Monday, May 29, 2017

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Nuts

From Outside:
In California, millions of dollars' worth of almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are disappearing. Farmers are perplexed, the cops are confused, and the crooks are getting richer. We sent Peter Vigneron to the Central Valley to take a crack at the crimes. 

At 11:22 a.m. on Thursday, June 20, 2013, an orange Freightliner tractor-trailer arrived at Crain Walnut Shelling in Los Molinos, California. The truck’s driver, a man in his mid-thirties wearing a gray T-shirt, introduced himself as Alex Hernandez. He said he was from K and G Transport Services, a company contracted to take a load of Crain’s walnuts to Bulk Barn Foods Limited, a Canadian food retailer ­located 2,600 miles away in Ontario. Hernandez had arrived before the pickup had been scheduled, which initially made Crain’s logistics director suspicious. But after double-checking the paperwork that he provided, she directed employees to load 630 cartons of walnuts, worth $85,000, into Hernandez’s trailer.

At 12:06, Hernandez left Los Molinos and headed south through California’s Central Valley into Glenn County, where he picked up a second batch of walnuts intended for Bulk Barn from a processor called Carriere Family Farms. While leaving, Hernandez’s Freightliner got stuck in a field. He called a tow truck to pull it out, then drove off.

By Monday, June 24, neither batch of walnuts had arrived in Canada. A representa­tive from the shipping brokerage that arranged the exchange tried but failed to reach K and G, and alerted Crain to the possibility that the nuts had been stolen. On June 27, Chad ­Parker, a then 38-year-old ­agricultural-crimes ­detective with the Tehama ­County Sheriff’s Office, went to investigate.

Crain’s chief financial officer showed Parker a photograph from June 20 and provided him with the Freightliner’s plate ­number and a photocopy of Hernandez’s commercial driver’s license. What Parker found made little sense: the plate came back registered to a different model of truck, and the license number ­belonged to a 30-year-old woman. Later, when Parker pulled rec­ords for the phone number Hernandez had ­listed on the paper­work, he found that it was a prepaid cell phone with a Miami area code. It had been activated for the first time only two days before the pickup and then ­disconnected on June 29. Tractor-trailers do not disappear easily, and Parker considered ­issuing a be-on-the-lookout for the Freightliner. But more than a month ­after the theft, he ­decided it was likely long gone.

Petty thefts of walnuts are not uncommon in central California. Several counties even ban the sale of nuts before harvest is complete, to discourage black-market sales. But the Crain theft, along with similar heists in 2011 and 2012, seemed different to ­Parker. They were committed by people who ­appeared to understand the trucking business, identity theft, and computer secur­ity. Neither of the earlier crimes had given ­Parker much to investigate, and at first this one looked no more promising. “I’m left holding a report saying ‘Someone showed up,’ and I’ve got a license plate that doesn’t exist,” Parker told me last winter. “They disappear into the night.”

Around the time of the Crain theft, Rich Paloma, a police officer turned reporter at the Oakdale Leader, a weekly paper based several hours south of Tehama County, ­began tracking high-­value loads of nuts that had vanished. Paloma counted half a dozen heists, valued at more than $1 million, in the previous year. In the fall of 2013, he published an article speculating that the thefts were coordinated.

“When you look at the logistics needed to complete this crime,” he told me, all signs point toward an organized group. “You steal 370,000 pounds of almonds, you’re not ­going to sell it on the side of the road.”...