As shocking as the theft of two tractor trailer loads of packaged pistachio nuts was, it was also frustrating to detectives in the Tulare County Ag Crimes Unit when the courts released the two suspects in the case.
In August, detectives arrested a 23-year-old Fresno resident for theft of the packaged pistachio nuts that were destined for an East Coast grocery chain. Less than three weeks after the arrest, detectives in the Ag Crimes Unit served search warrants at two homes in Fresno County as well as a business. During the course of the investigation, they made a second arrest in connection with the crime. He was charged with grand theft, looting, identity theft and conspiracy.
Evidence found with the search warrant also linked the two men to an earlier theft of another load of pistachio nuts valued at $127,000.
TCSO detective Bryan Clower said both men were released by the court on their own recognizance. Even though the charges filed by Tulare County District Attorney are serious, the crime is considered non-violent. Release of the suspects slows the judicial process, Clower said.
“Releasing the suspects in this case is extremely frustrating as the crimes affected so many people. Value of the nuts in those two cases was a half-million dollars,” Clower said.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, in a statement, applauded the diligent work of Ag Crimes Unit detectives. He noted that the massive bust is just one example of the dedication the men and women of the department have for the agriculture community.
“The men involved in this crime were cheating people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and they could have gone on for years if not for the hard work of the ag detectives,” Boudreaux said.
Clower emphasized that Setton Pistachio in Terra Bella, victim in the August theft, followed all the protocols that were established to prevent product theft.
“They had all the necessary documents and they appeared to be legitimate. They were wise to the system,” Clower said.
In August, detectives called to Setton Pistachio learned that the identity of a legitimate trucking company was stolen and used to secure contracts for the delivery of Setton’s two tractor-trailer loads of packaged pistachio nuts valued at $294,000.
The two suspects, who operated a legitimate trucking business, knew the vulnerabilities of the contract hauling system, Clower said. The suspects developed an elaborate scheme to gain possession of the pistachio nuts including theft of the tractors and trailers to haul the nuts from a Fresno business.
A hitch in the plan came when the owners of the trailers told detectives that the trailers were equipped with real time GPS. That allowed detectives to track down the suspects and recover the trailers and the pistachios.
Clower said, the suspects had a crew in place to repackage the stolen nuts when they arrived with the trailers at an abandoned property in Selma.
Need for Proper Protocol
Setton Pistachio manager Jeff Gibbons said the company has been committed to following a recommended set of protocols for all product pickup. Those protocols include 24-hour advance notice for pickup. Drivers’ name and license is verified, along with all paperwork. Photographs are taken of the driver, truck and trailer as well as the license plates and vehicle VIN. Warnings are placed at truck entrance and surveillance cameras are in operation. GPS tracking devices are in use.
Setton has also implemented some additional protocols to prevent future thefts, Gibbons said.
Although the stolen nuts were returned to Setton, Gibbons said the cost of additional processing and re-packaging amounted to a substantial cost to the company.
He expressed gratitude to Sheriff Boudreaux for placing priority on solving agricultural crime.
“Fictitious pick-up” of high value agriculture commodities is becoming common, reports Roger Isom, president of Western Agricultural Processors Association. The lag time between full trailers leaving the processor and a report of theft makes it difficult to investigate the crime. Thieves also know there is low risk of apprehension.
Isom explained that much of the information thieves need to pick up a load is available online. Using a stolen identity, they can arrange for a hauling contract and even hire a legitimate sub-hauler to make the initial pickup. Once on the road, the sub-hauler can be redirected to drop the load elsewhere. People that are caught will not spend any time in a state prison, and most likely will be released early because it is a non-violent crime.
Richard Matoian, president of American Pistachio Growers, said it is unfortunate that these thefts are occurring.
“With so much business being conducted on the internet, the opportunity exists for unscrupulous, tech-savvy individuals to obtain such detailed information and to use it for their own personal benefit,” he said. “The laws have to severely punish such individuals to set an example that no one else follows. These are not just crimes of opportunity; these individuals are hacking into computer systems and plotting an elaborate scheme to defraud business of hundreds of thousands of dollars of product.”