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Sonoma County fights vexing rural crime with numbers

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Estimated dollar value of stolen equipment reported to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, per fiscal year running July 1 through June 30:

$964,970 = 2011-2012

$713,118 = 2012-2013

$575,471 = 2013-2014

$846,725 = 2014-2015

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Acevedo fired up an engraver Wednesday morning and began etching a unique number on the metal casing of a cannon used to shoo birds away from the Denner family’s grapevines.

Brian Denner had brought a load of equipment, from weed wackers to ATVs, to the side of a one-way dirt road on his family’s property. There, he met with deputies from the rural crimes task force who etched, branded and punched a unique number given to his family onto the items as a way to prevent their theft or help track them if they do get stolen.

“We keep it locked up, but you never know,” said Denner, 28, who manages the 42-acre vineyard on the sprawling ranch near the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

More than $3 million in farm equipment has been reported stolen in unincorporated Sonoma County over the past four years, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The numbers illustrate the financial toll on the county’s rural residents when thieves haul away tons of valuable equipment and even live animals, veteran Community Service Officer Pat Moffitt said.

Moffitt stood on a dirt track between the vines and a field of golden mustard Wednesday and watched as Acevedo stepped up onto an ATV with the engraver and began etching a solar- powered weather station and soil moisture reader. Cattle grazed on a nearby hillside.

“Look at this land. These people work hard. This is a family business. This is their lives,” Moffitt said.

Moffitt ticked off examples from her records from 2015: Copper wire valued at $120,000 taken from a north county vineyard; saddles worth about $47,000 missing from an equestrian center; a $35,000 tractor that was later recovered; and even 10 live goats worth about $5,000 that were hauled away.

The stolen tractor had been repainted, which a prospective buyer noticed and then contacted authorities. Deputies found the unique number — called an Owner Applied Number — once the paint was scraped off.

“If you see a John Deere painted black, that’s going to raise suspicion,” Moffitt said of the iconic yellow-and-green brand.

The Owner Applied Number given to the Denner family is one of about 1,000 unique numerical-and-letter sequences assigned to property owners in Sonoma County.

It’s part of a program now used across California and in areas of Nevada. The numbers are entered into a database that also assigns new numbers to indicate the county and owner.

The numbers helped deputies return a tractor to Monterey County and an ATV to San Luis Obispo over the past several months, according to Moffitt.

A form of the identification program dates back prior to Moffitt’s time with the Sheriff’s Office — she was hired in 1986 — and was started by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The system includes a number indicating the county of origin and a unique sequence for each property owner.

Moffitt said that one vineyard asked that the deputies also mark their office equipment, including televisions, cameras, computers, “even the refrigerator.”

Acevedo said that the manufacturer’s serial numbers aren’t always helpful to investigators for several reasons.Equipment can be so old that the numbers have disappeared or no longer are on record. Some serial numbers are repeated by different companies or not unique to a specific piece of equipment.

Anita Hawkins, a program coordinator with the Farm Bureau who also met with the deputies at the property Wednesday, said that about five years ago the bureau started a concerted effort to publicize the program and get more ranchers involved.

As Acevedo finished up engraving the weather station, Hawkins mentioned that the batteries in the device also have been stolen.

“They must be really desperate; what are they going to do, recycle it for $5?” Brian Denner said.

Moffitt said that they also are trying to educate ranchers about theft-prevention practices, like bringing equipment in from the fields to locked barns, installing lights and feeding animals away from the road.

“That makes them easy to steal,” Moffitt said. “Two people can lift a sheep over a fence.”

For more information abut the program, contact Moffitt at 565-3940 or pat.moffitt@sonoma-county.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Estimated dollar value of stolen equipment reported to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, per fiscal year running July 1 through June 30:

$964,970 = 2011-2012

$713,118 = 2012-2013

$575,471 = 2013-2014

$846,725 = 2014-2015

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