The Nut Job: Central California Sees Rise In Walnut Heists Audie Cornish talks to reporter Rich Paloma of The Oakdale Leader about a brazen crime wave in California farm country. It's the latest in a series of walnut thefts and the largest yet. Thieves made off with more than 140,000 pounds of walnuts from Gold River Orchard. That works out to about $400,000 worth of walnuts were stolen from the Escalon farm, and the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation says crimes like these are on the upswing. It's one of the largest nut thefts in recent memory.

The Nut Job: Central California Sees Rise In Walnut Heists

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Now, a crime story from California's Central Valley, well north of us here in Culver City. If Hollywood were to make a screen version it would be called "The Nut Job." Last week, more than 140,000 pounds of walnuts went missing overnight. That's three big trailer loads of hulled and dried walnuts. Joining us from the newsroom of the Oakdale Leader is reporter Rich Paloma. Rich, thank you for taking the time out to talk with us.

RICH PALOMA: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So 140,000 pounds, that's a lot of walnuts. How did they do it?

PALOMA: Well, apparently, from what we gather is that a fence was cut. The walnuts were in three double trailer sets that apparently the suspect or suspects hooked up their own tractor to and then drove it off through the fence and then onto the nearby highway.

CORNISH: So they actually cut a hole in the fence and drove a truck through the fence.

PALOMA: Apparently so and used their own truck to take the trailers.

CORNISH: Now, why? What's the street value of all those walnuts?

PALOMA: From what I gather from the sheriff's department, the walnuts themselves that were stolen on this run were close to $400,000.

CORNISH: But who buys it? Like, what's the market for black market walnuts and how - like, how - do you sell them? I mean, it's not something you can kind of just pull up on the side of the road, right?

PALOMA: I wouldn't know. Walnuts, however, are one of the biggest exports of this valley along with almonds. I would assume, due to their condition, they were ready to go and to be exported.

CORNISH: Now, I understand you were actually a police officer for 20 years before becoming a reporter, so what does your cop instinct say about who would try to pull off a crime like this?

PALOMA: Yeah, it's 26 years, and from my research I'm gathering that the person that has to do this is going to be well organized and have some connections. In fact, some of the sources I've contacted have indicated there's an organized crime aspect to this. And when you look at the crime, how they're taken out, how they're planned and the type of equipment that is being used, it's going to require some investment by the suspects.

Even in one case that was down in the Bakersfield area where the driver was detained with, I believe, 80,000 pounds of walnuts, he had given indication that he was given instructions by somebody with a heavy Russian accent to drive the trailer to a location in Los Angeles and just park it and walk away.

CORNISH: So this actually happens pretty regularly.

PALOMA: I'm looking at six cases within probably the last year that I've been able to come up with. There was one in April where the same leasing company was used and that was $200,000 of walnuts. Last October, in Redding, which is about 100 and some miles away, there was another one where 80,000 pounds of almonds were taken. In Houston, which is the county I'm from, there were 43,000 pounds of almonds. So it seems to be an up and coming type of crime around here.

CORNISH: I know that agriculture theft is a serious problem in the region, but, like, how many jokes do you have to endure about, you know, stolen nuts?

PALOMA: You guys seem to be the most on point with the jokes.

CORNISH: OK. We aim to please.

PALOMA: Every now and then, the old - I'll be talking about, you know, I do cover some crime stories up in this area and there are shootings in gang-related areas and then I'll talk about here I am with - covering a story where $400,000 of walnuts were taken.

CORNISH: Well, Rich Paloma, thank you so much for speaking to us.

PALOMA: Thank you.

CORNISH: Reporter Rich Paloma of the Oakdale Leader, talking about the theft of three trailers full of walnuts from an orchard in California's San Joaquin Valley. The case has yet to be cracked.

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