Farmers told how to foil rural crime

A sheriff's detective urges farmers to get creative when it comes to foiling metal thieves.

Spray-painting brass pipe fittings in unusual colors can help deputies track them down if they are stolen, rural crime detective Jeff Dirkse said in a talk last week.

"Pick lime green, blaze orange, fuchsia, something like that," he said. "Put a mark on it."

Dirkse and other rural crime fighters spoke at the annual meeting of Western United Dairymen, held at Modesto Centre Plaza.

Theft and other crimes have plagued all kinds of farms, in part because their remote location can make them easy targets.

Crooks have taken walnuts and almonds by the truckload. They have swiped tractors and rustled cattle. They have vandalized fences and dumped toxic waste from methamphetamine labs.

Authorities say many of these people are drug users who steal metal and recycle it for money to support their habits.

"They are very industrious," Dirkse said. "If they worked at a real job as hard as they work at this, they would be very successful."

Metal theft had dropped with the decline in global metal prices, but it rose again in recent months as China's fast-growing economy increased demand for the material, he said.

Rob Wyeth, a dairy farmer west of Modesto, has seen his share of crime.

"We get them stealing gas," he said. "They stole some water pumps. When the price of metal was high, they were stealing copper wire."

Dirkse urged farmers to guard against identity thieves. They try to get Social Security numbers and other personal information from mailboxes, trash bins or other places, then use the information to make purchases in the victim's name. They also can drain bank accounts.

Stanislaus County has been fighting back.

It requires recycling companies to get names and other information from people selling metal. Sheriff's volunteers help residents engrave numbers onto property so it can be identified if found.

Dirkse said video cameras can be especially useful at catching offenders. He said rural residents should report all suspicious activity even though their far-flung locations could mean a long response time.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Laugero, who prosecutes rural crimes, said bits of information could build into cases that put people behind bars, including repeat offenders facing long sentences.

"We are asking for your help to start the ball rolling," he said. "Even if you don't think it's a big thing at the time, it could turn out to be."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.