Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 | 1:59 p.m.
DOS PALOS, Calif. — Cannon Michael is a folk hero across California's agriculture heartland, where these days the price of scrap metal influences a farmer's bottom line as much that of the fine pima cotton he grows.
When thieves tore up yet another pricey water pump for the few dollars' worth of copper wire that energize it, the frustrated farmer considered taping $100 bills to the rebuilt system hoping crooks would just grab the easy money next time.
After a little more thought he warned his neighbors — and set a trap.
Within two months the screech of bare rims on asphalt alerted everyone within earshot that the 6-inch tire spikes Michael buried near his besieged pumps had thwarted the thieves' getaway.
"I have to protect my property," said Michael, whose thoughtful demeanor is not one of a vigilante. "Law enforcement isn't helping, but you can't expect them to be out in the middle of nowhere. At some point you have to make the thieves not want to come out here."
California farmers are facing a calamity. Petty metal thefts, which law enforcement officials believe are driven by Central California's high rate of methamphetamine addiction, are creating damages 10 times higher than the value of the metal crooks rip out to recycle.
In the nation's No. 1 agriculture county, thieves are on track this year to steal more than $1 million worth of metal they'll sell for pennies on the dollar. The theft of pump wiring, irrigation pipes, equipment bearings and even tractor weights account for 85 percent of Fresno County's rural crime, the district attorney said.
"That's just in metal loss," said Sgt. Mike Chapman of the Fresno County Sheriff's Office Agriculture Task Force. "That's not what it's going to cost to replace or repair the equipment, which can be 10 times more."
That's what makes metal thefts worse for farmers than thefts of crops or, five years ago when prices skyrocketed, diesel fuel.
The Urban Institute, a Washington DC research organization, estimated after studying crime in California's Central Valley that agriculture theft of all types cost farmers nationwide $5 billion in 2007, most passed along to consumers as higher prices.
As sheriffs' budgets shrink, often four or fewer deputies patrol up to 2,400 square miles a night. In Central California, where 31,000 farms span 22,600 square miles, potential witnesses are scarce and thieves work with impunity. The state attorney general reported in 2006 that of 119,297 thefts in this 10-county agricultural region, just 7,854 arrests were made.
The high price for recycled metals is driven by demand from China, where not enough is mined to keep up with the construction boom there. Untraceable metals bought by recycling businesses make their way to ports at Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland for shipment overseas.
Law enforcement officials lament the lack of deterrents, since jails are full, and the court system is concentrating on violent offenders.
"Metal thieves can be back on the streets by the end of the day," Chapman said. "Ag is the golden goose to the economy of California. If the rest of the population doesn't understand the importance of ag to the entire state, we will continue on this cycle."
California laws say recyclers must wait three days to get paid for non-ferrous metals such as copper, a loophole unscrupulous dealers exploit through a provision that gives anyone with 30 consecutive days of sales the clearance for immediate cash. Law enforcement says some of those regular dealers become middlemen for thieves.
In California, the crisis prompted hearings this summer by the chairman of the state Senate agriculture committee. Sen. Anthony Canella (R-Ceres) now is considering legislation that would require recyclers be paid by check instead of cash to make them easier to track. Years of prison crowding, he said, have left lawmakers reluctant to increase penalties for metal thefts, which can be prosecuted as felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the value of the metal stolen — not the damage caused.
"Farmers are asking for help and they're getting frustrated and we need to step up and provide that help," Canella said.
The two men whose pickup tires were shredded last April by Michael's spike strip were caught with detailed maps locating other pumps. The stolen wire was found stashed behind bushes down the road.
They were charged with felony vandalism for tearing copper wire out of electrical boxes powering the pumps and with trespassing, which Merced County Deputy District Attorney Harold Nutt said "are the most serious applicable charges." One pleaded guilty, was sentenced to the local jail for being a repeat offender and released. The other has yet to be tried.
Michael farms 10,000 acres of cotton, hay and tomatoes near Dos Palos, about 65 miles northwest of Fresno. He said he has spent at least $100,000 to repair damage and replace parts that thieves have taken over the past three years — claims that individually were too small to file with his insurance company.
"I have a bill for one pump where the retail cost of the wire was $11," Michael said. "It cost me $850 to put it back together. They know we have to replace it, so they wait and do it again."
At their peril. As signs warn at the entries to Michael's farm, the spike strips are back in place.