SJ county continues fight on rural crime

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By Vicky Boyd

Dave SimpsoN and his wife, Sandy, were in New Mexico visiting their son in August when the alarm company called about a motion detector being tripped in his shop. Since he had had false alarms in the past and didn’t want to incur a false alarm charge, Simpson said he told the alarm company to disregard it.

In hindsight, Simpson – who grows winegrapes near Lodi – said he should have had the alarm company check his house because burglary suspects had actually tripped the alarm when they broke into his shop. They ended up stealing tools, equipment, an all-terrain vehicle, guns, jewelry and more.

In talking to San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office Ag Detective Andres Lopez who came to investigate, Simpson said it appeared the suspects shut off the power from the electrical panel to turn off additional alarms. Then they spent about six hours in the dark house, from what deputies could tell, breaking into his safe where he stored guns, many of which were family heirlooms and had sentimental value.

“They took the torch out of my shop on the cart and brought it into the house and cut open the door of my safe,” Simpson said. “They were after stuff that was easy to sell.”

Following recommendations from the sheriff’s deputy and his insurance company, Nationwide, he has already taken steps to help protect his home and shop, including installing a dozen cameras.

If you see something, say something

Lopez, who spent six years with the Agricultural, Gangs and Narcotics Enforcement Team or AGNET before becoming a public information officer in October, said Simpson took the right steps by reporting the crime and working with law enforcement.

“If you don’t report it, we won’t know about it,” he said. Even if it’s just suspicious activity, he recommended calling the sheriff office’s non-emergency phone number at (209) 406-4424.

“If you see something suspicious happening not to your house but to your neighbors, call it in,” Lopez said. “If we don’t know about it, we can’t do anything about it.”

Repeated calls from specific areas may prompt the ag unit to increase patrols, set up cameras or even conduct sting operations with bait.

As part of effort to keep growers and rural residents informed, the sheriff’s office provides the San Joaquin Farm Bureau with ag crime reports for its Friday Review. SJFB also works with the sheriff’s office to help locate stolen property in unincorporated areas through Farm Bureau’s crime e-alerts.

With six detectives, Lopez said, AGNET is one of the largest ag-specific county law enforcement units in the state.

A push for game cameras

Many types of ag crimes occur year-round, including tractor, all-terrain vehicle and copper wiring theft.

“As long as they keep on buying the copper, they’ll keep on stealing it,” Lopez said. Even when law enforcement shuts down one buyer, he said another one seems to pop up.

But tractor and equipment theft become more prevalent during harvest when growers may stage or leave equipment in fields overnight. Lopez said he’s even responded to reports where gondolas or trailers on the edge of fields had tires stolen off them.

In rural areas, Lopez said many residents and farmers have begun installing cameras to monitor their houses and outbuildings. But when the power goes out or is cut, the monitoring system also may go down, depending on the technology.

What he and other deputies recommend are game cameras, which operate on self-contained batteries. Many models also can be remotely accessed using smartphones.

“Game cameras are a big thing we push for farmers,” he said.

In rural areas with increased criminal activity, the sheriff’s office may deploy its own cellular-based cameras that are activated by movement and send images and alerts straight to deputies’ phones. Although not high-tech, Lopez said having good lighting also is a deterrent.

Reuniting owners with property

If the sheriff’s office makes an arrest and recovers stolen property, Lopez said finding the owners may be difficult. That’s why he recommended farmers and residents contact the department to obtain owner-applied numbers, or OANs, which are unique to each individual and kept on file. Then owners apply the numbers to their property, preferably in multiple locations. Because of potential identity theft, the department recommends against using Social Security or driver’s license numbers.

Prior to the break-in, Simpson had etched OANs on his equipment, including battery packs for his portable tools. He also kept a detailed spreadsheet of his guns and serial numbers, although he said some were so old they were made before serial numbers were required.

In addition, Simpson said he’d obtained titles for his farm equipment through the Department of Motor Vehicles, a step that costs $52 apiece and is not mandatory. Whenever the vehicles change ownership, the transactions are entered into a DMV database, which will alert if they’re stolen.

Based on conversations with the insurance company, Simpson learned that residents should take photos of valuables and keep the images in a different location, such as in the cloud. For expensive items, he said the insurance company recommended appraisals to prove their value.

In response to the break-in, Simpson has also hidden Apple AirTags – inch-square trackers that many travelers put in luggage to follow it on airlines – on his ATV and tractor. When an iPhone comes close to the tag, it sends a location message to the tag owner and emits an alert sound.

A possible shortcoming, the beeps may tip off thieves, prompting them to find and toss the devices, Lopez said. On the other hand, they may deter the suspects since they know the items are being tracked.

Simpson said he got around the alert by taking apart the AirTag and disabling the sound. Lopez said some farmers also have put GPS trackers inside vehicles and equipment.

Although Simpson’s break-in occurred in the San Joaquin County, rural crime isn’t constrained by geographic borders. Items stolen from San Joaquin County, for example, have been recovered in Kern County.

To address criminal activity statewide, the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force, of which AGNET is a member, meets quarterly to network and discuss trends they’re seeing, Lopez said.

Although AGNET has yet to recover Simpson’s stolen items, he said he remained optimistic.

In a previous conversation with sheriff’s office Ag Sgt. Dan Levin, Simpson said he learned they had recovered a car trailer stolen five years before.

“The takeaway is things aren’t solved overnight, but there are some times years later that they’re solved,” Simpson said.