By Vicky Boyd

When Aaron Lange, a vineyard manager for Lange Twins Vineyards of Lodi, Calif., saw a 2,000-gallon tanker parked on the edge of the road by one of his vineyards, he thought nothing of it and figured it was his neighbor’s nurse tank.

When it was still there the next day, he called the California Highway Patrol, thinking it was a stolen vehicle. But the highway patrol said it didn’t have the time to respond.

So Lange took a picture of the tanker and e-mailed it to Tom Orvis, a former program director who oversaw the Stockton-based San Joaquin Farm Bureau’s rural crime alert program. He also e-mailed the license plate number and description.

Within minutes, Orvis had e-mailed the picture and description to more than 150 recipients.

A few hours later, Orvis received a phone call from someone who recognized the tanker and knew who owned it.

“It’s great to hear it got back to the rightful owner,” Lange says.

This was just one of the successful outcomes from the crime alert program. While a small number end with return of stolen property or an arrest, they do mark an improvement in rural crime, Orvis says.

“There are success stories to this thing,” he says. “For the number [of e-mails] we send out, percentage-wise it isn’t super high, but anything is better than nothing.”

In existence for more than 18 months, the San Joaquin County crime alert program evolved as an offshoot from the California Farm Bureau’s Farm Team Alerts, Orvis says. That program used e-mails to notify bureau members about hot issues, such as pending legislative hearings or other political events that would need their attention.

The crime alert program uses the same concept of e-mail alerts, but these involve rural crimes that recipients should be aware of, Orvis says. In many cases, he includes a picture of a stolen item in addition to the description.

“So many people have PDAs now,” he says. “It comes up, and it might give a description. You might be driving by and say, ‘that looks hot.’”

The San Joaquin County sheriff’s department has an ag crime unit, but the staff of four detectives and one sergeant can’t adequately cover the county’s 1,426 square miles, much of it rural, says Detective Shelby Oliver.

The idea behind the rural crime alerts is to add additional eyes in the field to spot possible crimes, she says.

“They are 100 percent of our backbone,” Oliver says. “It’s helped immensely, especially if we recover property—the farmers know the stuff.”

PDAs keep growers alert in the field
Kenny Watkins, who has cattle, hay, processing tomatoes and walnuts near Linden, Calif., is one of those who receives the alerts on his PDA.

“It comes across my Blackberry, and I read it. If I have any ideas, I can make a few phone calls. I can even send a picture,” he says. “In just a matter of minutes, you can get to the bottom of it.”

Not long ago, Watkins came across a trap wagon that looked out of place.

“I saw the e-mail about the trap wagon and picture of it, and I knew exactly whose it was,” he says.

If the description involves several details, such as license plate numbers, Watkins says he may print out the information and throw it on his dashboard for future reference.

Lange, who receives the e-mail alerts on his iPhone, forwards the ones that pertain to his area to about 20 co-workers in the field. In just his own case, Lange says, that’s an additional 20 sets of eyes that can watch for suspicious activity.

Not too long ago, he received an alert about someone who was steeling brass valves and irrigation parts.

“It gives us a heads up, since farmers are so busy” he says.
Cooperators help crime-fighting efforts, too
Orvis sends e-mails to more than 150 people. In addition, he has a group of cooperators, including Escalon Livestock Auction, Stockton East Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

The livestock auction, for example, posts the alerts on a public bulletin board for all attendees to read.

The remainder have employees who work in rural parts of the county and could possibly run across one of the items in the alerts, Orvis says.

He’s even enlisted the help of Sims Metal Management, the largest scrap metal dealer in the state.

Like many other areas of the country, metal theft is rampant in San Joaquin County, and the thieves frequently take their goods to metal recyclers to try to redeem.

The crime alerts let the metal dealer know what stolen items may be brought in.

In the next few months, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau hopes to add the county’s larger ag chemical dealers and their pest control advisers to its cooperators’ list.

Enlisting today’s technology

Orvis credits the large number of Internet and e-mail users in even the rural parts of San Joaquin County for the program’s success.

“The one drawback is I have to keep the size of the pictures small because I still have some people on dial-up,” he says.

The San Joaquin Farm Bureau also works closely with the county sheriff’s department, and members of its ag crime unit receive every crime alert. Much of the information that Orvis relays to members on his e-mail list comes directly from the sheriff.

“We’re taking advantage of technology, and my staff time on this is minimal,” Orvis says. “I’ve even sent them from my Blackberry out to the lists as well.”

But for the program to continue working, he says crime victims need to file a report with the appropriate law-enforcement agency.

“One of the thing that frustrates people and the sheriff’s department is if you have a crime, you have to report it,” Orvis says. “Without a victim, they can’t get [the stolen items] back to you.”