Criminals go nuts

Biggs nut heist credited to organized cargo-theft ring

After the nuts have been shelled, local walnut processors will commonly pack the walnut meats in 25-pound cartons for easier transport to wholesalers. They and other nuts are hot commodities these days for savvy thieves.

After the nuts have been shelled, local walnut processors will commonly pack the walnut meats in 25-pound cartons for easier transport to wholesalers. They and other nuts are hot commodities these days for savvy thieves.

PHOTO courtesy of Food Chronicles

A $200,000 walnut heist in February from a Biggs production facility is the work of an organized crime syndicate responsible for millions of dollars in thefts statewide, including $300,000 worth of walnuts stolen from Tehama County last year, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s a very sophisticated operation, one of the most sophisticated we’ve dealt with as far as theft is concerned,” BCSO Det. Matt Calkins said in a phone interview Tuesday (April 23). “They’re very careful about planning and how they do things.

“This ring of people is linked to thefts all over the state of everything from nuts to electronics to alcohol,” he added. “It’s a multimillion-dollar theft ring.”

An April 17 BCSO press release announced the Feb. 28 theft of the processed walnuts from Gold State Nut Company, LLC, in Biggs. A trucking company apparently secured through a broker picked up the cargo, but it was never delivered to the buyer.

A license plate number of the truck provided by Gold State led investigators to serve search warrants in the Los Angeles suburbs of Glendale and Van Nuys on March 3 and March 14, where evidence related to the case reportedly was seized. Follow-up investigation has also been conducted in Lodi, and Calkins said BCSO is working with other authorities across the state, including the Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol divisions dedicated to cargo theft.

Calkins said seized evidence included documents and computers, some of which indicated the stolen property was bound for Eastern Europe. He also confirmed there are Armenian and Russian links to the crimes, but couldn’t elaborate because of the ongoing investigation.

“There are some links to that, but I can’t say for sure, and I don’t want to cast that as saying who’s behind all this,” he said. He also said the crimes are not linked to any high-profile Russian mafia organizations.

“It’s nothing like that,” he said. “When we say organized crime, we don’t necessarily mean like a mafia; we’re just talking about any sophisticated organizations that are criminal enterprises.”

Last October, two truckloads of walnuts—one processed and the other unprocessed—were stolen from Crain Walnut Shelling Inc. in Los Molinos in a single week. The walnuts never reached their intended destinations in Florida and Texas, and the combined financial loss was estimated at $300,000.

Calkins said evidence suggests the recent Biggs theft was connected to the Los Molinos incidents.

In the Tehama County thefts, the truck driver was described as a 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound man with a thick Russian accent. In the Los Molinos and Biggs heists, the drivers presented what appeared to be proper credentials and purchase orders for the goods.

“What [cargo thieves] do is steal the identity of a legitimate trucking company, then pose as that company when they come pick up the load,” Calkins explained. “That way, when someone investigates it down the road, they contact the company that might have been the name on the truck involved, but [those at the company] don’t know anything about it.

“A lot of information is available publicly for someone to be able to steal their identity, like DOT [Department of Transportation] and insurance information.”

To date, no arrests have been made in the Tehama thefts.

Cargo theft is a large and growing criminal enterprise. The FBI estimates more than $30 billion in cargo is stolen every year, with much of the theft focused on food products, and much of that based in California. Since 1995, the California Highway Patrol has operated the Cargo Theft Interdiction Program to track the losses and liaison with local, state and federal agencies.

Butte County is no stranger to agricultural crime, Calkins said, though the size of the Biggs heist makes it unique.

“Agricultural crime is common around the harvest times of different crops,” he said. “Walnut theft is always a concern. There are people with pickup trucks on down to people with buckets trying to steal walnuts and other crops, but it’s fairly uncommon for us to receive reports of this magnitude.”

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said it’s important to note that nuts have a very high market value in recent years. They’re also an “exported commodity,” with 75 percent of Butte County’s nut crop destined for overseas markets. These factors make them especially attractive to cargo thieves.

Other high-profile nut thefts occurred in 2012. According to a November article on the website, two truckloads left Diamond Foods’ Stockton facilities last November and never reached their intended destinations. Nut-theft incidents were also reported in Sutter and other counties. Tulare County has amended a local ordinance to help prevent stolen walnuts from being fenced through roadside vendors.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office and the Butte County Farm Bureau have a public information meeting scheduled for May 15 to provide more information about the Biggs case and to offer advice to help farmers and processors prevent future thefts.