with a “very distinctive Russian accent” picked up trailer loads and never delivered them.

Also in October an individual was detained by police when he attempted to pick up 43,000 pounds of almonds from the Sunny Gem facility near Bakersfield in a truck with stolen license plates. The subject told police he was paid $180 by “a youthful sounding male” to drive the load and just leave it parked a location in Los Angeles. His instructions were then to just leave the area.

Just last year in the area the Hughson Nut Company lost two trailer loads of almonds valued at $189,000 to thieves.

When advised of the other thefts, Deputy Garcia said he was not aware of the incidents. He also did not believe the GoldRiver Farms incident had an organized crime nexus.

“Those other ones had to do with a fake trucking company that falsified paperwork,” Garcia said. “In this case the trailers were just driven off.”

The FBI has tracked agricultural crimes and the link to organized crime but would not state if they had been contacted in this case or any of the other nut cargo thefts.

“Organized crime has been connected to a variety of past criminal activities in California’s central valley,” said Gina Swankie of the FBI Sacramento Field Office.” However, in accordance with a longstanding FBI policy, we are unable to confirm or deny the existence of a pending FBI investigation.”

Anyone with information on this incident is asked to call the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department at (209) 468-4414. Tipsters can also remain anonymous by texting a tip to “274637.”

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