BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — California nut growers and processors worked with detectives to crack a recent case of cargo theft, which officials say is a remarkable success story of how stopping crime sometimes takes a community.
“It’s a good case of community investigation,” said Roger Isom, CEO and president of the Western Agricultural Processors Association.
Two alleged nut thieves, Arman Karapetyan, 32, and Manuk Aghajanyan, 30, await trial at the end of November, charged with grand cargo theft and possession of a stolen vehicle.
On July 15, according to Kern County Sheriff’s Office records, the suspects showed up at an almond and pistachio distribution center posing as drivers to pick up shipments.
The two men, officials allege, were in a semi-truck with a stolen trailer and attempting to steal $200,000 of pistachios.
In previous years, their ploy may have worked. Between 2014 and 2017, organized crime rings stole more than $7.6 million worth of California nuts, according to CargoNet, an alliance of cargo shipping firms and law enforcement agencies. In 2018, thieves stole hundreds of thousands of pounds of almonds, walnuts and pistachios.
Detectives say the theft technique, called fictitious pickup, is “highly sophisticated.”
Thieves pose as employees of legitimate trucking companies, shipping companies or brokers. They have realistic-looking Department of Transportation stickers for their trucks and use Facebook to find real drivers whose names they use. They create forged paperwork and often carry pre-paid “burner” cellphones that are difficult to trace. Then, they show up at farms or processing plants posing as legitimate haulers.
Although theft has abounded in years past, Detective Tanner Miller of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office said this time the thieves couldn’t outsmart their victims.
The past few years, farm industry leaders have partnered with Sam Wadhwani, a private investigator, and others to develop training for growers and processors.
The training sessions taught growers how to prevent theft. Steps included photographing and thumbprinting drivers.
About 10 California counties have also adopted nut ordinances, which require roadside stands to have a valid business permit and demonstrate proof of ownership. Also, they can operate only after harvest.
Growers have also built fences and put up “No Trespassing” signs.
This time, when Karapetyan and Aghajanyan came for the load, the farming community was ready.
“Some of the info didn’t check, so the drivers left without the load,” said Isom of the processors’ association.
The company immediately called deputies, who pursued the fleeing semi-truck and trailer along Interstate 5. Deputies arrested both men and booked them into jail.
The officers said they were grateful for the farming community’s help.
Abhi Kulkarni of the California Walnut Board and Commission said walnut growers — who have experienced enormous losses in years past — haven’t reported any organized thefts this year.
John Amarel, a walnut grower at Reason Farms near Yuba City, told the Capital Press he has experienced some petty trespassing and theft, but he’s thankful growers outsmarted criminals.
But Miller, the detective, said growers shouldn’t get too comfortable. Businesses often “get lax” around the holidays, he said.
“Growers should stay on the alert,” he said.