'Diesel Rustlers' Stealing Fuel from Calif. Farmers

Rising diesel fuel prices have sparked a new crime wave. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports that "diesel rustlers" have stolen more than $110,000 worth of fuel this year from farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, in a struggle with a powerful political leader, a reporter learns his real fight is with show business.

First, as diesel prices continue to rise, rural sheriffs across the country say fuel thefts from farms is a growing problem. Central California is the only region in the nation that has a comprehensive program to track these kinds of crimes. Still, Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports that farmers there have lost more than $100,000 to diesel thieves just this year.

SASHA KHOKHA reporting:

Chris Lang is used to cattle rustlers. He's had plenty of cows stolen from his ranch near the San Joaquin Valley town of Woodlake. But lately he's had to worry about thieves sucking his fuel tanks dry. He's put padlocks on the diesel tank he uses to fill up tractors and backhoes and on the unleaded pump he uses to fill his pickups. These two tanks are just off a dirt driveway; they're like his own personal gas station in the middle of the orange groves. Lang fiddles with a padlock and slides open the metal door to a shed that houses the switch to turn on the fuel pump.

Mr. CHRIS LANG (Orange Farmer): We change the combination on this lock every two months because we're so afraid that somebody might learn the combination and then they would have access to the switch to turn on the fuel.

(Soundbite of Lang turning on machinery)

KHOKHA: The air-warming machines that Lang uses to heat his orange groves in the winter are also an easy target. Lang has lost hundreds of gallons of fuel from one of these machines nestled deep in his groves. Thieves have come back to drain the tank again and again. And if thieves swipe this diesel from these machines just before a frost, farmers like Lang could lose their entire orange crop in just one day. But Lang and other California farmers have a unique program aimed at protecting them. The Action Project is the nation's only high-tech, multiagency task force designed to fight these types of rural crimes. Its detectives sometimes plant surveillance cameras, GPS units or motion sensors to track fuel thieves.

(Soundbite of police radio)

Unidentified Man #1: ...short, but that 911 hang-up...

KHOKHA: Detective Brian Davis is patrolling in an unmarked pickup. He's one of the investigators. He used to be on the violent crimes unit tracking down murderers, but he says protecting farmers is more rewarding.

Detective BRIAN DAVIS (Action Project): They get victimized. I mean, you know, it's whether they can put food on the table for their family, pay their mortgages.

(Soundbite of bird)

Unidentified Man #2: And took the pump out of...

KHOKHA: Davis arrives at an orchard off a dirt road in Tulare County. It's right next to a farmhouse with a sleepy German shepherd chained up under a tree, supposedly standing guard. But thieves still managed to siphon off 300 gallons of diesel sometime in the night. They even stole part of the tank itself.

Det. DAVIS: They took the actual pump off the tank when they took the fuel.

Detective MIKE RUBALCABA (Tulare County Sheriff's Department): I'll just snap a picture here.

(Soundbite of digital camera)

KHOKHA: Detective Mike Rubalcaba is here, too. He's from the Tulare County Sheriff's Department and is taking pictures and measuring tire tracks next to the tank.

Det. RUBALCABA: Tire tracks are kind of similar to your fingerprints and stuff. I mean, you're lifting actually the print of the tire. You put fingerprint powder on there.

KHOKHA: Still, with all the high-tech surveillance gear and even multiple law enforcement agencies on the job, rural gas thieves are hard to catch. Sergeant Mike Watson works with Detective Rubalcaba on these cases.

Sergeant MIKE WATSON (Tulare County Sheriff's Department): And a VCR has a serial number. A gun has a serial number. Fuel--if you come into contact with a guy pulling a tank with fuel, it's hard to identify where it came from. How do we know if he bought it at Chevron or if he stole it from a farm?

KHOKHA: Only about 25 fuel thieves have been arrested this year in the San Joaquin Valley. That's just a fraction of the cases the Action Project has investigated. But the DA's office here has successfully prosecuted every thief. And these crime fighters just got some welcome news. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill this week to extend the life of the region's Rural Crime Prevention Program. That program was set to expire this year. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More DAY TO DAY in just a moment.

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