By Christine Souza
Photo/Christine Souza: Farmer Kenny Watkins of Linden, right, watches as Louis Victoria, a Rural Crimes Division detective with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department, marks the battery of a new piece of farm equipment with the farm’s individual owner-applied number. An owner-applied number helps law enforcement officials return stolen property to its rightful owner.
With a statewide metal theft law and county ordinances making it more difficult for crooks to collect cash for stolen metals, rural crime detectives have noticed that fast cash for recycling batteries has become more attractive to thieves.
“Thefts of batteries from agricultural vehicles and tractors are rampant throughout the state,” said Sgt. Ryan Hushaw of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department Ag Task Force, after attending a recent meeting of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force.
“These (battery) thefts are constant. Some of the thieves will reuse them to power their own devices, but the majority are going for the recycling money,” Hushaw said. “Thieves are predominantly taking the stolen batteries to auto parts stores or other shops that accept them for $3 or $5 per battery.”
Batteries may be an attractive item for thieves, Hushaw said, because automotive businesses are not under the same legal obligation to record transactions and identify people selling batteries as are recycling yards when purchasing metals. Thieves will take advantage of that, Hushaw said, and recycle the batteries at these locations in an effort to avoid detection. The automotive businesses pay cash for the lead that is found inside.
Plus, Hushaw said, agricultural vehicles and tractors are an easy target.
“The vehicles sit out on open lands, unattended and unsecured. The thief can go out in a field, unplug the connections, and they are off with the battery that is relatively small and not heavy to carry,” Hushaw said.
Paul Van Konynenburg, who grows a variety of specialty crops in Salida, said a thief recently trespassed onto his property by bicycle and cycled away with batteries from nine tractors that had been sitting overnight during the cling peach harvest.
“We have a lot of smaller tractors out when we are picking peaches. We had nine batteries stolen between the night of Friday, Aug. 15, and the morning of Saturday the 16th,” Van Konynenburg said. “We were able to follow bicycle tracks and could tell that someone was pulling a little trailer behind their bicycle. We could see where they put the batteries on the trailer and that they went back into Salida.”
Farming along the Stanislaus River where homeless camps are often located, Van Konynenburg said he did a check of the area to see if he could find his stolen batteries. He also visited a few recyclers, who offered to show him the batteries that had been recycled, but was unable to locate his missing property.
“It is very frustrating because it cost us $800 to replace those,” said Van Konynenburg, who believes the stolen batteries could be going to a “dirty” recycler for cash.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office noted a recent battery theft in Coalinga. The stolen battery was taken from a tractor that did not have any securing brackets or other parts that would make it difficult for thieves to access, whereas the battery remained unstolen in a tractor that had a side bracket to help secure the battery and required a socket wrench to unbolt.
To make it more difficult for thieves, rural crime detectives suggest that farmers and ranchers fortify engine and battery compartments with a locking mechanism, or weld on metal plates and crossbars that require tools to unscrew and disconnect in order to remove the battery.
Deputies also recommend that farmers take advantage of the owner-applied number program, which enables law enforcement agencies to pinpoint ID numbers within any state and county in the U.S., whether stolen equipment is found within the same county or across the country.
“We have our OAN on all of our equipment, but we are going to start putting it on all of our batteries and things that can walk away,” Van Konynenburg said.
Kenny Watkins, who produces cattle and walnuts in Linden, recently asked detectives from the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crimes Division to brand his owner-applied number onto a new swather, and also the battery.
“Marking batteries with the OAN was something new that we hadn’t been doing before,” said Watkins, who serves as California Farm Bureau Federation first vice president. “We’ve had lots of things stolen. It’s an ongoing problem, whether it is batteries, scrap iron, radiators, fuel or hay—anything that is not nailed down, they will come and steal.”
San Joaquin County Rural Crimes Detective Louis Victoria emphasized the importance of marking all property with one’s OAN.
“We get battery thefts periodically, but the problem is there is usually no identification. Having farmers stamp or brand the owner-applied number on their batteries will help us tremendously,” Victoria said. “It will also give recyclers a heads-up to give us a call. If we go to a recycler and see batteries there, there is usually nothing marked.”
To arrange a time to apply a personal OAN to equipment, contact the local sheriff’s department.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected])