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Kona farmers report uptick in thefts

June 25, 2014 - 3:00pm

Watch the thieves caught in action on the security video camera on West Hawaii Today’s YouTube page by clicking here.

The way Garrett Webb sees it, some Hawaii Island residents are making a living out of stealing farmers’ fruits.

“People tend to minimize the seriousness of the crime,” said Webb, whose West Hawaii farm was hit late last month. He lost about 500 pounds of fruit in a little more than a week. “Getting arrested or fined is probably a business expense. If they started serving jail time, it would probably make a difference.”

Webb said a thief on Oahu was recently sentenced jail time for the crime.

Webb and other West Hawaii farmers told West Hawaii Today on Monday they were noticing an uptick in the thefts from their property.

Nancy Taylor, another Kona fruit farmer, said she has noticed small amounts of fruit go missing for years. But late evening June 7 or early June 8, men came on her property and walked off with hundreds of pounds of fruit, worth about $800. Taylor had anticipated the theft and had installed motion-activated security cameras on her property. The cameras captured images at night and during the day of at least two different men entering and exiting the property carrying fruit.

Her neighbors, who did not wish to be identified by name, said their farms, with at least two different crops, had been targeted multiple times as well.

Taylor reported the theft to police. She said she spoke Monday with a representative of the Community Policing unit, which was handling the thefts and had previously done education and enforcement of the laws regarding produce wholesale. Community police officers did not respond to a message seeking additional information left at their office as of press time Monday.

Changes to Hawaii Revised Statutes in recent years now require produce buyers to record certain information from sellers, including getting a copy of the seller’s drivers license. Failure to follow those procedures is considered to be prima facie evidence of theft, Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said. Collecting information about sellers has a two-fold benefit, he said.

For one, the information buyers collect can help police find the sellers, to check to see if they actually have a farm, Roth said.

But it’s also good for public safety in other ways.

“God forbid if somebody gets sick, you should be able to trace (the produce) back to where it comes from,” Roth said.

Roth said he was working with the Department of Agriculture to create a pilot program bringing more agriculture investigators to Hawaii Island. He said farmers do need to report the thefts.

“Until we know there is a theft, we don’t go checking,” Roth said. “Hawaii Island is an agricultural island. We take it seriously.”

Recent thefts have been of mangoes, but Roth said he has heard reports in the past of other crops, including rambutan, longan and lychee, being targeted. A few people people have been convicted of the thefts, he said, but have not been sentenced to jail.

Webb, like Taylor, eventually installed security cameras on his farm. When his fruit picker and seller first noticed the fruit missing, he headed to an area farmer’s market and found what Webb described as distinctive produce. Police said Webb needed more definitive evidence, Webb said. He got it, when the thief returned and was photographed walking through the property carrying a bulging bag.

A neighbor told Webb she observed police possibly arresting someone near the property not long after that. Kona Patrol Capt. Randall Ishii said Monday no arrests had been made in the case.

Webb also sent the picture to a group of about 300 farmers in West Hawaii. One woman recognized the man as someone she saw being tried for mango theft about a year ago, Webb said.

He has since had someone camping on his property. He plans to install motion-activated lights as well.

Taylor said she hopes West Hawaii residents will keep watch for suspicious activity on agricultural land. If people see something, they should report it to police, she said. As a farmer, she said she will probably also ask farmers market vendors about the source of their produce.

“It leaves you feeling — like any theft ­­— violated and not very trusting of others in the community,” she said.